In early 2020, BlackRock CEO Larry Fink announced that the firm was turning toward climate-friendly investments. The record, though, shows that Fink’s green branding turned out to be entirely bogus.

Larry Fink, CEO of Blackrock, attends a roundtable discussion at the COP28 Climate Conference on December 4, 2023 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Sean Gallup / Getty Images)

In early December, Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, the world’s largest private equity company, announced BlackRock was going all in on crypto currencies, helping revitalize interest in the dwindling, fossil fuel–heavy industry. This otherwise routine business story is noteworthy for one important reason: three years ago, Fink was heralded by many in business media for ostensibly helping to usher in a new, green, and sustainable brand of capitalism.

Fink now going all-in on the fossil-intensive crypto industry is a good time to review that fawning press coverage and determine what lessons can be learned from that particularly cynical news cycle of greenwashing.

For his big announcement in early 2020 that BlackRock was pivoting to climate-friendly investments, Fink received extensive positive media coverage presenting himself as a private industry advocate working to combat climate change.

With $10 trillion in assets under his management — roughly equivalent to the aggregate wealth of Latin America, and twice that of Africa — Fink argued that BlackRock could be a force of positive change for society’s most urgent problem: human-caused climate change. He received friendly coverage in the New York Times, CNBC, Bloomberg, and Fortune, all portraying Fink and BlackRock’s work as a colossal cultural shift in Corporate America away from myopic profit motive into something resembling responsible corporate stewardship of the Earth.

His motives, to be fair, were never presented as entirely altruistic — “climate risk is investment risk,” he wrote in his 2020 company investor letter. But he did make the case, one echoed by many media outlets, that curbing climate chaos could be a source of potential corporate profit.

Fink’s green brand stand turned out to be entirely bogus. By January 2022, Fink was adamantly rejecting “woke” capitalism. Weeks later, BlackRock announced it would support fewer resolutions on climate change, telling investors “we do not consider them to be consistent with our clients’ long-term financial interests.”

Just months before, BlackRock helped the Saudi state oil agency Aramco land a $15.5 billion investment to pump even more oil from the ground. A critical Morning Star analysis found that BlackRock voted against pro-climate shareholder policy proposals 80 percent of the time and was dead last among large money managers when it came to adopting thirty-four key climate-relevant resolutions proposed by shareholders.

A June 2022 column by investigator Jedd Legum in Popular Information detailed how the “multi-trillion dollar greenwashing industry,” fueled by environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issue investments, ended up being a total sieve. Citing a December 2021 Bloomberg expose on the ESG scam, Legum explained how BlackRock outsources the task of determining whether a company is included in its Environmental, Social, and Corporate governance funds and that these third-party companies use misleading metrics when making this determination. One such company’s ratings measured not actual environmental impact but “the potential impact of the world on the company and its shareholders.”

The whole framework turned out to be a cup-and-ball game of diverting responsibility for carbon from one industry to another.

The nail in the coffin came when Fink announced that BlackRock was betting big on crypto currencies early this month. “Larry Fink, the CEO of world’s largest asset manager, BlackRock, is a late convert to bitcoin,” CoinDesk reported, “but is now one of its most influential proselytizers. This year, BlackRock shocked the world by filing an application to launch an exchange-traded fund that holds bitcoin. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that BlackRock’s unexpected filing reignited interest in a crypto trading vehicle that many assumed was a lost cause.”

Crypto is a major driver of fossil fuel extraction and emissions. A recent United Nations University study of crypto’s impact on climate change wrote that “the results are shocking. In addition to a substantial carbon footprint, global Bitcoin mining activities have significant water and land footprints.” Analyzing a 2021 study, the report found that, “if Bitcoin were a country, its energy consumption would have ranked 27th in the world, ahead of a country like Pakistan, with a population of over 230 million people.”

The study’s authors concluded, “The resulting carbon footprint was equivalent to that of burning 84 billion pounds of coal or operating 190 natural gas-fired power plants. To offset this footprint, 3.9 billion trees should be planted, covering an area almost equal to the area of the Netherlands, Switzerland, or Denmark or 7% of the Amazon rainforest.”

Given Fink’s complete heel turn into climate villain, his branding as a face of responsible capitalism ought to have raised alarm bells. And, moving forward, media outlets tasked with covering business should treat similar claims of a capital-friendly strategy to tackle climate change with default skepticism.

