Careers and climates

Becoming and being a climate finance practitioner

in Focaal
Author: Aneil Tripathy1
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Abstract

 Climate finance has grown rapidly. What does this mean for people who construct careers in finance that leverage expertise to frame sustainability and climate change as investment decisions? What do their identities mean for the markets they create? This article examines how the careers of climate finance professionals impact them both as professionals and as people. I examine what climate action and impact mean in their decision-making. I find that practitioners interpret their careers around pivotal decisions that brought them into climate finance. This moralistic decision-making embedded in practitioner biographies highlights the effect of a particular ethical field in climate finance. In producing climate finance instruments through performative and data work, people transform into climate finance professionals.

Since 2008, “climate finance” and other forms of explicitly labeled “moral money” have grown rapidly. Climate finance is composed of investment instruments such as green bonds that are directed toward projects labeled as “climate change solutions.”1 These financial instruments are linked to infrastructure projects such as public transit, renewable energy, and water management that are often evaluated in terms of carbon emissions intensity and future climate change scenarios. Climate finance reflects a new purveyance of the financial industry: its explicit management of environment- and climate-related public concerns (Tripathy 2017; Whitington 2020). Increasingly, the climate impact of investments is included in investment documents and is evaluated by financial practitioners. What is considered climate impact in finance reflects a particular data-centric construction of materiality by climate finance professionals (Leins 2020; Whitington 2016, 2020). With this shift, there is a growing number of people with labeled expertise in finance relating to sustainability and climate change.

What does the growth of climate finance mean for the people who have constructed careers in this field? The tension between current extractive and environmentally damaging practices in finance and the facts of climate change creates climate finance. For climate finance practitioners working in the financial industry, the ethics of their work rests on how they evaluate their actions in the present as well as in the future. Debate and critique of the potential and negative impacts of climate finance and the financial industry more broadly throughout history are not limited to scholars of the trajectory of capitalism but also form an important stream of thought within climate and sustainable finance itself (Bracking 2019; Gilbert and Sklair 2018; Jones et al. 2020; Keucheyan 2016). As one climate finance practitioner explained to me via a message on WhatsApp during the COVID-19 pandemic:

Sustainable finance, as you know, is mostly self-serving BS from the asset management industry :—) we shall see if this crisis manages to reorient US and global capitalism toward a more productive and sustainable path. But it looks like the oligopoly will only be strengthened.

In this text message, the practitioner emphasizes his frustration with sustainable finance bullshit (BS) while still prefacing this phrasing with ambivalences such as “mostly” and “we shall see.” This practitioner continues to work in sustainable finance, moving in between financial sustainability data startups, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and sustainable finance media outlets. Through these career moves, he continues to try to find a position where he will be able to work on real change in finance, with as little BS as possible.

This practitioner and others in climate finance shape their careers through the articulation of a personal ethics that arises from their anxieties and hopes around climate action related to their work (Callison 2015; Malkki 2015; Watanabe 2019). I argue that their positions in climate finance require them to demonstrate and believe in a personal ethics that they narrate in their career biographies. This is a result of the ambiguous potential of climate finance to decrease the climate change impacts of financed economic activity. This causes them to engage in ethical work that is a type of “near-advocacy,” as Candis Callison uses the term to describe the advocacy work of climate scientists beyond their scientific prognosis of climate change (2015: 167). I argue that the facts of climate change and continual debate around greenwash in sustainable and climate finance creates an ethical field that frames and shapes the career narratives and decision-making of climate finance practitioners.

The people and forms of expertise in climate finance exist in this ethical field. The ethics of climate finance are ultimately grounded in facts that promote both skepticism and particular views on how to impact the world (Archer 2021). The ethical labor of climate finance practitioners ultimately rests within this critical juncture around governing the earth's climate. Liisa Malkki's (2015) discussion of humanitarian ethics in The Need to Help highlights how personal ethics can develop within a financial global system of inequality. Similarly in the context of climate finance, personal ethics are forged within the constraints of finance and the production of knowledge on global climate change. The effects of financialization in combination with environmental and climate concerns engenders the formation of a new category of people and expertise rather than alienation.

The extension of finance into climate finance is concurrent with a range of ethical and material capitalist projects. The language and structure of these projects and their legitimizing effect for finance at large has been studied by anthropologists. Sohini Kar (2018) shows how financiers use ethical language to legitimize an existing profit-driven agenda in the context of microfinance without actually improving livelihoods for the people targeted by microfinance projects. Similarly, Dinah Rajak (2011a, 2011b) argues that the growing corporate and social responsibility (CSR) sector legitimizes profit-seeking instruments, through performative events of consensus that feign pluralistic discourse. Jessica Smith (2021) outlines how engineering consultants navigate ethical ambiguities with CSR through their work.

At the macro-scale, the legitimization of finance's for-profit structure can also support the further exclusion of states as legitimate market regulators and social service providers (Knudsen et al. 2020). This is particularly relevant in the trend among public policymakers to promote managed and designed markets. Here, markets are deferred to as the primary implementers of social services (Nik-Khah and Mirowski 2019). In calls for managed and regulated markets, finance continues to expand its purveyance along with its critiques (Silver 2017).

