🌎 #269: The ESG Bubble

Quinn Emmett
March 17, 2022
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This Week, Summarized:

  • ESG's crumbling
  • COVID on the rise, funding vanishes
  • California's breadbasket at risk
  • Gene therapy pricing
  • Your biometric data for sale, part 73

Reminder: You can read this issue on the website, or you can 🎧 listen to it on the podcast (shortly).

🕛 Reading Time: 10 minutes


ESG phone


ESG could be a hell of a bubble

The news: ESG (environmental, social, and governance) investing -- in reality and reputation -- continues to crumble.

Institutional and retail investors worldwide have spent the past few years growing the ESG sector, desperate for a way to measurably clean portfolios of the stuff society has correctly decided is bad news.

Theoretically, that means some designated or at least informally agreed upon ratings provider spits out a rating, on a scale from "real bad" to "pretty good, actually", of how well your business, or a business you're considering investing in, incorporates ESG practices.

Understand it:  As we've discussed before, that's genuinely not at all how it goes, or what ESG even means in practice.

There's a boatload of agencies, they collective employ a huge variety of metrics that are, at best, shrouded in secrecy, and at worse, almost unverifiable.

It's greenwashing at its finest, a subject I covered last week, and is simply begging for some serious litigation.

If this sounds like the current carbon offsets market to you, you wouldn't be wrong. This is all profoundly unhelpful as we seek to transition to a cleaner future.

Where then, can investors put their money to most legitimately aid the transition? A transition that is now underway, but mostly out of control, where clean tech is growing quickly, but nowhere near fast enough to accommodate our growing needs, and to mitigate real-world impacts?

Great question! Plenty of places. Starting with real shit: in-house, and through corporate VC.

Decarbonizing means not only moving away from one source of power (and their funders), but building a plethora of new ones. And it's turtles all the way down, from power production and reinsurance, all the way down to precious metals and scope 3 accountability.

We're regulating for cleaner trucks, so now we need to build some.

Measuring emissions and, thus, reductions, requires new software. We need a Plaid for utilities.

There are so many places to help build, and there's never been a better time to get involved.

⚡️Action Step: Brian Kahn, now heading up Protocol's climate arm, wrote a great primer on how to build a sincere and measurable climate plan at your company. Read it, do it.


Stay safe sign


Vaccine equity update: Just 13% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose, and 36.7% of people worldwide have received no doses.

Planning for BA.2

The news: COVID is back.

The BA.2 variant of Omicron, 30% more transmissible than BA.1, but probably no more dangerous if you're vaccinated, and which has actually been hanging around for a while now, is causing an uptick in cases in some countries, like those in Europe, and mass suffering in others, like China.

Why the difference?

In wealthier countries, huge majorities of people with sequences of mRNA shots and/or exposure to the OG Omicron have antibodies, T-cells, and B-cells, ready to go.

In countries without shots, or that have used homegrown shots that aren't as effective, or that avoided Delta and BA.1, by whatever mechanism -- the outcome is much more grim.

Understand it: This was inevitable (and unnecessary).

When your N is everyone in the galaxy (as far as we know), viruses are gonna keep doing what viruses do until everyone's protected, one way or another.

Meanwhile, there's an entirely new world we need to plan for. We will someday make this virus endemic, but to be very, very clear: we're not at the end of this, we're probably in the middle.

There's no going back to "normal", because there's probably 20 million more excess dead than usual, because millions more have a version of Long COVID, more were forced back into poverty, and so many whose mental health is in tatters.

That's the world we have to build around, as we build support structures to make us less exposed to whatever comes our way next.

Politics aside (a blue whale-sized caveat), it is endlessly perplexing to me that we have chosen to prioritize the economy, but ignore that all of the above contribute to an economy and society that is fundamentally somehow even weaker than it was before, and in a moment when we can redefine economic success.

I was buoyed this week, then, to see Dr. Ashish K. Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, an outspoken advocate for something called "public health", and an actual practicing internist, selected to replace Jeff Zients.

Jeff was the hand-picked the management guru who got the United States 75% vaccinated, but who had seemingly run out of steam as we enter this next, vastly more complicated phase.

The White House may be almost entirely out of funding to fight quell this pandemic, which -- trigger alert, is fucking nuts -- but Dr. Jha could be an excellent leader.

