HSBC has suspended one of its top bankers over a rant about climate change in which he said ‘who cares if Miami is underwater’ and ‘nutjobs are always warning about the end of world’.
Stuart Kirk, the global head of responsible investing at HSBC Asset Management, made the inflammatory comments during a speech at a conference on Thursday.
Senior figures at HSBC, one of the biggest banks in the world, have come out to condemn his comments after they sparked a scandal.
This is despite the title of the presentation – ‘Why investors need not worry about climate risk’ – being agreed two months in advance and publicized online in the run-up to the event.
The theme, content and slides of the talk had also been agreed to internally, sources told The Financial Times.
Stuart Kirk is the global head of responsible investing at HSBC Asset Management. He said ‘nutjobs’ were always predicting the ‘end of the world’
He added: ‘Who cares if Miami is six meters underwater in 100 years? Amsterdam has been six meters underwater for ages and that’s a really nice place. ‘ Pictured: Front side beach, Miami (File image)
Opening the speech, Mr Kirk said: ‘Climate change is not a risk we need to worry about – heresy!’
He continued: ‘I feel like it’s getting a little bit out of hand, the constant reminder that we are doomed. The constant reminder that in decades it’s all over. It’s become so hyperbolic that no one knows how to get people’s attention any more.
‘After 25 years in the finance industry there’s always some nutjob telling me about the end of the world.
‘But what bothers me about this one, is the amount of work these people make me do, the amount of regulation coming down the pipes, the number of people in my team and at HSBC dealing with financial risks from climate change.’
How scientists have predicted Miami will ‘cease to exist’ by next century
Scientific studies have previously warned Miami is at risk of being inundated by rising seas caused by global warming.
Experts have already established that if we do nothing to reduce our burning of fossil fuel up to the year 2100, the planet will face sea level rise of 14-32 feet (4.3–9.9 meters), a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences said.
The 2015 study then pinpointed 414 cities in the US that were particularly at risk. Many could be saved if dramatic cuts were made to carbon emissions, but some – including Miami – were already doomed, it claimed.
‘In our analysis, a lot of cities have futures that depend on our carbon choices but some appear to be already lost,’ wrote lead author Ben Strauss, vice president for sea level and climate impacts at Climate Central.
‘And it is hard to imagine how we could defend Miami in the long run.’
Left-wing Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has gone further, suggesting that Miami will cease to exist ‘in a few years’ without radical action.
Mr Kirk suggested to many resources were being directed at a problem that is ’20 or 30 years down the line ‘.
‘I work at a bank that’s being attacked by crypto. We’ve got regulators in the US trying to stop us. We’ve got the China problem.
‘We’ve got a housing crisis looming. We’ve got interest rates going up.
‘We’ve got inflation coming down the pipes and I’m being told to spend time… looking at something that’s going to happen in 20 or 30 years. Hence, the proportionality is completely out of whack. ‘
He added: ‘Human beings have been fantastic at adapting to change, adapting to climate emergencies, and we will continue to do so.
‘Who cares if Miami is six meters underwater in 100 years? Amsterdam has been six meters underwater for ages and that’s a really nice place.
‘I don’t doubt the science but we do need to adapt.’
HSBC says that climate change is one of the most serious emergencies facing the planet, but Mr Kirk suggested it is not a big deal for the high street bank.
He explained: ‘At a big bank like ours, what do people think the average loan length is? It is six years. What happens to the planet in year seven is actually irrelevant to our loan book. For coal, what happens in year seven is actually irrelevant. Let’s get back to making money out of the transition. ‘
He also took a pop at former Bank of England governor Mark Carney, who has previously said that climate change will dwarf the cost of living pain.
‘I completely get that at the end of your central bank career there are still many, many years to fill in.
‘You have to say something, you have to fly around the world to conferences, you have to out-hyperbole the next guy, but I feel like it is getting a little bit out of hand,’ said Kirk.
Mr Kirk revealed this slide which he produced ‘just to annoy people’ to show how the number of times ‘climate catastrophe’ had been written about in the press ‘risk’ assets had continued to go up
He also took a pop at former Bank of England governor Mark Carney, who has previously said that climate change will dwarf the cost of living pain
Mr Kirk argued that the financial risk from climate change was not significant and is far down the line
The Cambridge graduate has now been suspended pending an investigation, sources at HSBC told the FT.
Cambridge graduate who used to edit the FT’s Lex column
Mr Kirk has been Global Head of Responsible Investing at HSBC for 11 months after previously serving as Global Head of Research and Insights.
He is a former editor of the FT’s Lex column. He has also worked for Deutsche Bank, DWS asset management and management consultancy Oliver Wyman.
Mr KIrk gained an MA in Economics at Cambridge University, where he studied from 1992 to 1995.
Over the weekend, chief executive Noel Quinn and Nuno Matos, head of HSBC’s wealth and personal banking business, both tried to distance themselves from the comments in social media posts.
‘I do not agree – at all – with the remarks made at [this] week’s FT Moral Money Summit, ‘Mr Quinn wrote on LinkedIn.
‘They are inconsistent with HSBC’s strategy and do not reflect the views of the senior leadership of HSBC or HSBC Asset Management.
‘We have a lot of work to do, and I am determined that our team won’t be distracted by last week’s comments.’
Mr Matos said: ‘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. ‘
While HSBC refused to say whether Kirk was at risk of losing his job because of the comments, the bank’s asset management chief Nicolas Moreau said Kirk’s opinions ‘do not reflect the views of HSBC Asset Management nor HSBC Group in any way’.
He added: ‘HSBC regards climate change as one of the most serious emergencies facing the planet, and is committed to supporting its customers in their transition to net zero and a sustainable future.’
Mr KIrk argued human beings are excellent at adapting to change and would also be able to adapt to climate change
A graph Mr KIrk produced to argue that climate change risk will not become an issue for decades
Mr Kirk is a former editor of the FT’s Lex column. He has also worked for Deutsche Bank, DWS asset management and management consultancy Oliver Wyman.
Activists have been calling for him to be sacked.
‘HSBC should be asking Mr Kirk to resign: his comments are inexcusable and completely neglect the impacts of the climate crisis being felt by the global south right now,’ said Beau O’Sullivan, senior campaigner on the Bank on our Future campaign.
‘Sadly, he’s probably not the only bad apple within HSBC given its record of funding climate destruction.’
The bank has not yet issued a formal statement on the reported suspension of Mr Kirk and was not immediately available for comment.
It is particularly embarrassing for HSBC, which has been seeking to boost its green credentials, with investors recently voting to back a new climate pledge.
The group put the plans to vote at its annual general meeting after pressure from shareholders, including ShareAction, a group with more than 2.4 trillion US dollars (£ 1.7 trillion) invested in global assets.
Mr Kirk was appointed to head up HSBC’s responsible investing unit in July 2021 – a role that involves looking at the risks to investments of environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues.
HSBC has been contacted for comment.
He said: ‘Human beings have been fantastic at adapting to change, adapting to climate emergencies, and we will continue to do so’