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The Companies That Invest in the Earth's Destruction Must Be Held Accountable

Protests against BlackRock and a Senate hearing on dark money are part of a growing push to hold the big funders of the climate crisis responsible.

by Greta Moran
Nov 1 2019, 3:09pm

Image: BlackRock's Big Problem

You may not have heard of the company BlackRock, yet you are certainly feeling its impact.

The global investment management corporation, responsible for managing $7 trillion worth of assets, is a massive backer of climate destruction, investing billions in new coal plant construction and the deforestation of the Amazon. Earlier this month, an investigation by the Guardian found that BlackRock has $87.3 billion worth of shares in oil, coal, and gas companies.

BlackRock’s headquarters, a nondescript skyscraper in Manhattan, is usually easy to miss. But —on Tuesday, around 200 activists gathered outside the entrance to protest the company’s major role in financing climate destruction.

The action was held on the anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, the storm that devastated New York City in 2012.

“We wanted to remind everyone, on the 7th anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, that BlackRock is one of the biggest financiers of these climate-fueled disasters,” Nicole Karsch, an activist at the rally with the Sunrise Movement in New York City, said in an interview.

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Image: BlackRock's Big Problem

Towards the end of the protest, 10 activists, from New York Communities for Change (NYCC), Sunrise Movement, and Extinction Rebellion, blocked the entrance to BlackRock’s headquarters, risking arrest. Across the entrance, the activists displayed a 20 foot banner that depicted two worlds—one in grayscale of flooding and an oil refinery, and another in full color of trees and windmills—and read “BlackRock: Which side are you on?”

Some of the groups that protested are part of a larger global campaign called BlackRock’s Big Problem, which also helped organize other actions on Tuesday in Boston and Toronto, building on an escalating series of actions around the world to pressure the company to divest from the climate catastrophe.

“If we can get BlackRock to do the right thing on climate, that moves the entire financial system because they’re the biggest fire,” Pete Sikora, an activist at the protest with New York Communities for Change, said in an interview.

BlackRock’s Big Problem campaign is also singling out the company’s CEO Larry Fink for what Sikora described as his “superficially progressive profile.” Fink formerly sat on the board of the Nature Conservancy. Last year, a New York Times article titled “BlackRock’s Message: Contribute to Society, or Risk Losing Our Support,” described Finke’s professed commitment for socially responsible investing as a potentially “watershed moment on Wall Street.”

BlackRock’s investment in the commodities most often linked withdeforestation, including beef, paper, pulp, rubber, and palm oil,, has increased by more than half a billion dollars between 2014 and 2018, according to a report from Amazon Watch, Friends of the Earth US, and the Dutch financial research firm Profundo.

The report also found that “BlackRock is among the top three shareholders in 25 of the world’s largest publicly listed deforestation-risk companies,” and linked the company’s Environmental, Social and Governance funds to land rights conflicts, forced and child labor, and deforestation.

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Image: BlackRock's Big Problem

“I think there’s a real responsibility on BlackRock to put a common definition or standard on what it constitutes a sustainable fund,” said Diana Best, a finance campaigner with the Sunrise Project. “A company that is directly tied with the crisis happening in Amazon should in no way be showing up in sustainably designated funds.”

The focus on BlackRock is part of a growing push to hold the corporations who have been quietly funding the climate crisis accountable. In a recent New Yorker article, longtime environmental activist and 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben made clear that the global strategy of divestment, which has largely been focused on getting colleges to stop investing in companies that contribute to climate change needs to expand to corporate asset managers and other investors.

Divestment needs to expand to banks, insurance companies, and asset management companies. “Without them, the fossil-fuel companies would almost literally run out of gas, but BlackRock and Chubb could survive without their business,” he wrote.

Yet we still don’t have nearly a full picture of the climate crisis’s funding streams, particularly from anonymous sources. This was a focus of a Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis hearing Tuesday on “Dark Money and Barriers to Climate Action,” which examined the role of unknown sources of political funding backing the climate crisis.

In her testimony, Namoi Oreskes, a Harvard professor and American historian of science, explained that while ExxonMobil is on trial for deceiving investors about the climate crisis, it’s still unclear how Exxon’s vast disinformation campaign—one facet of a much larger climate denial information apparatus—is funded.

“I would like to see Congress subpoena the CEOs of leading fossil fuel corporations and their allies, and question them under oath, as Congress did for tobacco,” Oreskes told the Senate Democrats.

The influence of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other trade associations in blocking climate action, including the Clean Power Plan, was another key topic of discussion in the hearing. Ben Cushing, a campaigner with the Sierra Club who attended the hearing to observe, found this information particularly “nefarious because the [U.S] Chamber of Commerce purports to represent all of corporate America.”

In his role at the Sierra Club, Cushing is involved in the BlackRock's Big Problem campaign. He sees both the BlackRock protests and the hearing as answering similar needs. “We need to follow the money," said Cushing, in an interview. "We need to address the role of both the financial industry and dark money groups in propping up the status quo.”

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