Corporations finally taking up global warming fight

Wildfires burning in Carpinteria, California. There is no sign that the fires will stop before Christmas, but there's every sign that things cannot continue as usual amid a rapidly changing climate. Lending to the oil and gas industry has become the
Wildfires burning in Carpinteria, California. There is no sign that the fires will stop before Christmas, but there's every sign that things cannot continue as usual amid a rapidly changing climate. Lending to the oil and gas industry has become the single most dangerous and reckless way to deploy money.PHOTO: REUTERS

Financial community starting to divest fossil fuel holdings, cut funding to oil and gas projects

It's hard to be optimistic about climate action, not in a week when federal scientists reported that the Arctic shows no sign of returning to the "reliably frozen region of recent past decades".

Not in a month when California's wildfires show every sign of burning straight through Christmas.

And not in a moment when the federal government keeps scrubbing basic climate information from its websites.

But something big is starting to shift.

After years of effort from activists, there are signs that the world's financial community is finally rousing itself in the fight against global warming. A foretaste came last month when Norway's sovereign wealth fund - the world's biggest - said that it is considering divestment from holdings in fossil fuel companies.

The Norwegians are far from the first to consider such a move - investors controlling more than US$5 trillion (S$6.7 trillion) in assets have committed to dropping all or some of their fossil fuel stocks - but they are the biggest.

And since their fund had been built on the revenues from North Sea oil, it was especially significant. It was as if they were preparing to cash in their chips from the hydrocarbon casino and head out to look for a new game.

Then, in short order last week:

•The European insurance giant Axa announced it would divest itself of more than US$825 million in investments in oil production and pipelines in the tar sands of Canada for both ethical and business reasons. The planet could see temperature increases as high as 4 deg C, noted Mr Thomas Buberl, the company's chief executive, a development he called "not sustainable and, therefore, also not insurable". He added: "As the father of two children, I really want to do the most I can with the company I am leading" to slow the rate of planetary destruction.

•ExxonMobil threw in the towel and said it would begin performing assessments of how climate policy will affect its various ventures, after about 62 per cent of its shareholders voted in May to demand such action. This capitulation to activist investors will make it ever harder to justify a business model of burning more carbon, and the idea is spreading: The governor of the Bank of England, Mr Mark Carney, said last week that 237 companies with a market capitalisation of more than US$6 trillion, including 20 major global banks, were now backing climate-related disclosure schemes.

•And most important, the World Bank said last Tuesday that it would, by 2019, end all financial support for oil and gas exploration (it had earlier made the same pledge about coal) because of the simple facts of a "rapidly changing world". Mr Stephen Kretzmann, a veteran campaigner with the group Oil Change International, told The Guardian that "it's hard to overstate the significance" of the World Bank's decision, adding that "it is time for all of the institutions, countries, investors and individuals who are still in the Paris Agreement to stop funding fossils".

Such a total ban won't happen all at once, of course. Western finance remains enmeshed with the fossil fuel industry - environmental groups were mounting a last-ditch effort last week, for instance, to persuade several big banks to stop financing the Keystone XL pipeline by reminding them that top climate scientists say that the pipeline represents a deep and direct threat to our climate future.

Banks tell themselves this is "business as usual", and indeed, for a very long time, lending to the gas and oil industry was normal and routine. But on a planet with a melted Arctic and a burning California, it has become the single most dangerous and reckless way to deploy money.

Sometimes, it takes years of hard work for this kind of activism to pay off. Mr Kretzmann and his colleagues at Oil Change International have been working on World Bank financing for a decade. Indigenous campaigners in Canada have been attacking the financial roots of the tar sands for at least as long. The non-stop divestment campaigning of recent years has built enormous political pressure for change. And according to one recent study, divestment announcements may have caused at least short-term damage to the share prices of fossil fuel companies.

That pressure will continue. Groups like Mazaska Talks are running large consumer campaigns trying to force banks to recognise their responsibility or face boycotts.

Divestment is becoming an increasingly important force in local politics: New York City's public advocate, Ms Letitia James, recently called on the city's pension funds to divest from fossil fuels before more climate damage is done. City treasuries have begun to pull billions from banks like Wells Fargo that underwrite projects like the Dakota Access pipeline.

It's true that no environmental action is possible in President Donald Trump's Washington. It's also true that congresses and Parliaments are not the only halls of power. Finance, not politics, may turn out to be the soft underbelly of the climate monster.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 17, 2017, with the headline 'Corporations finally taking up global warming fight'. Print Edition | Subscribe