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Free speech row erupts after HSBC suspends banker over climate change criticism

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stuart kirk hsbc climate chaNge - FT LIVE
stuart kirk hsbc climate chaNge - FT LIVE

The head of one of HSBC’s biggest rivals has launched a defence of "free speech" after it suspended a senior banker for criticising the febrile tone of the climate debate.

Bill Winters, chief executive of the FTSE 100 bank Standard Chartered, warned that “it’s increasingly difficult to speak out against anything” following the backlash against Stuart Kirk, HSBC’s head of responsible investing.

Mr Kirk was suspended by HSBC on Sunday after he took aim at climate activists and said “who cares if Miami is six metres underwater in 100 years?”.

Speaking to The Telegraph in Davos, Mr Winters said that people “should speak their mind” and hinted that he would not have suspended Mr Kirk, calling the presentation “very colourful”.

He added: “Do I agree with the views? No. Do I encourage free speech? Yes."

It comes amid a wider push to reconsider fossil fuel investment in light of the energy crisis sparked by Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine.

In Britain, ministers are pressing oil and gas companies to invest in new projects in the North Sea just months after the COP26 climate change conference.

The chief executive of Saudi Arabia business Aramco, the world's biggest oil producer, said on Monday that more drilling is vital to prevent energy shortages.

Amin Nasser told the Financial Times: “Instead of really working on a transition that will help the world by 2050, we are pushing the world to more coal because we are not taking seriously the issue of energy security, affordability and availability." 

Mr Kirk, who is responsible investment chief in HSBC’s asset management division, said in a presentation last week that “there's always some nut job telling me about the end of the world” and argued that doom-laden climate predictions are sucking up resources and are unlikely to come true.

His comments triggered immediate calls for him to be sacked and HSBC executives quickly distanced themselves from the remarks, even though the presentation had reportedly been agreed with senior managers.

Noel Quinn, the bank's chief executive, said that the remarks were inconsistent with HSBC’s strategy.

However, there are wider concerns in the City that a fad for "ethical" investment is shutting down debate.

Accenture's Europe boss Jean-Marc Ollagnier said that he would not suspend an employee if they gave views in a personal capacity, adding it is "not our job to judge" employees' views.

In December, the head of outsourcer Serco compared ethical investors to "people who eat sausages, but don’t want to know how they are made" and warned that a reluctance to back defence companies was putting national security at risk.

Human rights activists also accused HSBC of hypocrisy for preventing discussion of climate change while refusing to condemn a brutal crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong, where it makes most of its money.

Luke de Pulford, human rights activist and coordinator of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, said: “Eye-watering double standards, and exactly what we have come to expect from HSBC. Happy to freeze the bank accounts of peaceful democracy campaigners while suspending bankers who don’t agree with the climate consensus.”

Simon Cheng, founder of Hongkongers in Britain, said: "If HSBC is so determined to show up the big sense of social responsibility… then it should not be in a harsh way to silence their employees for climate change policy, but set people and their HSBC bank accounts free to stand up to [the] repressive national security law and Chinese totalitarian regime.”

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