Let’s begin by reviewing how Fink’s green brand launch was covered in early 2020.

The most egregious offender was New York Times financial columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin, who gushed over the announcement like Fink’s own personal public relations representative.

“I think we’re going to look back several years from now and look back at this moment as a watershed in terms of how business thinks about sustainability,” Sorkin told the CNBC anchor. “For many years, businesses have been talking about this, some of them have been doing certain things, but none of the big US money managers have really touched this.”

Several years have gone by, and one is curious what good Sorkin thinks came out of this. How was this a “watershed”? Why wasn’t Sorkin asking difficult questions about how BlackRock planned on measuring sustainability in its ESG funds, a concern he hand waves away in the interview, now that we know BlackRock used a distorted and misleading cup-and-ball game to hide carbon footprints and offload corporate responsibility unto smaller players?

In his New York Times column, Sorkin was equally credulous. His February 2020 article, “BlackRock C.E.O. Larry Fink: Climate Crisis Will Reshape Finance,” presented Fink as a reluctant, if sincere, force of pro-climate corporate policy. After a few obligatory “To Be Sure” paragraphs detailing how Fink was facing pushback from the Right (“the Trump administration is going in the opposite direction” and Left (“Climate activists staged several protests outside BlackRock”), the reader was given the impression that BlackRock’s pivot could be part of a broader, serious solution to our climate crisis.

“Mr. Fink’s move is a watershed — one that could spur a national conversation among financiers and policymakers,” Sorkin wrote. “The new approach may put pressure on the other large money managers and financial firms in the United States — Vanguard, T. Rowe Price and JPMorgan Chase, among them — to articulate more ambitious strategies around sustainability.”

Needless to say, none of this ended up happening. What happened was a temporary boost in BlackRock’s investment diversification and a slow decline of meaningful ESG portfolios.

The New York Times coverage wasn’t entirely favorable. The outlet published an evenhanded critique of Fink and BlackRock’s bold claims in February 2022, but its finance vertical, led by Andrew Ross Sorkin, was frequently childlike in accepting Fink’s self-promoting boosterism.

Despite the publications’ later criticism of ESG gimmicks, when Fink launched his plan in January 2020, Bloomberg was similarly guilty of several rose-tinted articles about Fink’s climate leadership.

Its article, “Even Larry Fink’s Davos Scarf Is All About Climate Change,” sounds like it was written by BlackRock’s media arm. In the article, Emily Chasan wrote, “The world is warming. Just look at Larry Fink’s scarf. The BlackRock Inc. chief executive wore a climate data-themed scarf to his interview with Bloomberg Television this week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, signaling that his newfound commitment to putting sustainability at the center of his strategy extends to his wardrobe.”

Fortune blared the headline, “BlackRock CEO Larry Fink puts climate change at center of megafund’s investment strategy,” in its rundown of the announcement. The article framed Fink as responding, in good faith, to activist pressure, presenting large money managers as potential allies in the war on climate change:

“The asset management industry is uniquely placed to help drive global decarbonization efforts, but it requires a concerted effort from all, not just the few,” said Alex Bibani, who manages a responsible investment fund at Sarasin & Partners in London, in the article. “We are pleased to see BlackRock making these positive steps and hope that others, such as Vanguard, follow suit.”

What were their positive steps, though? BlackRock’s announcement was heavy on rhetoric and “attitude shifts” and vague commitments. But without knowing how “sustainability funds” were going to be measured and enforced, why did so much business media believe BlackRock’s shift towards climate-friendly policies? Where was the initial skepticism that came months, if not years, later?

We have an extremely narrow time table for climate action: in March, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report, authored by ninety-three experts, which found that the Earth’s average temperatures are on pace to rise by 1.5 degrees Celsius unless virtually all industries radically and immediately reduce their greenhouse emissions.

Why is anyone turning to corporate giants to self-govern or transform climate goals into exotic investment opportunities, rather than demanding governments put these trillions in assets under democratic environmental controls? Surely our planet cannot afford countless more rounds of vague, vibes-driven greenwashing PR by the richest people on Earth.

Rather than pressuring corporate America to get on board with generic pledges and benchmarks thirty years in the future, the media should assume that these entities will always act solely to maximize short-term investor returns, regardless of their rhetoric, which scarfs they wear, or how much they claim they can turn saving the Earth into an exciting new investment opportunity.

You can subscribe to David Sirota’s investigative journalism project, the Lever, here.

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