Within climate finance, the green bond market has grown rapidly. The green bond market is composed of bonds financing infrastructure with supposed climate and environmental benefits. Between 2014 and 2021, I have worked in and studied the green bond market as an anthropologist with several roles as an intern, policy researcher, executive associate, and academic research coordinator at the Climate Bonds Initiative, an NGO based in London focused on “mobilizing debt capital markets for climate change solutions.” In practice, this slogan means both evaluating and promoting green bonds and other forms of environmental and climate labeling in the bond market. I began my fieldwork right when the green bond market started to grow dramatically, from $53.2 billion total issuance in 2014 to $1 trillion in December 2020 (Whiley 2020).

To better understand anxieties and hopes in evaluations of climate finance and labeled finance for good overall, in this article I present the career narratives of five responsible climate finance practitioners. I encountered these interlocutors while conducting fieldwork in climate finance and have both tracked their careers and been told their career narratives. My fieldwork seeks to comprehend the lived experiences of climate finance practitioners that shape the green bond market as well as climate and sustainable finance more broadly. As climate finance continues to develop, a longitudinal study of the careers and personal decision-making of people at work in this sector is important to identify the possibilities and limits of climate finance. This article initiates such documentation and analysis in the green bond market.

People in finance

Within the anthropology of finance, there is a long tradition of looking at processes of subjectification within finance (Hertz 1998; Ho 2009; Miyazaki 2013; Preda 2009; Rudnyckyj 2018; Souleles 2019; Zaloom 2006). This includes Ellen Hertz's description of the types of people involved in stock trading in Shanghai and Caitlin Zaloom's study of the transformation of working-class boys from Bethnal Green into open outcry traders (Hertz 1998; Zaloom 2004). Similarly to Islamic finance, where Shariah law experts come to the table with financial regulators and policymakers, producing new forms of markets and expertise, climate finance lends itself to new identity formations (Archer 2021; Rudnyckyj 2018: 10). Identity formation in response to sustainability and climate change work has been found in a range of sustainability contexts (Archer 2021; Callison 2015; Choy 2003; Watanabe 2019). This is an important area for anthropologists to study, given the role of the financial industry in connecting and framing the relationships between global elites and communities around the world (Gilbert and Sklair 2018). Identity in climate finance centers on expertise and ethics at the intersection of finance and climate change.

In this article, I present five of my interlocutors’ career biographies. Each biography demonstrates an element at play in climate finance careers as well as in how professionalization in this space has transformed over the last ten years. Network for Sustainable Financial Markets cofounder Raj Thamotheram shows that, just as green bonds are distinguished from bonds, climate finance practitioners and proclaimed change-makers in finance distinguish themselves from traditional financiers. Climate Bonds Initiative CEO Sean Kidney demonstrates that this distinguishing can be motivated by holistic life philosophies that go beyond the human and that are grounded in the environment itself.

Depicting the experience of a more recent generation of climate finance practitioners, the career of green bond market analyst Georgia Waters shows that becoming a climate finance practitioner can result in societal pressure that practitioners navigate through job choices. Green bond policy analyst Linnea Sonegstud's career trajectory emphasizes the struggle experienced in establishing a sustainable work–life balance that also provides work she considers to be impactful. Xing Liu's career biography shows how the growth of climate finance across countries creates particular livelihoods and types of professionalized pathways.

These case studies highlight the individual and organizational change that has occurred in climate finance over the last decade. Between generations of practitioners, career trajectories have become more standardized. While there has been change in the type and trajectory of climate finance careers, similarities emerge across generations of climate finance practitioners. Within their career biographies, my interlocutors present key decision-making moments in their lives that brought them to their climate finance careers. These decisions carry a moral weight that underscores that climate finance operates as an ethical field, similarly to Dinah Rajak's finding in CSR of a theater of virtue that is intimately tied to the materiality and facts of climate change (Beunza 2019; Latour 2018; Rajak 2011b). In parallel to this, Sean Field (2022) argues that responsibility crafts decision making amongst private equity oil investors.

Who become climate finance practitioners?

The demographics of climate finance mirror the demographics of mainstream finance, save for gender. The financial industry as a whole is overwhelmingly white and male (Ho 2009; Souleles 2019; Zaloom 2006). In contrast, a survey of 828 sustainable finance practitioners in 46 countries by Responsible Investor found participants to be 73 percent Caucasian and 52 percent female (Fristch 2019). Some 55 percent of participants had worked in sustainable finance for five years or less, marking the youth of this sector. Responsible Investor's survey found that the racial diversity of sustainable finance mimics mainstream finance in its overwhelming whiteness (Souleles 2019). However, the gender balance is more equal than the average in traditional finance.

Within the sustainable finance context of racial homogeneity, the Climate Bonds team was the most racially and geographically diverse team in the London office the company shared with several other climate-change-focused organizations. However, this diversity was not the result of a planned recruiting strategy. The majority of Climate Bonds’ first personnel were a result of who was working on projects adjacent to the company and who ran into Sean, the company's CEO, at speaking engagements and events. Part of this diversity was from the company's concerted efforts to build relationships, offices, and networks in Mexico, Brazil, Nigeria, India, Italy, China, Japan, and the United States. In my focus on five interlocutor practitioners here, two are women, three are men, and three are white.

The Responsible Investor sustainable finance careers survey was organized by Dennis Fritsch. Given the hybridity of those in sustainable finance, Fritsch's own journey from studying marine biology and completing a PhD in neuroscience to ending up as a sustainable finance researcher seems emblematic of the field. Reflecting on this, Dennis told me that in Germany you are looked at strangely if your job is not something you were explicitly trained to do. He experienced this prejudice and found refuge through developing his career in the United Kingdom. In Dennis's opinion, in the United Kingdom you can be more flexible with your career path and move into roles beyond your academic training.

