Corporations Being “Woke” on Climate Change Is Not the Problem. It’s Also Not the Solution.

Florida governor Ron DeSantis recently decried the efforts of “woke capital” to reduce carbon emissions. Two things are true at once: his attacks are disingenuous, and supposedly environmentally conscious corporations are not going to stop climate change.

Florida governor Ron DeSantis speaking during a press conference in Miami, Florida, 2021. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

As despicable as it may be, it’s no surprise when conservative politicians try to trick vulnerable immigrants, deny health care to trans people, or restrict women’s bodily autonomy. But lately, Florida governor Ron DeSantis and other Republicans have set their sights on a more puzzling target: “woke CEOs.”

The term “woke” originates in African-American vernacular and originally meant something like “aware of racial or social injustice.” For conservatives, it’s now become a broad term of derision for any inclination to progressive change. After a feud with the Walt Disney Company earlier this year, DeSantis specified what he meant by “woke” corporations when he lambasted companies that focused on “ESG” or “environmental, social, and governance” policies.

“Through the actions I announced today, we are protecting Floridians from woke capital and asserting the authority of our constitutional system over ideological corporate power,” DeSantis said at a July press conference where he announced that the state’s investment board would be forbidden from considering ESG in making decisions with public finances.

DeSantis and other Republicans are especially opposed to companies claiming that they want to reduce CO2 emissions. Texas, West Virginia, and Oklahoma have all passed legislation threatening to prevent banks from doing business with the state governments if they lend less to the oil and gas industry, the New York Times reported.

Republicans have gone after BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, for supposedly supporting anti–climate change measures. “Our states will not idly stand for our pensioners’ retirements to be sacrificed for BlackRock’s climate agenda,” nineteen state attorneys general wrote in a letter to the company.

DeSantis’s framing shows a right-wing movement willing to use the rhetoric of culture war faux-populism — in addition to decrying “woke capital,” he referred to ESG as “crushing the little guy” — in order to prevent even small investments in reducing CO2. But what’s most revealing is the fact that fossil fuel companies and their political cronies in the GOP are publicly going after some of the financial sector’s biggest players, showing that the industry views itself as under serious threat.

Contrary to DeSantis and the chorus of Republicans, the financial industry is not beholden to any “climate agenda.” As the numerous corporate leaders the Times quoted make clear, they’re not motivated by any concern for the future of the planet; they’re just in it to make a buck. As BlackRock head Larry Fink wrote in an annual corporate letter, “Stakeholder capitalism is not about politics. It is not a social or ideological agenda. It is not ‘woke.’ It is capitalism…”

While “woke” capital in the sense DeSantis means it is a fake problem, it is an equally fake solution. Nowhere is this more apparent than at Climate Week, the massive annual corporate networking event currently taking place to coincide with the United Nations General Assembly. Ostensibly geared toward finding ways to halt climate change — yet sponsored by notorious polluters like GM, ConEdison, National Grid, and 3M, among others — the conference offers lots of closed-door sessions for those with enough clout, and panel discussions and links to Nerdwallet articles for those without.

With one faction of capitalists engaged in aggressive, well-funded denial about climate change’s existence, and another, larger faction that views it as one more chance to cozy up with the world’s politicians, it is the “capital” not the “woke” that is the root of the problem. Neither right-wing populism nor corporate greenwashing do anything of substance to address the fundamental, existential problem of rising temperatures. Only a democratic movement connecting workers and elected officials and challenging the power of corporations — woke or  not — can hope to have a real impact on climate change. The only question that matters is whether one will coalesce before it is too late.