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HSBC is being bounced out of coal, apparently. Or is it?

The bank was set up in Shanghai in the middle of the 19th century, and has had a chequered public relations history ever since

HSBC - HSBC is being bounced out of coal, apparently. Or is it?

Is it just propaganda, or does it actually mean anything?

HSBC Holdings PLC (LON:HSBC) has given itself nineteen years to extract itself from the business of coal mining globally, according to a resolution that will be tabled at its upcoming annual general meeting.

But if a week is a long time in politics, as Harold Wilson famously said, how long is nineteen years?

In terms of business cycles, it could be several lifetimes, and almost anything could have happened by the end of this arbitrary period, or indeed very little.

Another socialist, even more to the left, one VI Lenin, pointed out that “there are decades when nothing happens and there are weeks where decades happen.”

How will Greta Thunberg be behaving on Instagram in nineteen years? Indeed, will there even be an Instagram, given how bad for the environment it is to run all those banks of computers in California that support it?

Nevertheless, the world has got to get off coal, and fast.

HSBC resolution is written on the understanding that climate science is settled, and certainly this is a mainstream view that is now only seriously challenged on the right in America. But the semantics are important. Climate science consists in large part of a set of forecasts, and the idea that forecast outcomes can be settled in advance doesn’t make sense syntactically or logically.

Unless, that is, you live in a totalitarian world, where eradicating wrongspeak is more important than promoting truth.

Note HSBC’s use of language in terms of its goals. It talks in terms of meeting targets by certain dates, much in the same way as economic planning used to occur in Soviet Russia, and still does, to the degree that capitalism and state planning coalesce, in communist China.

Is there anything actually sinister in this, though?

The answer to that depends how you look at it. HSBC is just feeding the media machine the soundbites it wants to hear – coal is an eighteenth century technology in a twenty-first century world.

But, bear in mind who it was that laid the financial foundations for the modern and industrialised economy the country responsible for more of the world’s coal emissions than anywhere else, China.

It wasn’t Mao Tse-Tung or Deng Xiao-Ping. No, it goes back way beyond that, to the days when capitalism was first introduced into China by the travelling opium salesmen that ended up founding - the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. The headquarters of its old trading empire adorns the riverfront known as the Bund in Shanghai to this day.

Back when HSBC was just getting going, the holy trinity in Western religion consisted of commerce, Christianity and imperialism, and the new bank did just fine.

Now, the holy trinity in Western religion consists of environmentalism, equity, and kindness, and HSBC looks much more exposed. Yes, it’s said it will invest up to a trillion dollars – surely a number pulled out of a hat by yet another proponent of corporate-speak – in helping its customers “de-carbonise.”

But investment is its business, and in a world where coal isn’t wanted, why would it be investing in it anyway?

When all’s said and done, though, hats off to ShareAction, the activist group that has apparently forced HSBC into this undignified virtue signalling.

Unlike HSBC, ShareAction at least has a vision of the kind of world it wants to build. It appears now to be able to wield the power to make some significant impact at least at the level of corporate messaging.

Whether the impact will be meaningful at a deeper level and in longer-term is much more arguable. It’s one thing to threaten big companies with major stock market listings that are accountable under Western legal systems. To a degree, they are likely to knuckle under. But if the pressure gets too great, a more likely outcome is that they will quit the field altogether, leaving it open to some big, nasty and unaccountable behemoths, that will have no time or interest in, and who probably won’t even notice those nice liberal, middle-class pressure groups from the West.

Quick facts: HSBC PLC

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