HSBC suspends head of responsible investing who called climate warnings ‘shrill’

HSBC has suspended a senior banker after he referred to climate crisis warnings as “unsubstantiated” and “shrill” during a conference speech that has since been denounced by the lender’s chief executive.

Stuart Kirk, who has been HSBC’s head of responsible investing since last July, will remain suspended until the bank completes an internal investigation into the matter.

HSBC came under pressure to fire Kirk after he gave a presentation in London entitled “why investors need not worry about climate risk”, in which he made light of major flooding risks, and complained about having to spend time “looking at something that’s going to happen in 20 o 30 anni".

HSBC declined to comment on Kirk’s suspension, which was first reported by the Financial Times. Kirk did not respond to requests to comment sent via LinkedIn or Twitter.

Kirk’s presentation controversially included slides that said “Unsubstantiated, shrill, partisan, self-serving, apocalyptic warnings are ALWAYS wrong”, while referring to comments made by officials at the UN and Bank of England, who have tried to raise the alarm over global heating.

“Human beings have been fantastic at adapting to change, adapting to climate emergencies, and we will continue to do so,” Kirk told attenders at the Financial Times’ Moral Money conference on Thursday. “Who cares if Miami is six metres underwater in 100 anni? Amsterdam has been six metres underwater for ages and that’s a really nice place.”

His comments have sparked a public relations controversy for the bank, which has struggled to burnish its green credentials, despite pledges to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.

It prompted bosses, including HSBC’s chief executive Noel Quinn, to denounce Kirk’s comments, insisting that they did not reflect the bank’s views on the climate crisis.

“I do not agree – at all – with the remarks made at last week’s FT Moral Money Summit," Quinn said in a LinkedIn post on Saturday. “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.”

“We have a lot of work to do, and I am determined that our team won’t be distracted by last week’s comments,” Quinn added.

Climate activists welcomed Kirk’s suspension but said HSBC had questions to answer about the extent to which Kirk’s views were known or supported within the bank.

“Kirk might be on his way out, but this opens up a new can of worms for HSBC,” Beau O’Sullivan, a senior campaigner for the Bank on our Future campaign, disse. “The bank must now explain how such offensive and inaccurate comments were signed off, to what extent other senior execs share Kirk’s views, and what sort of culture HSBC is breeding that allowed the comments to pass unchallenged.

“More broadly, this is another massive smirch on HSBC’s reputation on climate which it’s been at pains to burnish recently,” O’Sullivan said. “Investors, costringendo le aziende più grandi ad accettare clienti bloccati – alla fine vengono caricati sui conti di tutti, and regulators should rightly question and scrutinise the bank’s promises on climate, including its upcoming oil and gas policy, not forgetting that HSBC is facing potential action by the advertising regulator over greenwashing.”

Kirk, a former editor of the Financial Times’s Lex column, was appointed head of responsible investing in July 2021, putting him in charge of a team responsible for analysing environmental, social and governance (ESG) risks that could affect the asset management arm’s investments. His team was also charge of helping develop new green products for customers.

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