At home, and globally, we're moving forward with what we've got: we're studying Long COVID, India has begun vaccinating millions more kids, airline mask mandates will continue for another month, but dropping universal school lunches, and trying to fight through misinformation to distribute a variety of vaccines in Africa.

⚡️Action Step: I asked Gayle E. Smith, the outgoing Coordinator for Global COVID Response and Health Security at the US Department of State, how we could do a better job of vaccinating the world. Subscribe to the pod in your player of choice to get her answers on Monday.


Palm trees


Where the water isn't wet

The news: As the Western megadrought and desertification deepen, whose job is it to salvage California (as we've known it)? Can we? Should we?

Is it down to the farmers who operate one of the world's largest breadbaskets, on increasingly little water? Is it the residents who live as if the California dream is still real?

Is it the state government, who can regulate tailpipe emissions again? Or the federal government, who actually oversees most of the state's forests? Is it the water managers protecting the hydroelectric dams? The utilities who need to bury so many power lines?

As usual, the most impactful answer is "all of the above."

Understand it:

The LA Times' Sammy Roth interviewed Alice Reynolds, the incoming president of California's ultra-powerful California Public Utilities Commission, and when asked about building out clean energy and storage, her response was equally pragmatic and optimistic:

"What we’re doing is so important to the state, and so important to the planet. We didn’t anticipate the pandemic. I don’t think we anticipated the wildfire season being so catastrophic. It’s hard to know what’s going to hit us next.

But based on the ability of the developers, the state agencies, the governor’s office, the utilities and the local governments all working together — and the contracts that have already been entered into — I have a lot of confidence that we can do this."

California is an increasingly stark example of a future we are so far unwilling to reckon with. A "confidence we can do this" is admirable, and a necessary first step.

⚡️Action Step: Read "The Dreamt Land" by California native and son of farmers Mark Arax to better understand the Golden State's byzantine water history and where we go from here.


Cancer therapy


Will gene therapies be affordable?

The news: 100 years ago, penicillin sat on Alexander Fleming's shelf until Howard Florey and squad figured out how to make it shelf-stable.

Today, gene therapies -- altering the goddamn genes inside your body's cells to try and treat or even stop disease -- are working.

Understand it: This is stupendous news. But will treatments like these be available to everyone, in a country where almost 10% of people are uninsured, and almost half of those with Sickle cell are on Medicaid?

Sure, these are relatively rare diseases, so any real treatment hope is a huge W. But new treatments for rare diseases usually bring enormous price tags, which means Medicaid may not cover them, and because of who Sickle cell mostly affects, well, now we're in danger of even greater health disparities.

⚡️Action Step: Think Better practice: Not unlike Long COVID, it's important we take a long view. The costs of gene therapy may be high, but what are the economic benefits from 100,000 people not being sick anymore? Where else does this functionally apply around you?


Face covered on phone


Your face, continued

The news: I've written quite a bit in recent months about the proliferation of facial recognition systems, data privacy, and surveillance.

With news that Ukraine's defense ministry has begun using Clearview.AI for border checks, I wanted to revisit, briefly, why it's such an essential conversation.

Understand it: Biometric data and struggles for data privacy are here to stay, and it's an increasingly complicated marriage:

On the one hand, you've got companies like Apple who use your face every day (Google/Android still mostly use your fingerprint), and billions of us mostly trust both companies to do so, because the security tradeoffs are theoretically worth it. Their entire business models and marketing are based on data security.

On the other, the software, data, and algorithms that underpin many of these systems are opaque, at best, often misunderstood and misapplied by humans who are inherently flawed (hi, it's me).

The applications are frequently misused by private companies who work directly with local, state, and national governments, and their results are even more frequently wrong, and in ways that further inequities.

So, sure, we stopped the IRS from requiring you to use ID.me (for now), but 27 states already do, and this is the key:

With cyber hacking exploding, institutions need to protect your data somehow. Humans are terrible at making and remembering difficult passwords, so something's gotta give.

⚡️Action Step: Protect what you've got and remember your data is my data. I've been a fan and user of 1Password for a long time. Get started making and storing difficult to crack passwords (and bank accounts and more) right here.


Thanks as always for reading, and thanks for giving a shit.

Have a safe weekend.

-- Quinn

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