Mother Nature is Not Calling for Divestment

In honor of Earth Day, Harvard University students, faculty and alumni held rallies to pressure the university’s $39.2 billion endowment to divest from fossil-fuel related companies. Having scored what sounded like a victory five years ago, when Stanford University announced a coal divestment decision, Fossil Free Stanford is doubling down to demand the school’s $26 billion endowment sell oil and gas stocks. The divestment rallying cry has been echoing across the halls of elite universities, through US state legislatures (which govern state pension funds), and as far north as Norway, home to the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, for more than half a decade. While some calls appear to have been answered, the response won’t move the climate needle far enough or fast enough and meanwhile, pensions and endowments remain woefully underprepared to weather climate change.

Alicia Seiger

The divestment movement has been helpful in drawing attention to the impact of climate change on investment portfolios and increasing the stigma around fossil fuel companies. It was also well-timed. Less than two years after Bill McKibben first ignited calls for endowments to go ‘fossil-free’, oil and gas returns began a disastrous five-year run. The US shale boom had much more to do with driving asset values down than carbon math, but lower prices forced portfolio managers to reconsider what had long been their highest performing asset class. The moral appeal of divestment lent a feel-good sheen to the inevitable end of a fossil love affair. And as a result, investors have doled out enough headlines to give divestment activists hope.

But while investors tinker around the margins and activists claim victories, mother nature is sounding a deafening alarm. Fueled by climate change, extreme weather has been decimating economic value across the world. In the past two years alone, global financial losses from hurricanes, droughts, wildfires and other natural disasters amounted to roughly $500 billion. The scale and scope of climate impacts on investment portfolios demand investment and legislative policies more ambitious and effective than divestment. Mother nature is not calling for a Tylenol, she’s demanding interventions that address the root causes of her fever.

New York State Common Retirement Fund, the nation’s third largest pension, fielded calls for divestment by establishing an advisory panel to make recommendations on how the $207 billion fund should respond. I served on that six-member panel, along with other experts in the fields of sustainability, finance, climate change and fiduciary duty. After a year of reviewing materials and interviewing practitioners, we recently delivered our recommendations, which can be summarized in three primary calls to action.

First, asset owners should immediately carve out a climate solutions allocation, staff it with a dedicated team empowered to source deals across all asset classes, and give them an absolute return benchmark. A dedicated allocation will help put climate-friendly investments on a level playing field with more traditional assets and serve to drive a portfolio’s overall sustainability. This type of proactive approach will also be critical in achieving the tripling of low-carbon investment experts indicate is required to achieve the ambition of the Paris Agreement.

Next, and this is the big one, investors must establish a process through which all buy, hold or sell decisions are sustainable by 2030, where “sustainable” is defined as being consistent with a 2-degree Celsius or lower warming scenario. The reason for this is not altruism, nor is it a bet on a policy response. This step is about risk management. Markets are not fully pricing climate risk, due in part to incomplete data and inertia. As a result, investors own mispriced assets.

It can be hard to imagine what it means to align a portfolio with a specific warming scenario. Consider the analogy of a thermostat. A room cannot be set to two temperatures at the same time. Portfolios today have this inconsistency. Investors are buying and holding assets as if the planet is heading to 4-degrees (business-as-usual) while at the same time pricing risk as if the planet were not warming at all. Tying all investment decisions to a specific warming scenario gives the portfolio integrity through alignment with scientific principles. It also fortifies a portfolio against the physical impacts of climate change (such as floods, drought, wildfires, and extreme heat) and the transition risks on the path to decarbonization (such as the pace and scale of technology innovation and shocks from dramatic and abrupt shifts in policy.)

Finally, and this cannot be said enough, mother nature has canceled business-as-usual. Investors must recognize that they are taking a bet on climate whether they act or not. Those who proactively pursue new ways of investing will be better positioned for the road ahead. Investors must integrate sustainability metrics into compensation structures and rethink benchmarking and backtesting, which are akin to navigating a car down the road using only the rear-view mirror. Climate change promises sharp and abrupt turns in the road ahead.

“Fossil free” signs often generate a visceral reaction from those on the receiving end. The most disappointing responses are ones that misunderstand the message as demanding “social change” or as “a means to achieve policy ends.” The endowments on which our university students and pensioners depend are recklessly ill-prepared for climate change. It is the responsibility of every fiduciary to take appropriate action to protect their assets from the physical and transition risks of a changing climate.

Our panel’s recommendations enable fiduciaries to respond to calls for divestment with bolder action that will better position their portfolios to weather the future. To protect nest eggs from climate change, advocates and investors must look beyond their signposts and read the signs mother nature is painting the world over.