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By Sinead Cruise and Lawrence White
LONDON (Reuters) - BlackRock <BLK.N> Chief Executive Larry Fink has warned company boards to step up efforts to tackle climate change, marking a significant shift in the public stance of the world's biggest investment manager amid mounting concerns about global warming.
In his annual letter to CEOs, Fink said they must act or face increased wrath from investors concerned about how unsustainable business practices might curb their future wealth.
He said BlackRock would exit investments that presented high sustainability-related risk, including thermal coal producers, as it participated in what he described as a "fundamental reshaping of finance".
Fink's intervention comes at a time when investors are increasingly pressuring financial firms to do more to combat climate change.
The shift in global investing trends towards large asset managers such as BlackRock, with its $7 trillion in assets, has made it a potentially powerful lever for forcing wider corporate action.
But BlackRock and peers such as Vanguard Group and State Street Corp <STT.N> have been criticised for not doing enough to guide the firms they invest in, with a Reuters analysis in October finding they rarely challenge company management.
Activists in December said they would be monitoring Fink's letter closely for signs of greater engagement with the climate crisis.
BlackRock is also strengthening its commitment to transparency in its stewardship activities, with portfolio managers "increasingly disposed to vote against management" if they felt companies were not making "sufficient progress on sustainability-related disclosures".
"We don't yet know which predictions about climate change will be most accurate nor what effects we have failed to consider. But there is no denying the direction we are heading," the veteran investor said in the letter.
Fink's letter specifically aligns BlackRock with the goals of the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement, in contrast with the recent stance of the United States which under President Donald Trump has backed away from the climate accord.
"Every government, company and shareholder must confront climate change," Fink said.
As well as applying pressure on companies through campaigning, activists in recent months have succeeded in winning over major investors in the financial sector to their cause.
Barclays <BARC.L> investors, at the urging of lobby group ShareAction, earlier this month submitted a motion that would force the lender to phase out fossil fuel financing faster.
(Reporting By Sinead Cruise and Lawrence White, editing by Iain Withers and Mark Potter)