As the impacts of a changing climate rapidly intensify worldwide, the climate crisis is also hitting businesses and the financial sector where it hurts: the wallet.
That’s part of the reason that so-called ESG funds, which promise to emphasize environmental, social, and governance issues in making investment decisions, have become one of the fastest growing sectors in the financial world. By some estimates, nearly a third of the world’s assets under management could be held in ESG investments within a few years.
A new report published today by the corporate lobbying watchdog InfluenceMap highlights the emerging battle over how exactly ESG investing will be defined and what businesses should disclose to their investors about the risks they face from a rapidly changing climate — questions that have also drawn the eye of financial regulators at the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). And that, in turn, has spurred a lobbying wave by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which calls itself “the world’s largest business organization” and claims to represent small businesses and major corporations alike.
The Chamber has pushed back against “a mandatory approach to ESG disclosures and [is] instead pushing for voluntary, flexible, and market-driven reporting,” InfluenceMap wrote, calling that position “highly misaligned with the majority of its own finance sector membership” including major banks like Citigroup and the world’s largest asset management firm, BlackRock.
“Climate change presents an ever-growing financial risk to companies, which is why more and more investors are demanding to know what action companies are taking to respond to the inevitable economic and environmental changes required,” InfluenceMap program manager Rebecca Vaughan said. “The Chamber’s opposition to the SEC’s proposal goes against the global push towards more comparable and reliable climate risk disclosures.”
“It also puts it at odds with the vast majority of its own financial sector members,” Vaughan added, “which begs the question: Who is the Chamber really representing?
The SEC has emerged as one of the most active federal agencies on climate-related financial matters. This year it created an ESG-focused division task force, added a new leadership position within the agency on climate and ESG, and mobilized its corporate finance division on climate disclosures.
In response to the notion that environmental issues aren’t really the SEC’s business because they don’t really affect corporate bottom lines, the Commission’s former acting director for corporate finance John Coates drew a parallel between asbestos and climate. “For years, asbestos-related risks were invisible, and information about asbestos would likely have been called ‘nonfinancial,’” Coates said in a March speech. “Over time, those risks went from invisible to visible to extremely clear, and clearly financial.”
And there’s growing demand for that information on climate risks from investors as well, the SEC has indicated.
“So why am I talking about climate risk? Simple: because investors are,” SEC chief Gary Gensler said in a July 28 speech, adding that out of 550 unique comment letters the agency received on the issue, three out of four supported mandatory climate disclosures.
Lobbying on ESG has been sharply rising this year, RollCall reported in October, roughly doubling from the first quarter of 2021 to the third quarter.
The Chamber isn’t the only organization mobilizing against the growth of ESG, business news site FastCompany reported earlier this month. Opponents like the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation, the Society for Human Resources Management, which has opposed labor organizing, and conservative activist Edward Blum have focused less on environmental issues and more on the ways that ESG investment approaches topics like gender and race.
But the Chamber of Commerce has been particularly active, InfluenceMap found, citing three letters to the U.S. House of Representatives on mandatory ESG disclosures, at least two meetings between the SEC and the Chamber this year, and language in the Chamber’s public comments that might hint at potential legal challenges once rules are officially proposed.
“The Chamber further state they will consider including votes on this in their ‘How They Voted’ scorecard, which the Chamber uses to rank members of Congress on their votes on ‘Chamber designated key votes,’” InfluenceMap wrote.
But it’s far from clear that the Chamber’s own membership is actually aligned with any lobbying that opposes consistent ESG standards or climate reporting, InfluenceMap wrote, citing as an example a 2021 letter to shareholders from BlackRock CEO Larry Fink. “A consistent set of reporting standards,” Fink wrote, “will promote access to consistent, high quality and material public information that will enable both asset owners and asset managers to make more informed decisions about how to achieve durable long-term returns.”
As of press time, the Chamber of Commerce had not replied to an email from DeSmog seeking comment on InfluenceMap’s report.
The Chamber currently faces a subpoena from the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, which in November demanded documents from the Chamber, American Petroleum Institute, ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, and Shell related to allegations the organizations deliberately misled the public over the risks of climate change.
The financial sector has found it increasingly difficult to ignore the ways that climate change affects not only people and communities, but also businesses small and large. “A warming planet creates a wide range of risks for businesses, from disrupted supply chains to rising insurance costs to labor challenges,” Forbes reported earlier this year. “Climate change and extreme weather events such as hurricanes, floods and fires, for example, have a direct impact on 70% of all economic sectors worldwide” and are already impacting one in four businesses, nonprofits, and other organizations, according to accounting firm Deloitte.
This summer, a student-led campaign called Change the Chamber called on corporations to drop their membership in the Chamber of Commerce over its climate stances.
“The U.S. Chamber of Commerce — the largest dark money, pro-fossil fuel trade association in the country — has an extensive history of problematic behavior, including lobbying against climate legislation, supporting climate deniers, backing the fossil fuel industry, and spreading misinformation about climate change,” activist Nina Jacobs said as that campaign was announced. “We are calling on companies who claim to care about the future of our climate to break with the Chamber’s climate obstruction and push for climate policies in Congress at the scale that science demands.”