While this work flexibility is empowering in Dennis's experience and for many of my sustainable finance interlocutors, Dennis also stressed to me the potential downside of having sustainable finance develop with a lack of direct scientific expertise. Dennis worried about the potential loss of expertise between sustainable finance practitioners and scientists on key topics from climate change to biodiversity loss. He thinks it is critical for scientists to be involved in decision-making on biodiversity loss and ecosystem management to account for and act on climate change.

The environmental and climate knowledge transferred by one-week training courses and executive education in sustainability that many sustainable finance practitioners rely on is insufficient in Dennis's view. These courses cannot adequately communicate the scientific knowledge that the sustainable finance community purports to translate into the language and workings of the financial industry. This concern is echoed by Kim Schumacher (2020) in a Responsible Investor commentary on the risk of “competence greenwashing.”

Dennis's anxiety reflects the tension in the career of sustainable finance practitioners. Their work entails interpreting climate and environmental degradation scenarios and bringing this interpretation into financial markets in a format that ideally will influence investment flow away from worsening these negative impacts (Bracking 2015, 2019). This negotiation is ongoing, and practitioners must grapple with anxieties about the future and balancing their work and life in the present.

The concern among practitioners about the growth of the sector and the creation of expertise in sustainable finance itself highlights moral and ethical obligations in climate and sustainable finance. Among practitioners, their stories of embarking on careers in climate finance often center on key moral decisions. Their career biographies can provide us with an understanding of dynamics and possibilities within climate finance that demographic surveying cannot discern.

Beginnings of climate finance

From my interlocutors’ perspectives, the first climate financiers were deviant in mainstream finance, as they argued that climate change was financially relevant. The field has since become mainstream as its markets have grown. Their belief in the possibility of climate finance—that the financial industry could look beyond what was considered to be fundamental analysis of financial performance—made them deviant and questionable to mainstream financiers.

While climate finance practitioners were initially unable to get meetings with investment bankers, now many investment banks have established in-house sustainable/climate finance teams, and climate finance NGOs that mostly started out of foundation funding have become established entities with multiple funding streams from private and public institutions. What began as smaller conversations and roundtables financed by the Rockefeller Foundation and other NGOs and supported later by policymakers have now been picked up at a full scale by mainstream financial institutions (Madsbjerg 2018).

Emic conversations on sustainable finance as deviancy frame this sector as positive deviancy. This framing of deviancy shapes the career biographies of the first generation of climate finance practitioners, who describe years of marginal conversations that did not get any traction in larger financial institutions. The term “positive deviancy” began in public health, with a specific Save the Children program targeting malnutrition in Vietnam (Gawande 2007: 24–27; Sternin et al. 1997). This study demonstrated how families that were already breaking with conventional childcare wisdom in a malnourished area could show better outcomes than the norm. The public health experts working on this project sought out these deviants to take what they were doing and make their practices a social norm, and this became an increasingly utilized practice in public health (Singhal and Dura 2017).

Finance activist Raj Thamotheram expanded on positive deviancy in his coining of the term “positive maverick.” He thought the term could carry the meaning of positive deviancy as well as be more palatable to corporate and finance offices than deviancy. This negotiation was part of Raj's perspective on how “changing the system always involves negotiation. Positive deviance was too much for finance professionals even though some companies are ok with using it.” Raj views his work as being focused on stewardship related to core business models. Raj viewed deviancy to be too negative a term and decided to replace “deviant” with “maverick.” The etymology of “maverick” traces to Samuel Maverick, a Texan cattle rancher who did not brand his cattle, finding the practice to be cruel to cattle as well as unnecessary for him to do as all other ranchers branded their cattle in any case (Rajaram and Shelly 2012).

The word “activist” in finance has two traditions. Shareholder activists rose with South African apartheid in the 1960s. In the 1980s, being a shareholder activist became associated with Gordon-Gekko-like characters who attempted to “reform” corporations from greedy CEOs to bring financial value to shareholders (Welker and Wood 2011: S62). These dual meanings of the word “activist” in finance illuminate a perceived public–private division and framing of finance by financial experts. Here, there are notions of activism and accountability tied to shareholders and responsibility that take on a public feeling while capital and power remain attached to private institutions (Partridge 2011; Welker and Wood 2011). These dual notions of “activist” in finance underscore the ambiguity between public and private spheres that furthers processes of financial governance.

Framing himself as a positive maverick and an activist, Raj Thamotheram, a pioneer in climate risk while working in mainstream financial institutions early on in the growth of sustainable finance, describes his career trajectory and that of his peers as being those of positive mavericks. In an online post of the think tank he founded, Preventable Surprises, he states:

I've been fortunate to have two of the best jobs in the ESG sector [environmental and social governance]—as head of RI [Responsible Investment] at a large UK pension fund (USS) and then being headhunted to the same role at a very large global fund manager (AXA IM). I would not have got either post had it NOT been for my out of the box thinking. As someone who isn't “into” quant analysis or box-ticking activity, and with little knowledge of the investment industry when I entered it, my managers made a contrarian appointment choice and they weren't disappointed. In my role first as cofounder of the Network for Sustainable Financial Markets and now as founder of Preventable Surprises, I have had the honor to work with a growing band of positive mavericks. Positive mavericks also have to struggle with intellectual indoctrination. I left AXA IM specifically to set up Preventable Surprises. But despite that, it took a full 18 months for the self-censorship to fully wash out! (Thamotheram 2017)

In Raj's case, after working to unlearn his habits from his previous sustainable finance jobs, he started to speak explicitly about how investors enable corporate and market dysfunctionality. Raj had to do self-work to become an effective climate-aware investment professional in his view. This work helped counter the ethos of finance that can co-opt sustainable finance to only legitimize preexisting financial decision-making, as Stefan Leins (2020) documents with regard to the integration of ESG into a Swiss bank's financial practices.

