A top executive suspended by British bank HSBC for speaking out against the effectiveness of sustainable finance in halting climate change has resigned, adding fuel to a growing backlash against environmental principles in business.
Stuart Kirk, who was global head of responsible investment at HSBC Investment Management in London, caused a stir in the spring when he gave a speech criticizing those who make dire predictions about the climate and play up the finance industry’s responsibilities for combatting it.
Mr. Kirk’s blunt remarks, at the Financial Times’ Moral Money Summit, prompted HSBC’s chief executive officer to issue a statement countering the messaging. The bank suspended the 27-year veteran, generating a debate over accusations of corporate cancel culture.
“Ironically given my job title, I have concluded that the bank’s behaviour towards me since my speech at a Financial Times conference in May has made my position, well, unsustainable,” Mr. Kirk wrote in a post on LinkedIn on Thursday. “Funny old world.”
Mr. Kirk said he “will continue to prod with a sharp stick the nonsense, hypocrisy, sloppy logic and groupthink inside the mainstream bubble of sustainable finance.”
His censure by HSBC, one of the world’s largest banks, raised questions about how much latitude executives have to express personal views that may run counter to corporate messaging on climate change.
His remarks, which went viral on social media, also fed a heated debate about the effectiveness of corporate environmental, social and governance (ESG) principles, which pit the field’s devotees against those that allege it is a leftist plot against business.
During his speech, Mr. Kirk asserted the financial risk stemming from climate change is overblown, and that over his time in the industry, he was always hearing from those warning of end times. Humans, meanwhile, are very good at adaptation, he said.
He lamented regulatory requirements of dealing with the decades-out problem of climate-related risk, just as the bank struggled with a host of more immediate problems, including the move to cryptocurrencies, rising interest rates, inflation, a housing crisis and “the China problem.”
After the address, HSBC CEO Noel Quinn issued a statement saying he did not agree “at all” with Mr. Kirk’s comments. “They are inconsistent with HSBC’s strategy and do not reflect the views of the senior leadership of HSBC or HSBC Asset Management. Our ambition is to be the leading bank supporting the global economy in the transition to net zero.”
The bank declined to comment on Mr. Kirk’s departure on Thursday.
In his post, Mr. Kirk adamantly refused to backtrack on what he said in his speech. “Investing is hard. So is saving our planet. Opinions on both differ. But humanity’s best chance of success is open and honest debate. If companies believe in diversity and speaking up, they need to walk the talk. A cancel culture destroys wealth and progress,” he wrote.
Mr. Kirk said he plans to start a new venture with “a crack group of like-minded individuals.” He gave no details but described it as “arguably the greatest sustainable-investment idea ever conceived.”
He said it will show the benefits of part of what he said in his speech – that ingenuity will solve big problems while creating investment opportunities. He did not immediately respond to a request for further comment.
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