British banking giant HSBC has suspended a top executive who argued during a recent public presentation that the financial risks of climate change were overblown and exaggerated by central bank officials and other policymakers.
The suspended employee, Stuart Kirk, is global head of responsible investment at HSBC’s asset management division. He made the remarks during a presentation titled, “Why investors need not worry about climate risk.”
Kirk stated his view that warnings about climate change have “become so hyberbolic that no one really knows how to get anyone’s attention at all.”
“I wouldn’t normally mind that. Twenty-five years in the finance industry, there’s always some nutjob telling me about the end of the world,” Kirk said. “I’ve dealt with gold bugs my entire financial career, the roof’s going to cave down, Y2K. Does anyone remember Y2K, anyone old enough? The lifts didn’t stop.”
Kirk was suspended after an internal investigation into his presentation, the Financial Times reported, citing people with knowledge of the matter. His speech took place at the FT Moral Money Summit.
But sources familiar with the presentation’s planning told the outlet that its “theme and content” were “agreed internally” before the event took place.
HSBC said it could not comment on individual employees’ situations.
Kirk’s remarks drew sharp rebukes from two of his colleagues at the bank, including HSBC CEO Noel Quinn, who said they were a distraction.
“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 the situation. “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,” Quinn added.
Nuno Matos, the top boss for HSBC’s wealth and personal banking division, also slammed Kirk’s comments.
“In complete agreement with Noel Quinn — the transition to net zero is of upmost [sic] importance to us and we will strive for ways to help our clients on this journey,” Matos said.
While top officials at HSBC were critical, his remarks sparked a debate among other financial leaders.
Standard Chartered CEO Bill Winters declined to comment on the suspension, but told Financial News London that workers should be free to express their views.
“Do I agree with the views? No. Do I encourage free speech? Yes,” Winters told the outlet while attending the World Economic Forum in Davos.
“People should be able to speak their mind, whether you agree with the conclusions or not,” Winters added.
A former Blackrock executive focused on sustainable investment said Kirk’s remarks had “done us a service” in discussions on climate change risk by “infusing a dose of honesty into a debate that is otherwise leading us nowhere,” Financial News reported.
US officials have stepped up their warnings about climate change in recent years, with Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen leading a panel of experts last year in warning that it was an “emerging threat” to the country’s financial stability.
Kirk had acknowledged that his stance that climate chance was not an existential financial risk would be taken as “heresy” among policymakers.
His speech began with a slide declaring that “unsubstantiated, shrill, partisan, self-serving, apocalyptic warnings are ALWAYS wrong.” The slide included commentary from the Bank of England, the United Nations, the World Economic Forum and others who have warned that climate change poses a major risk to global economies.
“I completely get that there is a competition for funding,” Kirk said. “I completely get that, at the end of your central bank career, there are still many, many years to fill in. You’ve got to say something, you’ve got to fly around the world to conferences, you’ve got to out-hyperbole the next guy, but I feel like it’s getting a little bit out of hand.”