I met Raj at the NGO ShareAction's summer party in a woodworking shop on Brick Lane in London's East End in July 2017. ShareAction sends volunteers to the Annual General Meetings of corporations to push shareholders on ESG concerns. That day, Raj won a lifetime achievement award from the NGO for his work as a finance activist. At the summer party, attendees were worried that he would not be able to make it to receive his award due to physical and mental exhaustion from ongoing chemotherapy treatments. Raj was diagnosed with cancer in 2016, right at the same time as the election of Donald Trump and only a couple months post the UK Brexit vote. Raj—a first-generation UK immigrant whose parents left Sri Lanka due to communal violence—reflects on this timing and his own experience of cancer, and calls for greater investor action to stem the rise of populist politics in a short piece for Investment and Pensions Europe.2

Throughout his climate, sustainable, and activist investment finance career, Raj has used his personal narrative as a calling point for his professional decision-making and to support the development of organizations that could build new norms in the financial industry at large. Raj was a cofounder of the Network for Sustainable Financial Markets and was involved in the design and launch of the UN Principles of Responsible Investing (UNPRI). He set up the Enhanced Analytics Initiative and Institutional Investor Group on Climate Change, and cofounded Pharma Shareowners Group and Pharma Futures.

Growth of climate finance organizations

One of the organizations that Raj was instrumental in creating, the Network for Sustainable Financial Markets (NSFM), was a platform from which the organization that I embedded myself in as an anthropologist, the Climate Bonds Initiative, emerged. This network is an ad hoc collaboration of “academics and financial market participants” focused on creating a financial system that will provide society with “long-term sustainable value” (NSFM 2021). The conversations that created NSFM started in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC), as the systemic risk that mortgage-backed securities and their derivatives had exposed, made financiers think about other forms of systemic risk, climate change being one. However, the main ESG organizations at the time—UNPRI and International Corporate Governance Network (ICGN)—were, according to Raj, “unwilling or unable” to address the GFC. This pushed Raj and the other cofounders to focus on the underlying weakness of the ESG field, namely its lack of desire to really address systemic risk. Participants in the NSFM wanted to figure out how to make financial institutions account for climate risk in their decision-making, and green bonds were one way of doing this.

Sean Kidney became an active member of the NSFM. It was partially out of this network that Sean and his cofounder Nick Silver launched the Climate Bonds Initiative in 2009. In his words, Raj “helped Sean network in the UK and socialize his early thinking and was also one of the early members of the Climate Bonds’ Advisory Council.” In Raj's opinion, “professional networks are critical in the corporate/finance world and change agents need them even more so.” In part with Raj's help, Sean brainstormed and later launched the Climate Bonds Initiative.

An enigmatic CEO

While I conversed with Sean extensively throughout my fieldwork, he told me his personal career narrative while we went kayaking on the Charles River through Cambridge and Boston. After an early morning meeting with a Boston-based bond fund manager and broker, we drove to a kayaking rental shop on the Charles River, changing from suits to casual clothing before embarking on what turned out to be a five-hour kayaking expedition in September 2016. A college dropout at the University of Sydney—Sean could never finish his final papers—he told me that he began his working life running a magazine design agency, which included doing dispiriting advertising for used car dealerships. That experience convinced him that he would only be motivated if his labor was focused on something with higher meaning. He moved into publishing and design work focused on social issues. From 1983 to 1988, he was the CEO of Redfern Legal Centre Publishing, a legal education specialist outfit, and StreetWize Comics, a comic entity focused on educating youth on social concerns.

He later developed Social Change Media, a social-change-oriented marketing company. It was during this time that Sean began to think about the potential of engaging the financial sector for social good. In the 1990s, arising from union pressure, fast-growing Australian public pension funds became activist investors on behalf of their beneficiaries (Welker and Wood 2011). This resulted in greater investment transparency and increased community outreach directly in their investment portfolios. Social Change Media worked on pension fund communications and ethical fund launch campaigns in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Sean's career took a turn when, faced with a lull in contracts, Social Change Media filed for bankruptcy and the company was reorganized. While under stress from the bankruptcy, Sean had a stroke. On top of the bankruptcy and the stroke, Sean's estranged father became bedridden and neared death. Feeling the exigencies of life powerfully at the time, Sean took a break from his media career and went to care for his father as he died. While tending to his father, Sean caught up on reading about climate change and decided that he needed to dedicate the rest of his life to this issue. Before leaving Australia, Sean cemented his dedication to working on climate change by doing a passion-mapping exercise focused on how to center his future work. In his perspective, forming the Climate Bonds Initiative was a concrete outcome of this exercise because it required him to write out his core motivations.

