Trump Administration Continues Attempts to Unravel U.S. Environmental Protections Put in Place Over Many Years – Now, Shareholder Proxy Resolution Actions on Climate Issues Also In Focus For Investors…

by Hank Boerner – Chair and Chief Strategist, G&A Institute

We should not have been surprised: in 2016 presidential candidate Donald Trump promised that among his first steps when in the Oval Office would be the tearing up of his predecessor’s commitment to join the family of nations in addressing climate change challenges. 

In late-December 2015 in Paris, with almost 200 nations coming to agreement on tackling climate change issues, the United States of America with President Barack Obama presiding signed on to the “Paris Agreement” (or Accord) for sovereign nations and private, public and social sector organizations come together to work to prevent further damage to the planet.

The goal is to limit damage and stop global temperatures from rising about 2-degrees Centigrade, the issues agreed to. 

As the largest economy, of course the United States of America has a key role to play in addressing climate change.  Needed: the political will, close collaboration among private, public and social sectors — and funding for the transition to a low-carbon economy (which many US cities and companies are already addressing).

So where is the USA? 

On June 1st 2017 now-President Trump followed through on the promise made and said that the U.S.A. would begin the process to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change, joining the 13 nations that have not formally ratified the agreement by the end of 2018 (such as Russia, North Korea, Turkey and Iran).  

Entering 2019, 197 nations have ratified the Agreement.

A series of actions followed President Trump’s Paris Agreement announcement – many changes in policy at US EPA and other agencies — most of which served to attempt to weaken long-existing environmental protections, critics charged.

The latest move to put on your radar:  In April, President Trump signed an Executive Order that addresses “Promoting Energy Infrastructure and Economic Growth”.

[Energy] Infrastructure needs – a bipartisan issue – are very much in focus in the president’s recent EO.  But not the right kind to suit climate change action advocates. 

Important: The EO addressed continued administration promotion and encouraging of coal, oil and natural gas production; developing infrastructure for transport of these resources; cutting “regulatory uncertainties”; review of Clean Water Act requirements; and updating of the DOT safety regulations for Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) facilities.

Critics and supporters of these actions will of course line up on both sides of the issues.

There are things to like and to dislike for both sides in the president’s continuing actions related to environmental protections that are already in place.

And then there is the big issue in the EO:  a possible attempt to limit shareholder advocacy to encourage, persuade, pressure companies to address ESG issues.

Section 5 of the EO“Environment, Social and Governance Issues; Proxy Firms; and Financing of Energy Projects Through the U.S. Capital Markets.” 

The EO language addresses the issue of Materiality as the US Supreme Court advises.  Is ESG strategy, performance and outcome material for fiduciaries? Many in the mainstream investment community believe the answer is YES!

Within 180 days of the order signing, the Secretary of the Department of Labor will complete a review existing DOL guidance on fiduciary responsibilities for investor proxy voting to determine whether such guidance should be rescinded, replaced, or modified to “ensure consistency with current law and policies that promote long-term growth and maximize return on ERISA plan assets”. 

(Think of the impact on fiduciaries of the recommendations to be made by the DOL, such as public employee pension plans.) 

The Obama Administration in 2016 issued a DOL Interpretive Bulletin many see as a “green light” for fiduciaries to consider when incorporating ESG analysis and portfolio decision-making.  The Trump EO seems to pose a direct threat to that guidance.

We can expect to see sustainable & responsible investors marshal forces to aggressively push back against any changes that the Trump/DOL forces might advance to weaken the ability of shareholders – fiduciaries, the owners of the companies! – to influence corporate strategies and actions (or lack of action) on climate change risks and opportunities.  Especially through their actions in the annual corporate proxy ballot process and in engagements. 

You’ll want to stay tuned to this and the other issues addressed in the Executive Order.  We’ll have more to report to you in future issues of the newsletter.

Click here to President Trump’s April 10, 2019 Executive Order.

Facts or not?  Click here if you would like to fact check the president’s comments on withdrawal from the Paris Agreement.

