Why companies and investors see the risks in climate

Why companies and investors see the risks in climate

Adapted from A Newer World: Politics, Money, Technology, and What’s Really Being Done to Solve the Climate Crisis, by William Hewitt, foreword by William K. Reilly, recently published by University of New Hampshire Press.

Several months after the 2006 launch of the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change -- considered by many to be the most comprehensive review ever carried out on the economics of climate change -- John Llewellyn, a longtime top economist with the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and then an economist with Lehman Brothers, released another seminal report. Llewellyn noted that “In the world of business and finance, climate change has developed from being a fringe concern, focusing on the company’s brand and its Corporate and Social Responsibility, to an increasingly central topic for strategic deliberation and decision-making by executives and investors around the globe.

He further said, “Businesses are likely to be affected both by climate change itself and by policies to address it through regulatory exposure, physical exposure, competitive exposure and reputational – including litigational – exposure.”

Nonprofit organizations like the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) play an important role in bringing a focus to the risks that corporations are incurring from climate change. The first step in managing these risks is measuring the greenhouse gas output of a business’s operations, “because in business what gets measured gets managed.” CDP gathers this data from 3,000 companies worldwide and promulgates the information to governments, investors and other businesses, academics, think tanks and NGOs.

The Climate Registry is another non-profit doing similar work with a focus on North America. In order to create a global standard for this sort of reporting, the Climate Disclosure Standards Board was formed in 2007 at the World Economic Forum. Two of the members of the founding board said “Climate change and the implications on business process and disclosure are finally becoming the topic of discussion that they deserve to be.” Mindy Lubber, another founder of the CDSB, said at the time: “This initiative is a key step to improving and standardizing company disclosure on the risks and opportunities from climate change, whether from new regulations, physical impacts or growing global demand for clean technology products.” 

Lubber is the head of Ceres. Ceres, like the U.S. Climate Action Partnership and so many other highly effective organizations dedicated to sustainability, is a coalition of scores of groups from the public interest sector as well as investment institutions and foundations. Ceres works on a number of fronts, but one of its principal jobs is making sure that corporations know that investors are watching and concerned. It works to promote awareness in the investment community of the risks and the opportunities presented by climate change. The 90 institutional investors and financial firms of the Investor Network on Climate Risk (INCR) (launched by Ceres) have some juice: The members collectively manage nearly $10 trillion in assets. When INCR talks, Wall St. and corporate boards listen. 

Are Wall Street and industrial and commercial enterprises getting the message? Echoing John Llewellyn, Lubber notes: “There is no question in my mind that we are no longer debating the issue of whether or not climate change is real and has a real financial impact within the corporate community.”

For example, the interest in and attendance at climate and sustainability sessions at the World Economic Forum have continued to mushroom over each of the past several years. “It is seen as a world class environmental, national security, public health and financial issue within the financial and corporate sectors. It is radically different from five years ago.”

One way to pressure a company is to bring shareholder proposals calling for greater attention to climate risk to a vote at annual general meetings. As the number and strength of these proposals have grown each year, many more of them are being addressed by the companies by their agreeing, without the actual vote, to meet the terms of the proposals.

Other groups like Ceres keep the focus on climate change with public statements, shareholder activism, conferences and by engaging directly with companies. The Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change (IIGCC) has over sixty-five members in Europe managing around €6 trillion ($8 trillion). In November 2010, Ceres, IIGCC and others issued a call to world governments: “Take action now in the fight against global warming or risk economic disruptions far more severe than the recent financial crisis.” The statement was signed by 259 investors from the United States, Europe, Asia and Australia with collective assets totaling over $15 trillion.

Even with all the focus and energy that is being brought to bear, the news is not all positive. A survey of top investment managers by Ceres revealed that they are not adequately seeing and addressing the risks, many going so far as to say they don’t believe that climate change is financially “material” to their investment decisions.

Al Gore refers to fossil fuel and related inventory and investments as “subprime carbon assets.” With the advent and advance of the movement toward putting a price on carbon, Gore thinks “the owners of these assets will soon face a reckoning in the marketplace. They are in roughly the same position as the holders of subprime mortgages before they realized the awful mistake they had made.”

The great renewable-energy seer and activist Herman Scheer described our post-industrial economies as being in transition from being based on fuels to being “technology-based.” If we are able to successfully effect this change, and rapidly emerging economies are able to “leapfrog” to this paradigm, then the pressures on the environment, public health and the climate system will be radically diminished. 

If major corporations from sectors as diverse as manufacturing, insurance, retail and finance -- and even some of the biggest energy and fuel companies -- fully recognize and embrace the opportunities in this transformation (and the risks in not making it), then we have considerable hope for the future.