In Australia, Sean had been involved in some climate activism within the Labor Party, but his first attempt at working full-time on climate change involved applying for an executive position at Greenpeace based in London. This would have given him an entry point into the world of direct climate activism. After this job went to a Greenpeace veteran, in London Sean began to enter into discussions on climate and systemic risk in finance, working with a fellow Australian to set up the European operations for Climate Risk Ltd, a climate risk modeling company. It was while doing this job that he got involved in the NSFM and began talking with Raj Thamotheram.

While driven in his work on climate change, Sean told me that ultimately all of our work and the existence of humanity as a whole is an “experiment in consciousness.” Sean was inspired by James Lovelock's (1979) notion of the Gaia Hypothesis, which is that earth's inorganic and organic systems work together for self-preservation. He saw humanity as an experiment by Gaia to see if our particular form of consciousness is a good idea—in other words, whether humanity's ability to pass down cultural and technical knowledge across generations is useful to support life or not. From this perspective, our ability to perceive humanitarian and planetary threats such as climate change, social inequality, or new diseases such as COVID-19 that are difficult for individuals to consciously comprehend are in a sense stress tests for our species.

Sean's perspective underscores a personal and moral interpretation for the main purpose of Climate Bonds to be to communicate environmental consciousness to finance at large. Sean's energy and drive created Climate Bonds and its organizational structure that was the focal point of my entry into green bonds and climate finance. The Climate Bonds Initiative provides livelihoods for many of my interlocutors.

A second generation of climate finance professionals

Georgia Waters is one of my interlocutors who developed her climate finance career at Climate Bonds. She was the first Climate Bonds employee I ever spoke with beyond email when I called the company's offices in December 2014. Graduating in 2009 after studying economics and economic history at the University of York, Georgia went on to work at BlackRock, the world's largest asset manager (at the time) for nearly four years on their Corporate Governance and Responsible Investment team before joining the Climate Bonds Initiative in August 2014. Georgia grew up in the English Midlands and dreamed of working on tying bonds financing much-needed public infrastructure in Midlands communities with pension funds serving the same communities (Miyazaki 2013).

While working with Georgia, I learned that, while she had been passionate about her work at BlackRock, she had automated her job with Excel spreadsheets and wanted to find a new role where she could make a direct impact on sustainable finance. Her family thought Georgia had been out of her mind to leave BlackRock. Although they did not know much about finance, her family knew the name BlackRock from news headlines, and they had never heard of the Climate Bonds Initiative. However, this did not stop Georgia from joining. She accepted both less job security and a lower wage in exchange for work that felt more impactful and engaged in trying to change finance.

While Georgia's day-to-day work at Climate Bonds still consisted largely in Excel spreadsheets, managing the Climate Bonds Initiative's accumulation of green bond market data, she felt that this spreadsheet data work had more of a direct impact on change in climate finance (Özden-Schilling 2015). While her spreadsheet data work at BlackRock had been more descriptive of sustainable finance, her spreadsheet work at Climate Bonds went toward market reports and work to shape and grow the green bond market.

Georgia ended up working at Climate Bonds until Spring 2016, when she moved to Affirmative Investment Management, a small sustainable finance asset manager and one of the first green bond buyers. Her primary motivation for the move was to establish more of a work–life balance as well as to further her education with a master's degree in sustainability at University College London. This master's degree was also connected to Georgia's earlier dream of designing bond products that could benefit regions such as the Midlands, a concept she explored in her thesis.

Responding to her family and her personal motivations, Georgia moved between a mainstream financial institution, a climate finance NGO, and a now-established sustainable finance firm. Her experience, as she has built a life for herself as a young professional in London, highlights the personal decision-making, organizational dynamics, and changes over time that influence the lives of climate finance practitioners. Climate finance practitioners may do the same form of work for a range of organizations, but the organizations that they build their careers at shape their interpretation of their work's impact.

Navigating work and meaning

When I started fieldwork in 2014, Linnea Sonegstud was a policy analyst at the Climate Bonds Initiative. As a recent graduate of Imperial College's Environment Technology master's program, Linnea is Norwegian and had moved from Oslo to the United Kingdom for her undergraduate studies at the University of Bath before moving on to her master's degree. She had recently turned down a job offer to work on sustainability at the accounting and consulting firm PwC. Linnea viewed the Climate Bonds Initiative as a much more engaged job opportunity, where her writings and thoughts could directly impact the formation of the green bond market. This desire for impact confirms Matthew Archer's finding on the ethics of a sustainability professional in New York City's view of her impact as the amount of exposure her work generates (2021: 4–5). Linnea saw Climate Bonds as a better vehicle to achieve this impact, as opposed to what her experience could have been at PwC, where she could be relegated to producing reports in an isolated sustainability department in an international consulting firm where her work would be subsumed as part of a corporate machine.

By rejecting her PwC offer, Linea accepted lower pay and less job stability, but felt her work had more meaning and impact to create a world she wanted to live in. Linnea was passionate about the concept of a circular economy, where economic value incentivizes reuse and repair, and she hoped that climate finance would support this. At Climate Bonds, Linnea's work focused on getting policymakers and green bond actors to work together to use green bonds to finance a sustainable and low-carbon economy.

