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Wall Street Can’t Fix the Environment

BlackRock’s recent divestment promises are self-serving measures, not meaningful steps in the fight against global warming.

Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, speaks at the New York Times DealBook conference on November 1, 2018 in New York City. (Stephanie Keith / Getty Images)

Larry Fink, chairman and CEO of BlackRock, recently sent another one of his famous letters. Building on previous promises to value all stakeholders, this year’s message to CEOs outlines BlackRock’s new role as a responsible champion of the environment — it vows to both safeguard people’s money and promote a “sustainable and inclusive capitalism.”

The world’s largest asset management company says that beginning this year it will divest from thermal coal and “mak[e] sustainability integral to portfolio construction and risk management.” Fink insists that in the future BlackRock “will be increasingly disposed to vote against management and board directors when companies are not making sufficient progress on sustainability-related disclosures and the business practices and plans underlying them.”

But on closer examination, the details of BlackRock’s plan are less exciting. The company’s vow to pull back from thermal coal refers to its actively managed portfolios. Roughly three-quarters of the company’s portfolios are passively managed, their assets automatically selected to track the global marketplace. (BlackRock’s strong growth over the past decade owes almost entirely to investment flowing into its exchange-traded funds and other types of passive investing.) The vast majority of BlackRock’s more than $17 billion investment in coal sits in passively invested portfolios.

Fink’s letter also says little about the company’s massive presence in other sectors of the fossil-fuel industry. BlackRock is the world’s largest shareholder in oil and gas. Just last year, it completed a $4 billion investment (along with KKR) in the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. The company also pours money into industries associated with deforestation, such as palm oil.

BlackRock’s primary strategy for building “sustainability” appears to be measurement: “By the end of 2020, all active portfolios and advisory strategies will be fully ESG integrated — meaning that, at the portfolio level, our portfolio managers will be accountable for appropriately managing exposure to ESG risks and documenting how those considerations have affected investment decisions.”

Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) metrics, while not entirely without value, are deeply flawed. In the thriving cottage industry of ESG metrics there are hundreds of measures, many of which are not comparable with one another. And these measures — which are not legally binding — usually rely on self-reported data from companies. The Wall Street Journal reports that “eight of the ten biggest US sustainable funds are invested in oil-and-gas companies.”

Nonetheless, some environmental groups expressed excitement at Fink’s latest letter.

Diana Best, senior strategist for the Sunrise Project, called BlackRock’s announcement a “fantastic start” that “match[es] the size of the crisis.” ShareAction campaign manager Jeanne Martin praised BlackRock’s coal divestment decision as “yet another significant blow to the already dying market.” Sierra Club’s Ben Cushing dubbed Fink’s promises “a major step in the right direction and a testament to the power of public pressure calling for climate action.”

Their optimism was tempered by concerns about how BlackRock will build on its decision to partially jettison thermal coal. Martin said questions remain as to “what BlackRock’s own purpose is, and how its stewardship delivers the social, environmental, and financial performance that its clients are looking for.” Cushing, meanwhile, argued that BlackRock must go further: “It is time to turn off the money pipeline to dirty fossil fuels for good. BlackRock should expand on its commitments and other financial institutions should follow suit.” Caroline Lucas, a Green Party member of parliament in the United Kingdom called on BlackRock to “match rhetoric with real action and rapidly divest from oil and gas as well as coal” in both actively and passively managed portfolios.

Obviously, these organizations know that BlackRock remains a huge investor in dirty energy. But their statements demonstrate a hope that Fink’s decision on thermal coal is a significant first step in a broad, long-term reorientation for the company — and a clear sign that pressure from environmental groups is working.

It’s an organizing logic that is common in environmental groups today: Companies like BlackRock are big and powerful with vast potential to shape the global economy, so even if the changes they make are relatively small, the thinking goes, the knock-on effects will be quite significant. Therefore, environmental groups should invest their energy in corporate pressure campaigns.

Divestment campaigns have substantial political, organizational, and educational value, and BlackRock’s recent decisions are certainly a result, at least in part, of feeling the heat from environmental groups. But it is important to be clear-eyed about the limits of the corporate pressure strategy. It’s highly doubtful that BlackRock’s recent moves will add up to anything meaningful for the environmental movement.

Instead, BlackRock’s partial divestment in coal, its newfound emphasis on ESG metrics and green investment products, and its promises to value all stakeholders are an attempt to have its cake and eat it too. Experts increasingly agree that thermal coal exposure has become a financial liability; it is not only politically savvy for BlackRock to start dumping it, it is also financially smart. At the same time, green funds have become wildly popular and highly profitable, so companies like BlackRock are happy to provide them. Behind the scenes, BlackRock and the rest of these Wall Street firms will keep their passive investments, cashing in on dirty energy for as long as it’s profitable.

BlackRock’s “purpose” is clear — to make money. Slight directional shifts to its stewardship model are designed to avoid political censure and attract green-friendly customers, not to fundamentally alter the nature of the company. It may even “match rhetoric with real action” and divest from fossil fuels at some point, but only if it is profitable to do so — no matter how hard environmental groups press.

At the same time, while “turn[ing] off the money pipeline to dirty fossil fuels for good” is important, it leaves a hole that the market won’t fill. Wall Street firms are interested in quick, easy profits; they won’t bankroll green infrastructure in any significant way. Only governments, pushed by broad-based democratic social movements, can provide the long-term funding and vision necessary to transform our energy infrastructure — and force companies to do more than just offer rhetorical promises and self-serving reforms.