Organization Trends

Extinction Rebellion Member and Initiator of ESG Wars Wants a Truce

Robert G. Eccles is an influential advocate of woke ESG (environmental, social, and governance) investing. But now he says that he wants a “truce” in what he calls the “Red State/Blue State ESG Culture War.” To make this supposed peace offering, the veteran combatant has enlisted the assistance of Eli Lehrer from the nominally right-leaning R Street Institute. On Memorial Day the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance posted their co-written essay promoting the proposed armistice.

It was pure gaslighting for them to call it a “culture” war. It is an economic war against American energy, the lifeblood of prosperity. Eccles is from the side solely responsible for starting the conflict, but he and Lehrer papered over that fact with a “both sides are responsible” assertion.

“Red state officials have proposed and enacted “anti-boycott” bills that bar state business with firms that divest from favored industries,” they wrote in their Memorial Day proposal. “Blue states, on the other hand, have widely considered efforts to mandate divestments from the same industries. Neither approach makes economic sense.”

As his personal website amply demonstrates, Eccles is “a leading authority on how companies and investors can create sustainable strategies through the integration of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors in resource allocation decisions.” His online bio shows that he was the “founding Chairman of the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board” and “named by Barron’s as one of the top 20 influencers in ESG investing.”

But the story is uglier than all that.

In a November 2019 essay for Forbes, Eccles announced he had joined Extinction Rebellion (XR), a serially lawless, extreme-left climate alarmist group. By the time Eccles joined, terrorism-curious XR had already publicly considered, but postponed, a horrifying plot to endanger air travelers at London’s Heathrow Airport by flying drones into its airspace. XR is responsible for dangerously shutting down major bridges, streets, and public transit in London; smashing windows at the corporate headquarters of Shell; and multiple attempts to export these tactics to other cities worldwide.

In February 2022, he once again stated his support for XR’s lawless tactics.

One year before Eccles first boasted of his membership, XR co-founder Gail Bradbrook made an ominous statement on how far XR was willing to go. “Only this kind of large-scale economic disruption can rapidly bring the government to the table to discuss our demands,” said Bradbrook. “We are prepared to risk it all for our futures.”

As I wrote in a September 2019 profile of XR for Capital Research magazine, they are the ideological heirs of eco-radical Ted Kaczynski. The Unabomber’s war against industrial civilization began with acts of property destruction. When that failed to force the change he desired, he graduated to more violent, and then murderous behavior. Ted was also “prepared to risk it all” for his vision of the future.

Strange Friends for R Street

R Street’s Eli Lehrer is likely not a fan of XR or its behavior. So, the recent intellectual collaboration with Eccles is a curious fit.

More ironically, in a recent interview of Lehrer by Eccles, Lehrer discussed his previous employment with the right-leaning Heartland Institute. Lehrer quit when—as he described it to Eccles—Heartland “decided to run an anti-climate change advertising campaign with Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, as one of the faces of it.” According to Lehrer, he “could not continue to work at the organization because of the campaign.”

Eccles described his XR membership as part of a well thought-out ESG strategy. He wrote that investment portfolio managers should support XR and encourage the investors in their funds to do so. This, he argued, would be a “powerful way of taking XR inside the business community.”

Yeah, right, that’s just where we need them to be.

Thus far, the business community writ large has not fully heeded that loopy advice. But Eccles’s ESG mob has succeeded in (still disruptive and damaging) half measures, such as a May 2021 ESG-led revolt against the board of ExxonMobil.

Engine No. 1, an activist hedge fund, set out—against the position of Exxon management—to replace four board members. The attack was made palatable to the ESG crowd because Engine No. 1 included among its list of grievances that the oil and natural gas giant needed to make a “more significant investment in clean energy” and to treat carbon emissions as “a fundamental threat to long-term shareholder value.”

From his positions at Forbes and the Harvard Business Review, Eccles relentlessly cheered on and endorsed the ExxonMobil revolt. In the Harvard Business Review, he wrote hopefully that its success might “usher in a new era in activist investing.” He congratulated major public pension funds for joining the side of Engine No.1, such as the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) and California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS).

He encouraged the world’s biggest asset management firms to do the same, and eventually they did—somewhat. Engine No.1 won the support of Vanguard, State Street Global Advisors and ESG-obsessed BlackRock—three of the world’s biggest asset managers—to replace three of four targeted board members.

One year afterward, with gasoline prices surging, President Joe Biden perversely denounced Exxon for both profiteering from high prices and not producing enough oil. Exxon shot back by bragging they had “been investing more than any other company to develop U.S. oil and gas supplies” and that this was “a reflection of the company’s long-term growth strategy, and our commitment to continuously invest to meet society’s demand for our products.”

The release made no references to carbon emissions as a “threat to shareholder value” or customers clamoring for “clean energy.” Exxon has stridently remained and richly profited from being a huge oil and gas company. Eccles didn’t get his “new era of activist investing,” to say nothing of his vastly more dangerous desire to put Extinction Rebellion’s agenda into corporate boardrooms.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Eccles and ESG-obsessed government employee pension managers were no longer the only combatants playing hardball with other people’s money.

In November 2021, the state financial officers from West Virginia, Texas, and 13 other states co-signed an open letter warning there would be repercussions for ESG-inspired assaults against the American energy industry. Those states and others enacted prohibitions against the use of an anti-energy agenda in state contracting and investments.

On the other side, ESG-obsessed states have enacted the opposite form of activism, explicitly ordering government financial officers to use an anti-energy bias in investment decisions. But that had been happening anyway, as shown by the behavior of CalSTRS and CalPERS in the Exxon board fight and Eccles cheerleading for the same.

The difference is that Eccles and the ESG mob didn’t factor in the impact of the other side hitting back.

In early May 2023, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed what Reuters described as “one of the furthest-reaching efforts yet by U.S. Republicans against sustainable investing efforts.” Days later, DeSantis announced he would run for president.

Days after that came the Eccles and Lehrer call for a truce in the ESG war. Go figure.

A Disingenuous Truce

So what the Eccles and Lehrer peace proposal really amounts to is a call for all sides to cease using tactics that have been working better for the opponents of Eccles and the rest of the Extinction Rebellion membership.

Eli Lehrer and his R Street Institute should not desire anything close to this result. And nothing on the group’s webpage shows that they do.

Then again, R Street has received at least $4.2 million since 2019 from a handful of institutional donors that otherwise give major money to stridently anti-energy nonprofits: the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Energy Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation.

For example, all five have been donors to the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) since 2019. RMI is a radical left, anti-energy nonprofit so strident that it opposes zero-carbon nuclear energy and is a leader in the recent movement to ban gas stoves.

It requires fewer mental gymnastics to think of RMI as the “Return to the Caves and Live in the Dark Institute.” If another ostensibly free-market group besides R Street shares such a creepy crossover of benefactors with the noxious RMI, then it’s difficult to imagine who that might be. His erstwhile colleagues at Heartland certainly do not.

In any case, those five left-wing foundations, Extinction Rebellion, and the ESG movement are responsible for starting the war against energy and prosperity. With good reason, Eccles has noticed that they are losing it. The disingenuous “truce” he is asking for (with Lehrer’s help) would be a return to the 2019 status quo, in which Eccles could peacefully return to pressuring asset managers into taking anti-energy investment positions with other people’s money.

Ken Braun

Ken Braun is CRC’s senior investigative researcher and authors profiles for and the Capital Research magazine. He previously worked for several free market policy organizations, spent six…
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