Investing in fossil-fuel firms is not as immoral as it seems

First published by The Herald on 7 January 2020

EVEN the most ardent of climate-change deniers must be looking at Australia right now and thinking they have got it a little bit wrong.

The country’s deputy prime minister Michael McCormack may have been right when he said “we’ve had fires in Australia since time began”, but the scale and the intensity of this year’s blazes have been beyond anything anyone has witnessed before. Having first taken hold in September, the fires have so far burnt through five million hectares of land, destroyed thousands of homes, claimed 24 human lives and killed an estimated 480 million animals. To say it has been devastating would be the understatement of the year.

And while the consensus is that not every extreme weather event can be blamed on climate change, Dr Richard Thornton, chief executive of the Bushfires and Natural Hazards Co-operative Research Centre, noted that with the average temperature in Australia now running around one degree higher than the long-term figure, fire seasons are starting earlier and “the cumulative fire danger” is growing. Or, as University of Sydney ecologist Professor Glenda Wardle put it, while not every weather event is the direct result of rising temperatures, “when you see trends it becomes undeniably linked to global climate change”.

So why the reticence from Australia’s leaders to name the issue, too? Back in November Mr McCormack caused outrage when he dismissed climate concerns as the obsession of “raving inner-city lefties”, while prime minister Scott Morrison continues to defend carbon-emissions policies that are widely held to be inadequate for a G20 member. The reason would seem plain for all to see, with the opportunity for Australia to expand its lucrative role as a leading exporter of fossil fuels apparently making the science just too easy to ignore.

It is an unforgivable stance to take, and one that is entirely out of step with the general direction of travel. Indeed, at a time when local and national governments around the world have declared a climate emergency, the onus is on all of us to do our bit to avert the crisis. The younger generation has risen to the challenge, taking to the streets to shame policymakers into taking action. Older generations are making changes too, dumping fossil-fuel companies from their investment portfolios and putting pressure on employers to eliminate them from their pensions.

It is not just small investors who are taking more of an interest in what their money is funding, with more and more institutional investors starting to question the moral legitimacy of channelling funds into companies whose activities are contributing to the destruction of the planet. Environmental organisation 350, which aims to “end the age of fossil fuels”, says more than 1,100 asset managers, pension funds and insurers have pledged to take such action, the aim being to “remove [companies’] social licence to operate”.

The Church of England, which has an £8.2 billion investment pot at its disposal, is one such investor. In 2018 the church’s General Synod voted by 347 to four to divest its holdings in fossil-fuel companies, with a spokesperson saying at the time that the vote made clear that the church “must play a leading role and exercise its moral leadership on the urgent issue of climate change”. Attempts are being made to see the Church of Scotland follow suit. Although last May its General Assembly narrowly rejected a motion that would have seen it disinvest from oil and gas companies, Rev Dr Richard Frazer, convener of the Church and Society Council, has said it must now take action “as a matter of urgency”.

Writing in The Herald last month, he said the council believes that “for reasons of conscience and out of an urgent necessity to respond to what is happening to our planet, we must accelerate the process of weaning ourselves off our dependence on fossil fuels”. “In taking this decision we have approved a report which we will be commending to next year’s General Assembly, recommending that the Church sells its shares in oil and gas companies as a matter of urgency,” he wrote.

Yet while Dr Frazer stressed that the council had made its decision based on its deeply held belief that Christians have “a duty to care for God’s earth”, will the Kirk actually be able to fulfil that duty if it washes its hands of those companies completely? Surely it would do more good by retaining its investments and using its position as a high-profile investor to drive positive change from within?

It is certainly the opinion of mega-investor Bill Gates that divestment programmes are all but pointless, with the removal of even large sums of money unlikely to have enough of an impact to make oil or gas giants change course. Others, such as Japan’s $1.3 trillion national pension fund, prefer to engage with the companies they invest in, using their clout as major shareholders to hold management teams to account. It is the right approach: while no amount of engagement will stop a fossil-fuel company being a fossil-fuel company, these businesses like any other can and should be forced to set and achieve emissions-reduction targets.

It is worth noting that while the Church of England has sold out of positions in tar sands and thermal coal businesses, it retains large investments in oil majors BP and Royal Dutch Shell. Crucially, it has started voting against the re-election of chairmen of companies such as EOG Resources for doing too little to combat climate change. It is exactly the kind of activism that is needed.

Ultimately, while it is clear that carbon emissions from fossil fuels are causing the planet to warm, the only way for fossil-fuel companies to be driven out of existence is for everyone to stop using fossil fuels. As that is not likely to fully happen for many years – if ever – it is better that investors like the Church of Scotland use their boardroom influence to ensure those businesses are contributing to the solution rather than just blaming them for creating the problem.

It may seem counterintuitive, but the climate crisis will never be solved if everyone simply stands shouting from the sidelines.