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Comment: We need climate activists to show us the way

Why the investment community needs to heed climate activism

The global series of strikes by schoolchildren protesting inaction on climate change that was ignited by 16-year-old Greta Thunberg has divided opinion in the investment community.

On the one hand is the supportive one exemplified by Emma Howard Boyd, the former Jupiter stewardship head who chairs the Environment Agency, the UK public body. She said activists like Thunberg are needed to push climate change up the agenda and to challenge people in positions of power, like Howard Boyd herself, to work harder and do better.

On the other hand is the response, typified by Helena Morrissey, head of personal investing at Legal & General Investment Management, who led the firm’s move to “name and shame” failing companies on climate change. She has said she doesn’t want children to believe there is no point studying or working because the world is going to end.

“They are children so I think they should be in class, work hard, & learn more. If they are still keen, which I hope, get jobs/positions where they have real power,” said Morrissey in a response to a tweet rebuking her for “liking lots of tweets about how kids shouldn’t be bunking off for the #Climatestrike”.

Howard Boyd opened a speech last week to the Climate Action Society with “I want you to panic” – the words of Thunberg from this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos.

“It caught the world’s attention,” she said. “It ignited Friday’s schools climate strike. And – in a world where people talk about climate change all the time in unthreatening generalities – it brilliantly communicated the fact that climate change is an immediate problem.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said last year that we have a mere 12 years to limit global temperature rise to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. Its 11 years now, and if action isn’t taken soon, a 27-year-old Thunberg will face a radically more unstable world, warn scientists. It’s already manifesting in the global south, a fact largely unreported in the mainstream press.

Britain’s respected environmentalist Sir David Attenborough (who recently delighted us at RI by returning a call from Reporter Ella Milburn) warned at last year’s UN climate change conference of the “collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world”.

So, one could say it’s fair that kids are fighting back and urging adults to take action. Some politicians are slowly responding.In a speech last week alongside Thunberg, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said the EU will spend billions on climate change. Commenting on President Trump and other climate change deniers, Juncker warned that “something dangerous is already underway”.

The ratcheting up of language is evident everywhere. Former Securities and Exchange Commission Chair Mary Schapiro said at Davos, discussing climate change reporting, that “half the world’s drowning and half the world’s burning and yet we argue over disclosure, which is, frankly, not that difficult to do!”.

“We need activists like Greta Thunberg to push climate change up the agenda” — Emma Howard Boyd.

Schapiro’s frustration may stem from the fact that finance is starting to lag society and politics.

In the UK, the Independent Party, a new splinter group fighting against Brexit, also focused on climate action on its launch last week, promising to pursue steps to “safeguard the planet” and “act on the urgency of climate change”.

And the US Green New Deal from rising star New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is capturing the political imagination.

But it still feels like finance is yet to have its “Eureka” moment, if you forget the hoax BlackRock letter.

Last week, there were some seemingly ground-breaking announcements such as the Principles for Responsible Investment mandating TCFD reporting for signatories from 2020 and mining giant Glencore announcing a coal cap.

These do sound significant, but the PRI’s new requirement on the TCFD will be voluntary to disclose for an unspecified amount of time.

And with Glencore, which made its coal cap announcement while its rival Vale is mired in crisis, the Australian mining community are underwhelmed. “You have to salute them for this beautiful PR, you satisfy the activists while doing absolutely nothing,” one Australian coal miner told the Sydney Morning Herald.

A senior mining executive said: “This move protects their existing coal investments and satisfies the greenies. It‘s a pretty clever move.”

We need to move beyond these gestures and into real transformative change. All power to Greta Thunberg.