Michigan Congressperson Rashida Tlaib is sick of billionaires who say they care about fixing climate change and then profit from investments that make the emergency worse. And along with other progressive lawmakers, she's targeting one by name: Larry Fink.
"He’s basically contributing to the catastrophic climate change in our country," Tlaib told VICE.
Fink, the CEO of the $7 trillion Wall Street asset manager BlackRock, speaks at conferences advising businesses to be more socially responsible and sat on the board of a major environmental group called the Nature Conservancy until recently. Through BlackRock, he is also investing in companies that are destroying the Amazon rainforest. That apparent hypocrisy was the subject of a letter Tlaib and her fellow Democratic Congressperson Chuy Garcia recently sent to Fink. The letter was also signed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and a dozen or so other members of Congress. (BlackRock didn’t respond to VICE’s request for an interview.)
"We are writing to you because your firm has substantial investments in the agribusiness companies operating in the Brazilian Amazon and implicated in the current deforestation crisis there," the letter reads. "If the fires, and the policies that led to them, remain unchecked, the Amazon risks reaching a tipping point of irreversible deforestation that will lock in the worst effects of the climate crisis. We respectfully urge you to thoroughly account for the runaway deforestation in Brazil in your due diligence, and to call for immediate action from President Bolsonaro."
Without that action, Tlaib argues, Fink will remain complicit in the destruction of a rainforest that contains 10 percent of the world’s known species, is home to 400 unique indigenous tribes, and whose trees are one of the planet’s most important absorbers of climate-heating greenhouse gases. Since January, an area of the Amazon 12 times the size of New York City has been destroyed by logging and fires. This is the fastest rate of Amazon deforestation in a decade, and BlackRock is profiting from it.
"[Fink] travels the world saying businesses should have social purpose, play a positive role in society, and now his actions are responsible for the fires in the Amazon," Tlaib said. "He’s looking the other way, he’s deciding to do nothing about that at all."
BlackRock is, for example, a big investor in the meatpacker JBS, which has financial ties to the Bolsonaro administration and has been accused multiple times of buying cattle raised on Amazon land illegally deforested by ranchers and loggers.
Tlaib doesn’t care that the BlackRock CEO is a "lifelong" Democratic Party supporter. "Somebody like Larry Fink is not going to support someone like me, he supports people that enable him, and I’m not a person that takes corporate PAC money, nor do I look the other way when corporate leaders and those that have access to change the world for the better are deciding not to play a part in that," she said.
Earlier this year, the billionaire Wall Street investor told his fellow CEOs they need to be more "sustainable" and adopt a "long-term approach" in their businesses. "Investors who are not thinking about climate-related risks, or who view them as issues far off in the future, may need to recalibrate their expectations," argued an April report from BlackRock that won praise from some environmentalists.
But despite having "unparalleled influence over many of the world’s top public companies," as the New York Times has reported, Fink doesn’t appear interested in using his influence to slow down the destabilization of our climate. "I’m not telling companies what their purpose should be," Fink said last year at the DealBook conference in New York. "But I do believe it’s up to the company to identify what their purpose is."
It's that sort of language that Tlaib identifies as a total cop-out. "Saying that, 'I am a socially responsible corporate leader' and turning around and saying, 'well, I’m not going to tell [companies] what to do but I’m going to make money off it' that’s OK right?" she said facetiously. Amazon deforestation is accelerating, and murders of the region’s indigenous people went up 23 percent from 2017 to 2018. Greenhouse gas emissions are at their highest levels in human history. "Doing nothing isn’t an option anymore," Tlaib said. "We have to fight against corporate greed."
Update 12/17: This article has been changed to reflect the fact that Larry Fink is no longer on the board of the Nature Conservancy, which VICE learned after publication.
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Geoff Dembicki is the author of Are We Screwed? How a New Generation Is Fighting to Survive Climate Change. Follow him on Twitter.