March 18, 2020

BlackRock's CEO to Corporate Executives: 'Every Government, Company, and Shareholder Must Confront Climate Change'

Whether or not you are a shareholder of Blackrock, Inc. or own shares of exchange traded funds provided by the global investment firm, I recommend reading Larry Fink's, chairman and chief executive officer of BlackRock, annual letter to corporate chief executives. This year's letter generated a great amount of attention in the media and became a topic of discussion among my peers.

Investment firms and their clients have a reputation for ignoring the vast amounts of studies produced by the world's smartest scientists that suggest human activity since the Industrial Revolution, mainly extracting and burning fossil fuels, has increased the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, thus warming the planet and changing its climate. Therefore, many readers of Mr. Fink's letter were surprised to read: "Climate change has become a defining factor in companies' long-term prospects. Last September, when millions of people took to the streets to demand action on climate change, many of them emphasized the significant and lasting impact that it will have on economic growth and prosperity – a risk that markets to date have been slower to reflect. But awareness is rapidly changing, and I believe we are on the edge of a fundamental reshaping of finance."

Crucially, he adds that "[t]he evidence on climate risk is compelling investors to reassess core assumptions about modern finance. Research from a wide range of organizations – including the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the BlackRock Investment Institute, and many others, including new studies from McKinsey on the socioeconomic implications of physical climate risk – is deepening our understanding of how climate risk will impact both our physical world and the global system that finances economic growth."

Under the heading of "Climate Risk Is Investment Risk," Mr. Fink notes: "Over the next few years, one of the most important questions we will face is the scale and scope of government action on climate change, which will generally define the speed with which we move to a low-carbon economy. This challenge cannot be solved without a coordinated, international response from governments, aligned with the goals of the Paris Agreement.

"Under any scenario, the energy transition will still take decades. Despite recent rapid advances, the technology does not yet exist to cost-effectively replace many of today's essential uses of hydrocarbons. We need to be mindful of the economic, scientific, social and political realities of the energy transition. Governments and the private sector must work together to pursue a transition that is both fair and just – we cannot leave behind parts of society, or entire countries in developing markets, as we pursue the path to a low-carbon world."

What is more, "We don't yet know which predictions about the climate will be most accurate, nor what effects we have failed to consider. But there is no denying the direction we are heading. Every government, company, and shareholder must confront climate change."

With respect to "Improved Disclosure for Shareholders," I concur "that all investors, along with regulators, insurers, and the public, need a clearer picture of how companies are managing sustainability-related questions. This data should extend beyond climate to questions around how each company serves its full set of stakeholders, such as the diversity of its workforce, the sustainability of its supply chain, or how well it protects its customers' data. Each company's prospects for growth are inextricable from its ability to operate sustainably and serve its full set of stakeholders."

Moreover, "Over time, companies and countries that do not respond to stakeholders and address sustainability risks will encounter growing skepticism from the markets, and in turn, a higher cost of capital. Companies and countries that champion transparency and demonstrate their responsiveness to stakeholders, by contrast, will attract investment more effectively, including higher-quality, more patient capital."

As for "Accountable and Transparent Capitalism," Mr. Fink correctly concludes his letter by saying:
As we approach a period of significant capital reallocation, companies have a responsibility – and an economic imperative – to give shareholders a clear picture of their preparedness. And in the future, greater transparency on questions of sustainability will be a persistently important component of every company's ability to attract capital. It will help investors assess which companies are serving their stakeholders effectively, reshaping the flow of capital accordingly. But the goal cannot be transparency for transparency's sake. Disclosure should be a means to achieving a more sustainable and inclusive capitalism. Companies must be deliberate and committed to embracing purpose and serving all stakeholders – your shareholders, customers, employees, and the communities where you operate. In doing so, your company will enjoy greater long-term prosperity, as will investors, workers, and society as a whole.
Businesses should include climate risk among a variety of risk factors when evaluating the strength of its business plan or long-term strategy. Larry Fink's letter thoughtfully expands this consideration by suggesting different agencies improve their ability to manage sustainability-related questions. Once an agency accepts their responsibility to confront climate change, the next challenge is creating and implementing a sustainable solution.

What recommendations do you have on how governments, companies, and shareholders confront climate change?

Aaron Rose is a board member, corporate advisor, and co-founder of great companies. He also serves as the editor of Solutions for a Sustainable World.

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