Rachel Kyte: We must resist the ESG backlash to make climate progress

By Steve Valk

In a stirring speech delivered at the Citizens’ Climate Lobby conference and lobby day last month, Rachel Kyte, Dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University, warned that “green hushing” could inhibit the progress businesses are making to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adopt more sustainable practices.

The former World Bank Group Vice President and Special Envoy for Climate Change minced few words about who is behind recent efforts to intimidate companies trying to improve their performance on environmental, social and corporate governance:

“Let’s talk a little bit about the ESG storm in a teacup we’ve got going on in this country. The woke capital backlash, dear friends, is unmistakably coming from the same people who won’t say gay and the same people who want to control women’s bodies. This is not about the efficacy of the financial system. It is not about the sustainability of our communities. It is not about the financial system. It’s about control. So don’t mistake it. Don’t think you can logically explain it away. It is what it is, and it requires a political response.”

Much of the work to make the necessary transitions for our energy, food, and financial systems is being done in a voluntary framework, Kyte explained. The great threat from the ESG backlash is that “when leading companies move through voluntary frameworks and put their head above the parapet, we simply move to lop those heads off.”

The overarching theme in Kyte’s keynote was that the needed transitions will be very difficult to achieve, and nobody has all the answers. Mistakes will be made, but as long as we’re moving forward, we have to cut one another some slack.

“You have to hold the idea that in a transition you may make three steps forward and two steps back, but it is a transition. We have to hold carefully the idea that companies may make mistakes. Mayors may make mistakes. Selectmen may make mistakes. Congressmen and congresswomen may make mistakes. But as long as we are moving in the right direction, we have to have the grace to say that none of us know how this transition will actually go, but we have to keep moving in the right direction.”

Kyte lamented the fact that the COVID pandemic offered a rare opportunity for a reset on energy, but it was an opportunity squandered.

“In both fuel or energy and in food, we have harmful subsidies. Our subsidies into the energy system are twice as big now as they were before the pandemic, despite the fact that there was a window when the pandemic first hit that we knew that we had an opportunity to build back better. We knew we had an opportunity to reset and we didn’t do it. We missed the button.” 

In wrapping up her address, Kyte quoted the fiery and flamboyant New York Congresswoman Bella Abzug, with whom she worked early in her career:

“She used to scream, ‘I don’t want to be mainstreamed into a polluted river,’ and I just can’t get that image out of my mind. Because as we change our financial system,Ç we change our food system and we change our energy system, these have to be systems that not only are greener and cleaner, they have to be more equitable. They have to serve everybody, and if we can serve everybody, we will serve ourselves better. Bella, if you’re listening, I’m doing everything I can, and the people in this room are doing everything they can.”

Citizens’ Climate International co-convenes the Earth Diplomacy Leadership Initiative with The Fletcher School and enjoys a close working relationship with Rachel Kyte. The June 2023 diplomacy workshops focused on the SB58 round of United Nations Climate Change negotiations in Bonn, Germany.