Right-wing media figures are fueling outrage against ESG, an acronym for corporate standards and practices related to environment, social, and governance issues that Republican lawmakers and the fossil fuel industry are seeking to turn into a new bogeyman. Conveniently vague, ESG is being misleadingly cast as a tool for “elites” to force a tyrannical agenda on unsuspecting Americans, specifically investors, as part of the far-right “Great Reset” conspiracy theory.
The anti-ESG movement is gaining momentum fast. In May, former Vice President Mike Pence, seemingly gearing up for a potential 2024 presidential run, attacked ESG in a speech in Houston and in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. Biotech founder and conservative influencer Vivek Ramaswamy launched an explicitly anti-ESG asset management firm called Strive that same month. More recently, right-wing media spearheaded an effort to blame upheaval in the Netherlands, Sri Lanka, and other countries on green policies supposedly forced into place because of ESG compliance, warning that if the “global elites” had their way, the United States would be next.
This right-wing campaign is now targeting corporations which are implementing ESG practices and the financial institutions which are encouraging them through investment. According to Reuters, 17 conservative-led states have pushed at least 44 bills or new laws punishing companies for taking a stance on ESG issues in 2022, compared to about a dozen of these types of actions in 2021. Notably, an August 5 New York Times investigation revealed that a dark money group with deep ties to the fossil fuel industry is working with state treasurers across the country to hinder climate action in the form of anti-ESG legislation, among other tactics.
ESG is attracting more and more attention from right-wing media influencers like Elon Musk, Glenn Beck, and James Lindsay. They are part of a growing number of conservative media figures seizing the opportunity to turn ESG into the next battleground in the culture wars, in part by fitting it into the broader “Great Reset” conspiracy theory on social media. As it relates to climate change denial, the Great Reset posits that global elites are using the climate crisis as a pretext to impose economic control on the masses.
What is ESG?
On May 18, Musk took to Twitter, writing, “ESG is a scam. It has been weaponized by phony social justice warriors.” Tesla had just been kicked off of the S&P 500’s ESG index, potentially spelling trouble for the company’s stock value, and Musk was mad. It wasn’t the first time he had touched on the topic, but the media frenzy that followed had everyone asking one question: What is ESG?
From May 17-19, Google search interest in “ESG” skyrocketed by 233%, reaching peak popularity for a relatively esoteric acronym.
ESG stands for “environmental, social, and governance” criteria that companies can meet by developing initiatives and disclosures to appear responsive to environmental concerns, workers' rights, and other pressing social issues. Independent rating agencies evaluate how well they are managing risks and growth opportunities in these different areas and how that could have material impacts on their performance. For example, a company that provides detailed reporting on its greenhouse gas emissions from direct operations and across its supply chain and has a robust plan to achieve net-zero emissions may be more likely to receive a high ‘E’ score.
Investors who want to prioritize financial returns but are seeking some level of corporate accountability are increasingly relying on ESG scores to make decisions. ESG investments are on track to exceed $50 trillion by 2025. The big three asset management firms – BlackRock, Vanguard, and State Street, which have sometimes used their shareholder power to support ESG resolutions – are the main villains in the right’s anti-ESG narrative. For example, at Exxon’s annual meeting in 2021, the three firms used their voting power to help activist investors install three directors on the company's board, with the goal of building out a more aggressive strategy to transition away from fossil fuels.
But that doesn’t mean corporate ESG will save the planet. To the contrary, climate advocates have called ESG a greenwashing scam. Despite being in the S&P 500’s ESG Index, Exxon has increased its investment in oil and gas drilling and does not have a climate plan that meets the goals of the Paris agreement. But the fossil fuel industry and the lawmakers who receive lavish contributions from it aren’t concerned with legitimate criticisms of ESG.
Why ESG matters to fossil fuel proponents
It is clear that despite short-term demand rising, fossil fuels are not viable long-term investments. However, fossil fuel industry allies are clawing to keep their power and profits, discouraging any corporate commitment to climate by vilifying and even prohibiting adherence to ESG standards while advancing pro-oil and gas legislation at the state and federal levels that prohibits investment and business decisions from considering the economic and environmental consequences of fossil fuels. What’s more, Republican legislators are vowing to continue this trend if they take control of the House in the November midterm election.
