While Sunday’s 75th annual Tony Awards show will recognize excellence on the Great White Way this past year, many of the best theatrical performances these days can be found far off-Broadway at company headquarters and annual shareholder meetings. All the corporate world is now a stage for environmental-social-governance (or ESG) activists seeking to publicly shame oil and gas companies and financial institutions into decarbonizing and redirecting capital toward favored green projects.
April, May and June are the cruelest months for corporate management teams as they spend the annual reporting and shareholder meeting season fending off growing demands for ESG policy commitments — chief among them getting to net-zero emissions and aligning with the climate targets the Paris agreement set.
Since most climate-related proxy fights have thus far failed, ESG advocates are increasingly resorting to theatrical demonstrations aimed at disrupting annual meetings and normal business operations. Acting out and acting up in public corporate settings is meant to embarrass and send a message to ESG laggards about their lack of action on climate and other progressive policy fronts.
Like Hamlet, many climate-driven ESG activists believe “the play’s the thing” to “catch the conscience” of corporate suites and boards. This annual general meeting season has seen many breakout ESG performances.
In the Best Musical category, Shell’s annual meeting was recently delayed for hours by Money Rebellion, the financial offshoot of climate protest group Extinction Rebellion, both of which are unhappy with the pace of Shell’s climate-action plan. Money Rebellion members sang “We will, we will stop you” over and over again to the tune of the chorus from Queen’s 1977 rock anthem “We Will Rock You” before the cops finally showed up.
In April, the same group disrupted the HSBC annual meeting with a flash mob singing a revised and well-harmonized rendition of ABBA’s “Money, Money, Money” to protest the bank’s continued lending to the fossil-fuels industry.
For Best Choreography, climate agitators led by Greenpeace France in late May blocked the entrance to TotalEnergies’ annual general assembly to denounce its environmental policies. Protesters were handcuffed together and sat toboggan-style in rows outside the French oil company’s Paris headquarters, preventing company shareholders from attending.
For Best Scenic Design, the Coal Action Network constructed a fake oil pipeline outside the headquarters of Lloyd’s of London the day of its May annual meeting to protest the company’s insuring of real oil pipelines in Canada and Africa, prompting many syndicate members to dial in virtually for the event.
This followed Extinction Rebellion’s shutdown of the same Lloyd’s building the previous month in a well-televised event that included the dramatic unfurling of a 40-foot banner from an external staircase reading “End Fossil Fuels Now.”
And last, in the Best Sound category, scores of environmental activists interrupted this year’s annual shareholder meetings for Barclays and ING Bank by setting off rape alarms and blowing whistles, ostensibly to draw attention to both institutions’ sizable oil and gas loan portfolios.
Today’s climate movement looks more like a doomsday cult run by theater majors than a serious attempt to change public opinion or policy. Having failed to mobilize government action or curtail consumer demand for fossil fuels, these green activists have a new corporate platform upon which to stage their productions and try out their performance art, thanks to the ESG movement sweeping the financial markets.
In the name of “civil disobedience,” these protest groups regularly engage in corporate trespassing and vandalism and tortious business interference to manufacture ESG “controversies” and pressure companies into compliance.
While many European banks and US asset-management firms (including BlackRock and Vanguard) have jumped on board the bandwagon, the irony is that by demonstrating the climate-driven ESG movement’s lack of a reasoned argument, these juvenile tactics may ultimately backfire.
To paraphrase Shakespeare, once corporate managers realize that the theatrical displays of ESG activists are “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” they may screw up their courage and finally start pushing back on the climate and broader sustainability agenda.
Paul Tice is an adjunct professor of finance at New York University’s Stern School of Business.