How long ago was it that when you mentioned “ESG”, people would ask, “what’s that”? We sure have moved a far distance from those times. Now ESG is seen in Republican-led states as “a threat” to the well-being of citizens and public finance . In the halls of Congress we see frequent “pro and con” debates about ESG, climate change, sustainable investing, corporate sustainability…and more. ESG is now today’s hot topic for some politicians!
To remind us of an important development that helped to set the scene of the current ESG and climate crisis debate: in the first days of the Biden Administration (January 27, 2021), President Joseph Biden signed a sweeping Executive Order – “On Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Aboard” – that set out the landscape of policies, actions and financing that were described as “the whole of government” to be focused on various climate change matters.
The order offered this perspective:” The U.S. and the world face a profound climate crisis. We have a narrow moment to pursue action at home and abroad to avoid the most catastrophic impact…and to seize the opportunity that tackling climate change presents…”
The White House explained what the Federal government could and would do to take a range of planned actions intended to mitigate climate-related damage to humanity and protect the national and global economies. The order also involved actions for states and cities to help protect and fortify public and private infrastructure, natural resources, oceans, and a range of physical assets.
The political opposition was instant, and criticisms were thereafter steadily voiced at federal, state, and local levels. As the various arms of government began to develop policies, legislation, rules and regulations, there was consistent pushback by political opponents. Specific rule-making actions enabled opponents to pounce.
Case in point: the back and forth positions on ERISA oversight of pension funds. Under the prior Republican administration, rules were adopted in November 2020 that set out to prohibit or limit the ability of public employee pension systems and other plans covered by ERISA, and their appointed asset management firms, to consider ESG factors in selecting investments. Under the Biden Administration, the Department of Labor approved a Final Rule (December 29, 2022) to “address the chilling effect and other potential negative consequences caused by the Prior Rule with respect to consideration of climate change and other ESG factors."
Republican lawmakers in Congress then passed a resolution to rescind the Department of Labor law, claiming that the Final Rule is “woke” policy that will hurt retirees’ bottom lines. President Biden then issued the first veto of his presidency on March 20, enabling the Final Rule of the Department of Labor to stand.
This is but one skirmish in the ESG arena, where we see asset management firms punished or threatened to be punished by elected and appointed public officials for embracing ESG issues and topics properly regarded as material factors in institutional investment management.
Another example we’re sharing with you in our Top Stories discusses another struggle in the ESG arena: Governor Ron DeSantis is now organizing an “anti-ESG” alliance with 18 other governors. Their stated reason is to “protect individuals from the ESG movement that threatens the vitality of the American economy and Americans’ economic freedom”. With this and other actions, we probably are seeing an important campaign platform shaping up for the 2024 state and national elections.
The G&A Institute team is closely monitoring the actions of the public sector ESG opposition and will continue to share important developments with you in this newsletter.