In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision to hamstring the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency in June, ESG opponents are now calling for the court to place similar limits on the Securities and Exchange Commission and its ability to ask public companies for disclosures about their climate impacts.
Right-wing culture warriors, conspiracy theorists, and Fox News hosts are attacking ESG
The burgeoning conservative campaign against ESG isn’t just playing out in state legislatures or financial institutions. ESG panic may be approaching critical mass, with high-profile climate skeptics like Tucker Carlson, Marc Morano, Alex Epstein, and Michael Shellenberger realizing that the acronym is ripe for manipulation and fearmongering.
Some key media figures in the right-wing campaign against ESG, such as radio host and conspiracy theorist Glenn Beck and anti-critical theory activist James Lindsay, jumped at the chance to amplify several attacks from Musk in an effort to move ESG into the mainstream discourse.
These anti-ESG evangelists aren’t just concerned with protecting oil and gas interests. Their grievances are often focused on the social and governance aspects as well, applying the same flawed arguments to specific examples to deride and toxify ESG as a whole.
Musk: “ESG is the devil incarnate”
Musk’s vendetta against ESG is personal, and it has been building at the same time his faltering deal to buy Twitter with the goal of stopping the “woke mind virus” has transformed him into a reactionary martyr.
Musk first took to Twitter with his ESG grievances on March 8, claiming, “ESG rules have been twisted to insanity,” replying to a tweet from venture capitalist and Facebook board member Marc Andreessen.
- The Daily Wire’s coverage of the comment has garnered more Facebook interactions than any other U.S.-based right-wing article mentioning “ESG” since 2020. It was also shared by Daily Wire influencers Matt Walsh and Michael Knowles.
- Dark money-funded PragerU, which has denied the established science of climate change in its videos, edited the thumbnail of an older anti-ESG video to feature Musk and his tweet.
On April 3, Musk tweeted, “I am increasingly convinced that corporate ESG is the Devil Incarnate,” cueing up another right-wing media pile-on.
- Several conspiracy theorists and far-right characters chimed in, with some invoking the “Great Reset” conspiracy theory. Right-wing news coverage did the same.
- Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX), who has received well over half a million dollars from the fossil fuel industry and has a large social media following, used Musk’s statements to blame high gas prices on ESG instead of price gouging and dedicated an entire episode of his podcast, Hold These Truths, to the supposed evils of ESG.
On May 18, Musk wrote his infamous “social justice warriors” tweet, which has over 360,000 interactions.
- Fox News and Fox Business both ran a variety of segments on Musk’s tweet, calling ESG a scam, defending Musk as a victim of censorship, and interviewing lawmakers pushing anti-ESG legislation.
On May 26, Fox host Laura Ingraham dedicated an entire segment of The Ingraham Angle to fearmongering about ESG, citing Musk at the outset.
Glenn Beck: “Elon Musk Joins Glenn in Anti-ESG Crusade”
Beck is not new to ESG. The right-wing TV and radio host was an early adopter of the “Great Reset” conspiracy theory in 2020 following the World Economic Forum’s annual Davos summit, along with Steve Bannon, Alex Jones, and a slew of other conservative influencers. He has also been weaving ESG into this theory, which has been aptly described as a “hodgepodge of one-world-government fears.”
- In December 2021, Beck insisted that Citigroup’s implementation of ESG scores for its clients was part of “the Davos plan” to prevent individuals from getting loans.
- In January, Beck claimed that the Davos elites are “designing everything – everything – in your life,” including the climate crisis, for the purpose of implementing the Great Reset, in part through ESG.
Beck worked with the fossil fuel-funded Heartland Institute, to help spread his message. Heartland has been testifying before lawmakers in several states to back anti-ESG legislation, providing them with misleading information about how financial institutions are implementing ESG strategies. Beck even wrote a book with Heartland Editorial Director Justin Haskins. In one video Beck claimed that “there are now 20 states that are starting to put anti-ESG legislation in because of his book.”