Linnea later cut back her hours at Climate Bonds and began working as a consultant. In April 2017, as we chatted in London's Hampstead Heath, she told me that having to account for her hours made her look at her work differently. Tracking hours made her work more of a job than a vocation. Linnea did feel that treating her work more like a job was beneficial to her health by limiting overwork, but this also changed the meaning and passion she had for her work. Linnea told me that when she left Climate Bonds she had to work on reframing her life without thinking about climate change constantly, which had been mentally exhausting. After doing independent consulting, Linnea ended up joining another climate finance nonprofit based in London in 2020.

Careers across countries

Xing Liu, an analyst from Xian, China, a city with bike paths and buses financed by the World Bank's first green bond, joined the Climate Bonds Initiative in May 2016. He had just completed a master's degree in environment technology at Imperial College. Prior to Imperial College, Liu had studied management in college, and his first job was at SynTao, a Chinese sustainability consulting firm, where he did research on CSR and sustainability reports to outline what information was generally disclosed in Chinese markets. Liu saw his entry into this type of work as a direct result of government regulation. In 2007, the China Banking Regulatory Commission (CBRC), a government financial market regulator, issued green credit guidelines to encourage banks to give loans to clean industries. According to Liu, the government's primary motivation behind the green credit guidelines was to decrease the prevalence of high pollution industries near cities.

This legislation supported SynTao's work in assessing the environmental impact of corporate activities. Liu told me that “sustainability in general is more like transparency.” In other words, the crux of making investment sustainable centers on increased corporate disclosure in alignment with public policy initiatives. While supported by the environmental policies of the Chinese government, SynTao's consultancy was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, Greenpeace and other organizations based outside of China to do independent research on the state of sustainability in China. After analyzing what Chinese corporations were already disclosing on social and environmental impacts, SynTao then created reporting frameworks to push these firms to become even more transparent.

Liu had studied management and public administration prior to his job at SynTao. However, once he worked for two years in CSR he wanted to improve his environmental expertise, and in 2016 Liu came to London to study at Imperial College. After a year of courses in environmental science, policy, and finance, Liu found himself most interested in finance. This interest brought him to the Climate Bonds Initiative while he was brainstorming a potential topic for his master's thesis. Liu told me:

Well … I was trying to think of my dissertation in green finance so I talked to my teacher … and he asked me: “Have you decided your dissertation topic?” and I said “Yeah, ok well basically I want to do something like green finance.” He said: “Yeah, ok well there is another girl who graduated two years ago who is working in an organization about green finance.” So he introduced me to … Linnea. She is the first person I met at Climate Bonds.

Liu's early career working on sustainability in China and subsequent interest to learn more technical environmental knowledge and his advisor's connection to the company through Linnea brought him to the Climate Bonds Initiative.

With regard to the efficacy of climate finance work to limit climate change, Liu is pragmatic. He told me:

I mean the 2 degrees. I have been thinking about the 2 degrees target; I don't know whether we can really achieve, to meet the target, to limit the climate, temperature within 2 degrees. But that really provided a target, and to push people to think how can we achieve the target. Maybe it is not important whether we can really achieve the target, but it pushes us to do something right now. Because if there is no target, people might just not worry and not do anything.

Liu's reflection highlights how climate change exists in his daily work. As a market analyst, Liu has worked to assemble the quantitative data that other climate finance practitioners use to evaluate their financial and climate impact targets against goals such as staying below 2 degrees Celsius average global warming. It is through this work and with such targets that climate change comes to matter and exist in Liu's present.

Over the course of my fieldwork, Liu moved from being a market intern to being an analyst and then Co-Head of the Climate Bonds Market Intelligence team. The work that has established his career involves the tracking of green bonds and the analysis of infrastructure financed or refinanced by the bonds. Through this work, Liu established a livelihood in London, but also had to balance having his family and wife in China. In the COVID-19 pandemic, he was able to relocate to China to work remotely, but Liu is still deciding between fully moving to the United Kingdom with his nuclear family and moving back to China while continuing to work in climate finance.

Conclusion

In this article, I have analyzed the lived experience of the growth of climate finance and other forms of moral money through presenting the career biographies of five practitioners. Their biographies highlight multiple aspects of moralistic and pragmatic decision-making often tied to key moments that practitioners attribute to the development of their careers in this space. I have argued that this personal decision-making reflects the growth of climate finance at large as an ethical field. Raj Thamotheram's reflections on being a positive maverick and his career trajectory between traditional financial institutions and sustainable, climate finance startups show us identity construction tied to the expression of deviance toward mainstream ideas and how negotiation is a constant feature of being a change agent. Sean Kidney's personal philosophy and career biography show us how a drive to work centers on interpretations of life and consciousness that transcend climate finance.

Georgia Waters's career decision-making against her family's advice and her later career and educational move to give her space to think and work on what she is passionate about in climate finance highlights the negotiation at play between climate finance practitioners and social, organizational pressure. Stressing the organizational and scalar components of climate finance work, Linnea Sonegstud chose to join a small NGO over a global consulting firm due to her commitment to doing work that could have a meaningful impact on changing finance. However, Linnea has had to adjust her career expectations over time and navigate work and life demands. Xing Liu's career biography shows us how becoming a climate finance practitioner and the growth of the industry across countries impacts livelihoods and increasingly professionalized pathways to work in climate finance through university training. Through their emphasis on key decision-making points, we see how individual agency and a drive to create positive change in destructive social systems are stressed in climate finance career biographies.

