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Benedicte Hautefort’s Column

Public opinion swings against Climate activists

After several years of unconditional support for climate activists, public opinion is shifting in favour of companies, including the banks that finance fossil fuels. This winter, the lines shifted first in the United States, in the southern states of Texas and Illinois, where it is now in bad taste to display a decarbonisation strategy. This pendulum is now swinging in Europe.

As always, shareholder meetings are the bellwether. Activists and companies have become more radical. Individual shareholders, caught between these two camps, are now choosing management; and investors, when it comes to voting, are following suit. The activists are left alone, where they thought they had drained the financial power to them.

It all started this winter. Climate advocates announced the colour: the targets this year are the banks, the aim is to cut off funding to industries considered polluting. The world’s major institutional investors publicly supported them, as they too needed to display a “green” policy. The balance seemed to be heavily tipped in favour of the activists.

ING was the first on the list. On 24 April in Amsterdam, the insurer had to interrupt its general meeting five times and call in the police, only to have to suspend the meeting permanently. Then on 5 May at HSBC in London, some participants were forcibly removed from the room. Public opinion, frightened by the police, remained neutral.

Game changer was the BNP Paribas general meeting on 16 May in France. During the presentation of the bank’s commitments in the fight against global warming, activists from the NGOs Friends of the Earth, Action Non-Violente COP21 and Alternatiba Paris took the floor, forcing the company to interrupt its presentations to shareholders for about twenty minutes. At issue was an 8 billion euro loan granted to Totalénergies by several banks including BNP Paribas. The shareholders loudly supported the management, shouting at the demonstrators to leave the room, with xenophobic remarks – “Go home” applauded. And investors who had initially supported the activists ended up voting in favour of management.

At Societe Generale, on 23 May, the NGO Share Actions questioned the management on the financing of new oil and gas projects, whereas BNP Paribas has renounced this. The chairman has promised a response before the end of the year. The other NGOs, scalded by the BNP Paribas experience, did not speak out. When it came time to vote, the investors once again voted for the management.

The reason for this reversal is that the legal framework for environmental actions is still too vague. Disagreements remain on the definition of “green” energy, and on whether or not carbon credits should be taken into account to compensate for polluting energy. When in doubt, investors do their job: they support the most profitable.

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