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Sensemaker: Greenwash Inc

Sensemaker: Greenwash Inc

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Johnson said he was “like a booster rocket” that had “fulfilled its function” in a final speech at Downing Street. Truss takes over as prime minister later today (more below).
  • Israel admitted there was a “high possibility” the Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Aqleh was shot “accidentally” by one of its soldiers. 
  • A US judge granted Trump’s request for an independent review of seized Mar-a-Lago documents. 

Greenwash Inc

When the financial crisis hit, governments didn’t assign the problem to children as if it was homework. When the pandemic brought the world to a halt, it wasn’t assumed to be something that concerned citizens could manage by themselves.

Yet when it comes to climate change, the emphasis is often relentlessly on the personal. 

What should people change in their lives to tackle climate change faster, the BBC asked the two people vying to run the UK. Perhaps we should eat a plant burger, or turn the thermostat down. BP can help us calculate our carbon footprint.

Ordinary people have a role to play of course. But you could also see all of this as a form of distraction. 

Desiree Fixler did. Not at first, but in the end.

Fixler was chief sustainability officer at DWS – Germany’s biggest asset management firm – until she was fired last year. She joined on a wave of optimism, but soon came to the sobering realisation that the system she was being asked to use to evaluate companies’ sustainability was, in her words, “crap”.

The system was based on an investment trend which has ballooned in recent years. It’s a trend that is bound up with the idea that business can help save the planet. And in the end, it might turn out to be one of the most dangerous distractions of all.

Investors will know the idea has an acronym, ESG:

E for Environment. What is a business doing to cut its greenhouse gas emissions, reduce water consumption or manage plastic waste?

S for Social. How diverse is a company’s workforce, and does it pay a living wage?

G for Governance. How effective is a business at catching rogue managers? Are mistakes confessed or covered up for fear of the consequences?

Fixler has spoken up before, but in an interview for this week’s Slow Newscast she alleges publicly for the first time that the DWS system was giving gentler ratings than warranted to companies that posed big climate risks, including companies invested in coal, fracking and oil sands.

Her former employer’s ESG risk assessment system was “rigged”, she suggests. She also says…

  • the DWS annual report went out with “misstatements” about the scale of assets – valued at €450 billion – that could be counted as ESG;
  • a self-congratulatory internal report on the company’s ESG performance was “propaganda”;
  • towards the end of her time at the firm, colleagues referred to her as “little girl road-kill”.

DWS’s Frankfurt offices were raided by German police in May this year. The firm says it’s cooperating with the authorities. DWS also told us they had always clearly labelled those funds that are part of its ESG portfolio, and others that only factor in ESG considerations.

At the end of our interview, Fixler confessed that she had become “one of the distractors” when she was working at DWS.

Fixler, and others we spoke to, acknowledged there’s a role for businesses to play in dealing with the climate crisis of course, just as ordinary citizens can play their part.

But a challenge on this scale needs politicians to act first. Setting much higher carbon prices is the clearest possible message governments can send.

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Paying for the war
Liz Truss is expected to back proposals to freeze UK energy bills at their current level and pay energy companies the difference between what they pay on wholesale markets and what they earn from customers. That gap is going to be big. Bloomberg calculates that bridging it – holding bills at or below their current average rate of £1,971 – could cost £130 billion over the next 18 months. Since the new PM has ruled out tax rises, the money will have to be borrowed by issuing bonds with the highest yields offered by the Bank of England in a decade. That cost will ultimately be borne by taxpayers. They may protest, but they will effectively be helping fund the war effort against Russia, which is overwhelmingly responsible for the current gas price spike and is weaponising it against the whole of Europe. The UK’s debt-to-GDP ratio now is around 99 per cent and rising. For perspective, in 1945 it was 225 per cent. 


Made in North Korea
Economic sanctions have, so far, not crippled the Russian economy. Individual sanctions on oligarchs close to Putin have also failed to undermine his power. But sanctions targeting Russia’s ability to buy or manufacture weaponry seem to be working. Russia is buying millions of artillery shells and rockets from North Korea, according to a declassified US intelligence report. Last month, officials told the New York Times that Iran was supplying Russia with two types of military drones, some of which apparently had mechanical problems. Having to buy anything from North Korea should alarm the Kremlin, said Mason Clark from the Institute for the Study of War. The Kremlin reportedly hoped China would supply the Russian military – but for now Beijing is sticking with buying Russian oil at a discount. 

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Abortion votes
When the US Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion, a key question was whether more women would turn out to vote in November’s midterm elections. A NYT analysis of voter registration in ten states indicates that could be the case – most notably in Kansas, where a recent referendum that would have banned abortion was rejected. In the first few months of 2022, the majority of Kansans who registered to vote were men. After Roe v. Wade was overturned in June, more than 70 per cent were women. Across the ten states analysed, on average, 55 per cent of new voters were women, up from just under 50 per cent before the Supreme Court decision was leaked early in May. To think about: 1) it still takes on-the-ground and media campaigning to boost turnout – which the Democrats seem to have recognised by focusing on abortion in TV campaigns. 2) Not all women who register will vote in favour of increased abortion access and registration doesn’t guarantee a vote.

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Liz and Joe
To the victor the spoils, which in Liz Truss’s case now include foreign travel at her discretion as prime minister. As a Thatcherite Atlanticist her instinct is to look west first and etch her name in the pantheon of post-war leaders who’ve tried to pretend Britain is an equal or at least serious partner in a “special” relationship with the US. To that end she will be begging for time with Biden in New York at the UN General Assembly later this month. He’s a genial sort and will presumably find time. But note: new British PMs elevated by internal party votes don’t always get the respect they think they deserve from the White House. Gordon Brown desperately sought a meeting with Barack Obama at the 2009 UNGA but had to make do with a “brush by” in a basement kitchen even though they shared similar politics. Truss and Biden emphatically do not. He is naturally much warmer towards Ireland than the UK, and no fan of Brexit. Maybe she should quietly remind him she voted Remain.


Free the Tabots!
An online magazine that exists to persuade museums to return items to their rightful homes has sent a Freedom of Information request to the British Museum seeking details of more than 30 years of appeals for the return of 11 sacred “tabots” (wooden altar pieces) to Ethiopia. Returningheritage.com wants chapter and verse on the appeals, the BM’s responses, its decisions and the reasoning behind them. Unlike many other objects whose return is sought by the countries from which they were taken – the Elgin Marbles chief among them – the tabots’ inclusion in the BM’s collection can’t be defended on any grounds because their sacrosanct status means they are never seen by the public or even by scholars. They just sit in a vault, unfit to be retained according to the very act that governs the museum’s activities, the British Museum Act 1963. They were the subject of a Tortoise Slow Newscast last year. We await the museum’s response to the FOI with interest.

Thanks for reading. Please share this round, send us ideas and tell us what you think. Email us at sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com

Jeevan Vasagar

Additional reporting by Giles Whittell, Phoebe Davis and Jessica Winch.

Photographs Getty Images

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