President Biden’s top White House economic advisor Brian Deese has promised to give environmentalism a front-and-center focus, but his record with BlackRock is drawing bitter outcry from environmentalists over the investment firm’s ties to deforestation.
“I think what you are going to see across the president-elect’s rescue-and-recovery strategy is an approach that puts solving the climate crisis at the center of creating jobs,” Deese said at a Reuters Next Conference in January.
During the three years Deese spent as head of sustainability at BlackRock, the largest investment firm in the world, the company increased its holdings tied to deforestation.
BlackRock has been dubbed the “world’s largest investor in deforestation” by Amazon Watch. According to Amazon Watch, BlackRock, in charge of nearly $8.7 trillion in assets, is among the top three shareholders of the world’s 25 largest publicly listed deforestation-risk companies.
The White House could not be reached for comment on Deese’s record with BlackRock.
A Daily Beast report found that during Deese’s 2017 to 2020 tenure, the BlackRock maintained or increased holdings widely blamed for plowing down South America’s forested regions, including one company co-owned by the Brazilian government. President Biden has threatened that government with sanctions if it does not do more to protect its rainforests.
The main sources of BlackRock’s ties to deforestation are investments in pulp, paper and palm oil companies, along with beef, rubber and timber. BlackRock’s investment in deforestation-risk commodities increased by more than half a billion dollars between 2014 and 2018.
At BlackRock, Deese, as Global Head of Sustainability worked “identifying drivers of long-term return associated with environmental, social and governance issues, integrating them throughout BlackRock’s investment processes, and creating solutions for our clients to achieve sustainable investment return.”
In interviews, Deese explained his team’s role was to determine whether a company ran financial risks related to climate change or natural resource mismanagement and to incorporate those risks into BlackRock’s investment strategy.
In December, Amazon Watch and other activist groups penned a letter calling on Deese to outline his plan for environmental racial justice, given his background. “We agree with the President-elect that naming someone as NEC Director with a clear record of climate change policy and a commitment to racial justice is necessary. However, your most recent experience working for BlackRock raises concerns over conflicts of interest,” they wrote.
Upon news that Deese would be chosen to lead the National Economic Council in late November, Sunrise Movement NYC organized a protest against his appointment. “Send a clear message to Biden: no hires with terrible climate records!” they wrote on Twitter.
“Hey @JoeBiden: Don’t let @BlackRock, the biggest funder of climate destruction in the world, into the White House!” New York Communities for Change wrote on Twitter, along with a picture of the Deese protest outside BlackRock.
“After supporting “bridge fuels” in the Obama Admin, and working for the world’s largest financier of fossil fuels and deforestation, we’d at least like Brian Deese to explain how his approach to the climate crisis will be different under Biden,” the Sunrise Movement NYC wrote in a later tweet.
Though he’s drawn harsh criticism by progressive groups, Biden has hailed Deese as the first NEC director “who is a true expert on climate policy.” Deese helped negotiate the Paris Climate Agreement while serving on the National Economic Council for President Obama. Deese worked on battling the recession in the early Obama years, but later pivoted to climate policy, where he pushed the president’s ambitious climate policy to governors and industry executives, before taking up his gig at BlackRock.
BlackRock last year announced renewed efforts to sustainability and more transparency into how it uses its stakes in the world’s largest companies. But after joining the investor coalition Climate Action 100+,the company reportedly voted down 10 of the 12 climate-related shareholder resolutions that group flagged as important.