- In February, Beck did indeed talk to at least one state legislature in Idaho, calling ESG “CRT on steroids.” (In March, the Idaho legislature passed a bill aimed at discouraging state investment boards from making ESG considerations.)
- In an April 4 video titled “Elon Musk Joins Glenn in Anti-ESG Crusade,” Beck praised Tesla as a company and noted that Musk’s provocative tweets have sparked more conversations around ESG and lent credibility to criticism, especially given his perceived commitment to addressing the climate crisis.
James Lindsay: “We’re going to do to ESG what we did to CRT”
Lindsay, a critical theory opponent, has emerged as a loud ESG critic, particularly on Twitter. Lindsay is an influential figure in the “critical race theory” panic. He was also instrumental in popularizing the baseless “groomer” slur which has been used to target LGBTQ people and falsely suggest they are child predators. (Lindsay was recently permanently suspended from Twitter, where he had over 300,000 followers, for calling a trans Harvard instructor a “child sexualization specialist.”)
Now, similarly to Beck, Lindsay is using his influence to spotlight ESG as a key feature of the Great Reset conspiracy theory, becoming increasingly obsessed with the topic and anyone who he feels could give it momentum – especially Musk. More broadly, Lindsay is focused on gathering a smorgasbord of right-wing grievances under the umbrella of ESG, with the intent of building a nearly all-encompassing cause for conservative activists to rally behind. Unlike some of the lawmakers who are primarily targeting climate-conscious businesses, Lindsay’s interest is more aligned with attacking the “social” aspect of ESG, which includes Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion efforts (DEI).
- He has taken aim at any efforts to combat discrimination at companies such as Starbucks, falsely labeling DEI initiatives as critical race theory or “Woke Marxism,” and writing, “DEI won’t go away until after ESG is defeated. It’s a slightly separate fight, but it doesn’t even start until ESG is in ashes.”
- He has also targeted Disney and linked it to ESG in order to feed into the homophobic and transphobic right-wing false accusation that LGBTQ people are predators.
- He first started writing about ESG in March 2021 on Twitter, around the same time that Beck started posting about the topic. Lately, though, he’s been writing extreme statements about ESG almost every day across social media. Many of these appeared in his tweets, which had thousands of likes and retweets, but are no longer available due to his suspension.
In May, Lindsay wrote that “we’re going to do to ESG what we did to CRT,” in response to an article from The New Republic examining ESG’s role in the broader culture wars. The article highlighted Musk’s tweets and noted that anti-critical race theory and anti-ESG groups have common funders.
Lindsay repeatedly attempted to engage with Musk about ESG on Twitter, encouraging and agreeing with his objections to ESG and praising Tesla and SpaceX. On Facebook, he invoked Musk when posting about the issue, and generally jumped to his defense in the face of any criticism
- In May, he addressed the “ESG Cartel” in a short episode of his New Discourses podcast and appeared on I’m Right with Jesse Kelly, where he talked about having conversations with lawmakers in “maybe a dozen states” regarding ESG and DEI and linked it to the influence of the World Economic Forum.
In June, he was a guest on The Charlie Kirk Show, to discuss how ESG is part of a “Marxist theology.”
ESG is seemingly poised to continue gaining traction
If we learned anything from the rise of critical race theory to a national issue and right-wing media obsession, it’s that underestimating the right-wing media’s ability to create a moral panic out of opaque terminology has serious consequences. Musk’s tweets were all that right-wing media figures and conspiracy theorists needed to expand attacks on ESG. Now, conservative TV news outlets have picked up on the narrative. With midterms approaching, so is the opportunity to mobilize voters and shareholders against this new iteration of ever-evolving “woke” ideology.
There are legitimate concerns about ESG. But even if it isn't an effective path toward decarbonization, permitting a maliciously misleading interpretation conceived by the fossil fuel industry and its allies to dominate the media cycle certainly won’t get us there, and may even further demonize various types of climate action.