Succumbing to pressure from environmental activists, JP Morgan Chase has just announced that it is cutting back on its engagement with the fossil fuel industry. While JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon has long talked a good sustainability game, the environmental community has maintained that it’s all just hot air – asserting that, of the $1.9 trillion the world’s biggest banks have invested in fossil fuel projects since the Paris Climate Agreement was signed in 2016, JP Morgan Chase has provided almost $200 billion of it – making the New York based bank the single largest fossil fuel financier in the world.
Now, the banking giant says it’s going to tighten the spigot on the flow of cash to fossil fuel projects. And, it’s not the first. Late last year, Goldman Sachs also announced that its appetite for funding fossil fuel related projects had lessened. Both companies swore off new coal-related investments and “direct” investments in resource extraction projects in the Arctic.
While there is conflict over whether this is a big deal or just “baby steps,” as suggested by the Washington Post, it is a sign that banks are starting to yield to pressure from climate activists.
If you’re one of those whose reaction to this is, “too bad, so sad, glad I’m not in the banking business,” you might think again. While the banks have received the lion’s share of the climate activist attention, Siemens CEO Joe Kaeser would likely warn you that you could be next. Indeed, climate activists are now turning their attention to businesses that provide goods and services to the fossil fuel industry.
Kaeser, who has led the German industrial giant since 2013, has spent an inordinate amount of time and energy focused on a transaction in Australia so small that the CEO of a global mega-giant would normally know nothing about it. But, thanks to the climate activist community, he’s now intimately involved.
Siemens is committed to providing rail signaling equipment to Adani, an India-based company that is building a massive new coal mine in Queensland, Australia. This equipment will service the rail line that is being built to move the coal from the mine to ships offshore, proximate to the already threatened Great Barrier Reef.
In hopes of stifling the development of the mine, activists have targeted Siemens with round- the-clock protests and aggressive social and earned media attacks both in Australia and in Germany. It’s been unrelenting.
Just recently, however, in a statement issued in the form of a letter addressed “to whom it may concern,” Kaeser said Siemens would not stand down. The statement was released in January, as the whole world watched much of the Australian continent burn to the ground – a phenomenon many scientists and activists blamed on climate change.
The statement suggested that while Kaeser’s personal sympathies were with the opposition his business responsibilities required that he stick to his agreement with Adani. It was a clear attempt to strike the middle ground. Needless to say, the climate activists were unimpressed, with leaders of the movement calling Siemens’ decision shameful.
They’re certainly coming for Siemens, and they could be coming for you next. Whether you are sympathetic, like Kaeser suggested that he is, or you stand in stark opposition to the climate community’s goals, it may only be a matter of time before the pressure to step away from fossil fuels comes to the door of your c-suite. This is true if you are an equipment provider like Siemens, or even a service provider like a law firm, accountancy, or even a big global PR firm like the one that employs me.
Even the fossil fuel companies have recognized this. Most notably BP recently announced that it “set a new ambition to become a net zero company by 2050 or sooner.” And, while BP has been trending in this direction for quite some time, this has now become a central tenet of its communications and marketing going forward.
So, what are you going to say? I’d strongly recommend that this should depend upon what you are going to do. This essay, in no way, is an attempt to convince any company to take any action favoring or opposing engagement with the fossil fuel industry. That is a decision left to Boards of Directors, CEO’s, Partners, and other leaders.
Once made, however, it is important that your organization very clearly communicates why it has committed to a particular posture. Whether you are all in with fossil fuels but hope to convince your stakeholders that you are operating sustainably, you’re getting out of the business but hope not to offend oil and gas companies that have been vital partners of yours for decades, or you hope, like Joe Kaeser hoped, to strike some elusive middle ground – you’d be wise to figure out the messaging now.
Greenwashing became a thing because it worked, until it didn’t. You can’t disconnect the PR and marketing from the facts. Today’s climate activists have the same passion and commitment of those who formed groups like Greenpeace so many decades ago, but they also have a new level of sophistication. They have the tools and the means that make it infinitely easier to spread their message and sign up converts. Your business decisions and your words had better align, authentically, clearly, and credibly.
Make the business decision that is right for your company and hold to it. But make sure that the communicators are in the room, today, helping you figure out how best to express that decision. Otherwise, in this overheated environment, you might find yourself watching as your corporate reputation goes the way of the Australian outback.