As opposed to being an alienating force in their lives, climate finance brings to the forefront the identity of those in this industry. The affect of financialization in combination with environmental and climate concerns engenders the formation of a new category of people and expertise. The facts of climate change and continual debate around greenwash in sustainable and climate finance creates an ethical field, which frames and shapes the career narratives and decision-making of climate finance practitioners. The biographies in this article highlight that climate finance practitioners are brought into climate finance and are made into effective workers in this space through processes of personal narration and ethical decision-making.

Given the continued growth of labeled finance for good and with it the number of people working in and developing careers and livelihoods in this sector of finance, further inquiry into the lived experience and aspirations of climate finance practitioners is necessary. Researchers should compare how finance work impacts identity and ethics across a wide variety of financial markets and forms of environmental and climate engagement. Through the anthropological study of climate finance focused on the sector's institutions, people, and material impact, we can ground the changes and growth we see at a macro-level in this space with the tensions, stresses, and ethics of the people who created climate finance and continue to shape its future trajectory. By connecting work interviews, career biographies, and analyses of the political and material impacts of projects funded by climate finance directly, we can better understand this sector and its potential future.

Acknowledgments

This article is based on research contributing to the project entitled “The Hau of Finance,” which was funded by an ERC consolidator grant (number 772544). I am grateful for feedback and comments from Matthew Archer, Marc Brightman, Giulia Dal Maso, Elizabeth Ferry, Hilary King, Sarah O'Brien, Raj Thamotheram and the Impact Hau team. Many thanks as well to my peer reviewers for their feedback that focused and strengthened this paper.

Notes

1

For an overview of these projects and debates over what is considered climate finance, see Tripathy et al. (2020).

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Tripathy, Aneil, Lionel Mok, and Katie House. 2020. “Defining climate-aligned investment: An analysis of sustainable finance taxonomy development.” Journal of Environmental Investing 10 (1): 8096. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3684926.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Watanabe, Chika. 2019. Becoming one: Religion, development, and environmentalism in a Japanese NGO in Myanmar. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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  • Whitington, Jerome. 2016. “Carbon as a metric of the human.” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 39 (1): 4663. doi:10.1111/plar.12130.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Whitington, Jerome. 2020. “Earth's data: Climate change, Thai carbon markets, and the planetary atmosphere.” American Anthropologist 122 (4): 814826. doi:10.1111/aman.13476.

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Contributor Notes

Aneil Tripathy is an anthropologist and climate finance practitioner whose work centers on economic and climate anthropology. His research examines the worldview of climate finance practitioners and the projects they assess and finance. He has published in Economic Anthropology, Anthropology News, and the Journal of Environmental Investing. He is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Bologna. He has been a visiting researcher at Bayes Business School and Lancaster University, as well as an associate of the Centre of the Anthropology of Sustainability at University College London. Email: aneil.tripathy@unibo.it

Focaal

Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology

  • Archer, Matthew. 2021. “Navigating the sustainability landscape: Impact pathways and the sustainability ethic.” Focaal—Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology 91: 8599. doi:10.3167/fcl.2020.072001.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Beunza, Daniel. 2019. Taking the floor: Models, morals, and management in a Wall Street trading room. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bracking, Sarah. 2015. “Performativity in the green economy: How far does climate finance create a fictive economy?Third World Quarterly 36 (12): 23372357. doi:10.1080/01436597.2015.1086263.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bracking, Sarah. 2019. “Financialisation, climate finance, and the calculative challenges of managing environmental change.” Antipode 51 (3): 709729. doi:10.1111/anti.12510.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Callison, Candis. 2015. How climate change comes to matter: The communal life of facts. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

  • Choy, Timothy K. 2003. “Politics by example: An ethnography of environmental emergences in post-colonial Hong Kong.” PhD diss., University of California, Santa Cruz.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Field, Sean. 2022. “Risk and responsibility: Private equity financiers and the US shale revolution.” Economic Anthropology 9 (1): 4759. doi:10.1002/sea2.12221.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Fristch, Dennis. 2019. “Sustainable finance careers.” Responsible Investor Research. https://www.esg-data.com/sustainable-finance-careers (accessed 5 February 2020).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gawande, Atul. 2007. Better: A surgeon's notes on performance. New York: Metropolitan Books.

  • Gilbert, Paul Robert, and Jessica Sklair. 2018. “Introduction: Ethnographic engagements with global elites.” Focaal—Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology 81: 115. doi:10.3167/fcl.2018.810101.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hertz, Ellen. 1998. The trading crowd: An ethnography of the Shanghai stock market. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Ho, Karen. 2009. Liquidated: An ethnography of Wall Street. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

  • Jones, Ryan, Tom Baker, Katherine Huet, Laurence Murphy, and Nick Lewis. 2020. “Treating ecological deficit with debt: The practical and political concerns with green bonds.” Geoforum 114: 4958. doi:10.1016/j.geoforum.2020.05.014.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kar, Sohini. 2018. Financializing poverty: Labor and risk in Indian microfinance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

  • Keucheyan, Razmig. 2016. Nature is a battlefield: Towards a political ecology. Trans. David Broder. Cambridge: Polity Press.

