Elon Musk threw a fit last week. The proximate cause, this time, was his company Tesla getting booted from the S&P’s “ESG index.” The ESG index features companies deemed to be performing well on environmental, social, and governance metrics that range from emissions-reduction plans to racial and gender diversity on corporate boards. As S&P’s Margaret Dorn explained, the downgrade centered mainly on documented instances of racial discrimination at Tesla’s factories in Fremont, California.
Musk took this as a personal affront. In a series of tweets punctuated by memes, the billionaire emerald-mining heir ranted about “attacks” against him and a “relentless hatestream from the far left,” proclaiming he would start voting for Republicans. “ESG is a scam,” he wrote. “It has been weaponized by phony social justice warriors.”
In the obligatory news write-ups of this bizarre episode, many beleaguered reporters felt compelled to point out the complexities of this case. For example: ESG is indeed a scam, but for essentially the opposite reasons of the ones Musk gave. There are still no agreed-upon standards as to what those three letters actually mean, despite the fact that $340 billion has flowed to ESG funds over the past two years. What’s pitched as a win-win for investors (“doing well by doing good!”) has largely been a means for the financial sector to have its cake and eat it too: for banks and asset managers to appear as if they care about the climate crisis—and tap into growing markets for green stuff—while continuing to fund fossil fuels for as long as it’s still profitable to do so.
But there’s a bigger issue at stake here than Musk’s perennial Twitter antics. It has to do with ESG’s growing role in a right-wing culture war that could bode poorly for the future. Musk’s complaints found a welcome audience last week among those already railing against ESG for all the the wrong reasons. Freedomworks—an arm of the Koch brothers’ political empire, built on a fossil fuel fortune—noted its approval of his crusade against what it’s called “corporate wokeness.” Both Freedomworks and Musk now appear to have joined a growing segment of the American right looking to ESG as another convenient three-letter acronym to milk for political gain. Unlike the culture war the GOP has whipped up over “CRT” (critical race theory), the fledgling one over ESG is mainly a fight among various arms of capital. It might best be understood as the most reactionary segment of the fossil fuel industry’s attempt to enlist grassroots momentum against financial institutions that increasingly see fossil fuels as bad investments over the long term.
The main front in this battle has been a series of state-level bills to end “energy discrimination” and penalize financial institutions that are seen to be “boycotting” energy companies. The conservatives supporting these bills point to Blackrock CEO and sustainable investment guru Larry Fink as a particular villain, claiming that he’s using his asset management firm’s considerable voting shares in major corporations to ram through a radical green agenda. The Heartland Institute—a longtime backer of climate skeptics—has also supported state-level legislation targeting ESG, likening it to China’s social credit system.
Evidence that Wall Street is full of woke climate radicals remains scant. As Fink clarified last week, Blackrock has no intention of asking banks to start transitioning off fossil fuels. Just this week, the head of responsible investing for HSBC Asset Management, Stuart Kirk, wondered aloud: “Who cares if Miami is six meters underwater in 100 years?”
It’s difficult to imagine ESG becoming the centrifugal force propelling a statewide election, or any ESG-related parallel to the raucous school board meetings that have transformed battlegrounds in the CRT fight. But the events of the last few years also suggest we shouldn’t underestimate the power of the right’s media empire and that there’s no upper limit on how unmoored conservative tantrums can be from reality. Larry Fink, that is, is sabotaging the fossil fuel industry in the same way that elementary school students are reading Derrick Bell.
If the fury over CRT grew from America’s refusal to reckon with its own history, a culture war over ESG will be nurtured by the same elements but sprout from different soil on an adjacent plot. Right-wing think tanks, billionaires, and fossil fuel companies—some of whom forged bonds fighting desegregation—spent years casting doubt on the existence of the climate crisis and aggressively lobbying to stop politicians from doing anything about it. A meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council—a fossil fuel billionaire–funded nonprofit—helped spread both anti-CRT and “Energy Discrimination Elimination” bills out into state legislatures. Some of those bills share co-sponsors. And let’s not forget that the Manhattan Institute—the think tank where anti-CRT gadfly Christopher Rufo is a fellow—has received generation donations from Rebekah Mercer, the heiress who stepped in to fund climate-skeptic think tanks like the Heartland Institute when fossil fuel companies walked away in the 2000s. All that’s to say: The people looking to pick a fight over ESG run in similar circles as those waging the CRT battles. They’ve also probably been employed by the same institutions. And those institutions are funded by the same people.
Decades of right-wing institution building has stopped the U.S. from passing comprehensive climate policy. But it’s also created a painfully simplistic conversation about the climate crisis that’s divided along bafflingly partisan lines. Unlike in Europe—where the climate debate is largely about what type of climate policy to pass—the right in the U.S. has made it so that conversation revolves around a set of mostly uninteresting questions that were answered decades ago in peer-reviewed journals: Is the climate actually changing? If it is, is that a bad thing? And can we know for sure who or what is responsible? “Believing” climate science has also become a matter of faith for mainstream Democrats. Desperate for signs of progress, many liberals—including some in the White House—uncritically accept corporate ESG and “net-zero” pledges as proof that they’re on the right side of history.
Thanks to decades of organizing on the right, that is, climate change has long been a front in the culture wars; look no further than Joe Manchin’s 2009 campaign ad, in which he takes “dead aim” at the Waxman-Markey cap and trade bill. The push to demonize ESG (again, for the wrong reasons) speaks to a newfound desperation.
The reality is that where coal, oil, and gas companies face an existential threat from climate policy, the financial sector faces an evolving set of challenges and opportunities. The trouble, from a climate perspective, is that neither of these camps is especially interested in decarbonization as such. Just because Wall Street sees a chance to profit from an energy transition doesn’t mean that transition will happen, especially not at the speed it needs to. And it’ll keep financing fossil fuels until the last possible minute. Hopefully the push to give ESG the CRT treatment will flounder and further divide capital against itself. The alternative is a coalition made up of of the worst people on earth.