  • Knudsen, Ståle, Dinah Rajak, Siri Lange, and Isabelle Hugøy. 2020. “Bringing the state back in: Corporate social responsibility and the paradoxes of Norwegian state capitalism in the international energy sector.” Focaal—Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology 88: 121. doi:10.3167/fcl.2020.880101.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Latour, Bruno. 2018. Down to earth: Politics in the new climatic regime. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

  • Leins, Stefan. 2020. ‘“Responsible investment’: ESG and the post-crisis ethical order.” Economy and Society 49 (1): 7191. doi:10.1080/03085147.2020.1702414.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lovelock, James. 1979. Gaia: A new look at life on earth. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Madsbjerg, Saadia. 2018. “Bringing scale to the impact investing industry.” The Rockefeller Foundation, 15 August. https://www.rockefellerfoundation.org/blog/bringing-scale-impact-investing-industry/.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Malkki, Liisa H. 2015. The need to help: The domestic arts of international humanitarianism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

  • Miyazaki, Hirokazu. 2013. Arbitraging Japan: Dreams of capitalism at the end of finance. Berkeley: University of California Press.

  • Nik-Khah, Edward, and Philip Mirowski. 2019. “On going the market one better: Economic market design and the contradictions of building markets for public purposes.” Economy and Society 48 (2): 268294. doi:10.1080/03085147.2019.1576431.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • NSFM (Network for Sustainable Financial Markets). 2021. “Our history.” #NSFMNextGen. https://www.nsfmnextgen.org/our-history (accessed 5 February 2021).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Özden-Schilling, Canay. 2015. “Economy electric.” Cultural Anthropology 30 (4): 578588. doi:10.14506/ca30.4.06.

  • Partridge, Damani James. 2011. “Activist capitalism and supply-chain citizenship: Producing ethical regimes and ready-to-wear clothes.” Current Anthropology 52 (S3): S97S111. doi:10.1086/657256.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Preda, Alex. 2009. Framing finance: The boundaries of markets and modern capitalism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  • Rajak, Dinah. 2011a. In good company: An anatomy of corporate social responsibility. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

  • Rajak, Dinah. 2011b. “Theatres of virtue: Collaboration, consensus, and the social life of corporate social responsibility.” Focaal—Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology 60: 920. doi:10.3167/fcl.2011.600102.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rajaram, Sakharam, and Stalin Shelly. 2012. “History of branding.” International Journal of Social Sciences & Interdisciplinary Research 1 (3): 100104. http://indianresearchjournals.com/pdf/IJSSIR/2012/March/12.pdf.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rudnyckyj, Daromir. 2018. Beyond debt: Islamic experiments in global finance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  • Schumacher, Kim. 2020. “‘Competence greenwashing’ could be the next risk for the ESG industry.” Responsible Investor, 5 February. https://www.responsible-investor.com/articles/competence-greenwashing-could-be-the-next-risk-for-the-esg-industry.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Silver, Nick. 2017. Finance, society and sustainability: How to make the financial system work for the economy, people and planet. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Singhal, Arvind, and Lucia Dura. 2017. “Positive deviance: A non-normative approach to health and risk messaging.” In Oxford research encyclopedia of communication, 29 March. doi:10.1093/acrefore/9780190228613.013.248.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Smith, Jessica M. 2021. Extracting accountability: Engineers and corporate social responsibility. Cambridge. MA: MIT Press.

  • Souleles, Daniel Scott. 2019. Songs of profit, songs of loss: Private equity, wealth, and inequality. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sternin, Monique, Jerry Sternin, and David L. Marsh. 1997. “Rapid, sustained childhood malnutrition alleviation through a positive-deviance approach in rural Vietnam: Preliminary Findings.” In Health nutrition model: Applications in Haiti, Vietnam and Bangladesh, ed. Olga Wollinka, Erin Keeley, Barton R. Burkhalter, and Naheed Bashir. Arlington, VA: BASICS.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Thamotheram, Raj. 2017. “What does it take to be a positive maverick?Preventable Surprises, 13 June. https://preventablesurprises.com/blog-articles-2/but-you-are-so-different-no-one-would-take-the-career-risks-you-have-taken/.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Tripathy, Aneil. 2017. “Translating to risk: The legibility of climate change and nature in the green bond market.” Economic Anthropology 4 (2): 239250. doi:10.1002/sea2.12091.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Tripathy, Aneil, Lionel Mok, and Katie House. 2020. “Defining climate-aligned investment: An analysis of sustainable finance taxonomy development.” Journal of Environmental Investing 10 (1): 8096. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3684926.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Watanabe, Chika. 2019. Becoming one: Religion, development, and environmentalism in a Japanese NGO in Myanmar. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Welker, Marina, and David Wood. 2011. “Shareholder activism and alienation.” Current Anthropology 52 (S3), S57S69. doi:10.1086/656796.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Whiley, Andrew. 2020. “$1 trillion mark reached in global cumulative green issuance: Climate bonds data intelligence reports: Latest figures.” Climate Bonds Initiative, 15 December. https://www.climatebonds.net/2020/12/1trillion-mark-reached-global-cumulative-green-issuance-climate-bonds-data-intelligence.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Whitington, Jerome. 2016. “Carbon as a metric of the human.” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 39 (1): 4663. doi:10.1111/plar.12130.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Whitington, Jerome. 2020. “Earth's data: Climate change, Thai carbon markets, and the planetary atmosphere.” American Anthropologist 122 (4): 814826. doi:10.1111/aman.13476.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Zaloom, Caitlin. 2004. “The productive life of risk.” Cultural Anthropology 19 (3): 365391. doi:10.1525/can.2004.19.3.365.

  • Zaloom, Caitlin. 2006. Out of the pits: Traders and technology from Chicago to London. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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