We are still in!  For the reaction of top US companies to the Trump announcement on pulling out of the Paris Accord, check The Guardiancoverage of the day.

At year end 2018, this was the roundup of countries in/and not.

For commentaries published by G&A Institute on the Sustainability Update blog related to the above matters, check out it here.

Check out our Top Story for details on President Trump’s recent EO.

This Week’s Top Stories

Trump Order Takes Aim at Shareholders Pushing Companies to Address Climate Change
(Wednesday – April 77, 2019) Source: Climate Liability News – President Trump has ordered a review of the influence of proxy advisory firms on investments in the fossil fuel industry, a mot that…

Environmental Threats to Us and Mother Earth – Seven Trends to Consider…and Develop Solutions From the Forum for the Future

by Hank Boerner – Chair and Chief Strategist, G&A Institute

This week we are celebrating Earth Day.  The first (in 1970) observance became a catalyst for action – soon after the first of a series of environmental-focused Federal legislation began to change dirty air to cleaner and then clean, and more laws to address a very unhealthy state of affairs in the U.S.A. (The Environmental Act, Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, RCRA, etc.). 

But…the challenges for society have not gone away. The list of “hot ESG issues” grows by the week. 

Once an ESG issue emerges and people begin to dive into the details, a range of sub-issues arises.  In this corporate proxy season we are seeing top-line issues in focus and the underlying questions that investors have as they bring their resolutions to the companies for inclusion in the broader shareholder-base voting.

Example: Where “political spending” began as a broad issue the investors moved on to ask from where the company money was being spent directly(corporate donations to political party or candidate or PAC) to now, indirectly (is the company’s money going to business industry groups that lobby against shareholder interest – which ones, addressing what issues, how much money?) 

Some environmental challenges of the 1970s are still with us (consider the continuing impact of coal-burning, the state of global plastics disposal, and questions about water treatment such as in animal husbandry and fracking). And more issues are in focus under the huge bundle we refer to as “climate change”.

The evolvement of ESG as an integrated approach for investor evaluation of companies has complicated life for many corporate managers. 

In the recent past, a large-cap would assemble the “top 10” issues list for the management team and their direct reports to address.  For 3M, as example, “highway safety” and related issues under the heading would be high on the list (the company’s important product offerings would be directly impacted by changes). 

Today, that Top 10 list is all about the materiality of the issue(s) for many investors and companies — and how those issues are being measured, managed, how risk is being addressed and opportunities seized — and then reported to stakeholders.

In many large-cap companies a broader-based team will be busily shaping ESG strategy, policy, sustainability team practices and addressing issues-associated risk management on a much wider range of topics and subtopics. 

Timothy McClimon, head of the American Express Foundation, brings us his views on seven global trends – and their relevant issues – that are impacting the sustainability movement today. (You can think about how the seven impact your organization through the 2020s, the focus of the research and perspectives shared.)

He reviews the Forum for the Future’s report in a Forbes commentary.  The report is “Driving Systems Change in Turbulent Times” – with major implications for “how” or even “if” we will be able to address current global “E” challenges.  (Are patterns of behavior, structures or mindsets shifting toward or away from sustainability?)  Consider:

First – the plastics kickback; we continue to produce and then dispose of eight million tons each year with no real change in sight. (We are adding tons of material that will go “somewhere” and have an impact on society.)

Second – Climate change and the impact on mass migration; large parts of the world are becoming less hospitable and more people will try to move to safer places. Mass migrations are ahead. Perhaps as many as 2 billion persons will be affected by climate change and migrating away from their homes.

Third – around the world, Nationalism Marches Again; this is leading to fragmentation, intolerance, competition for fewer resources… complicated by growing inequality and a range of old and new “S” issues.

Fourth – We Live in the “On-Life” – by the end of this year, half of the world’s 7-billion-plus will be online, with issues arising (mental health, social cohesion, personal interaction, privacy and security, and more).

Fifth – The Rise of Participatory Democracy; cities and states lead the way in combating rising levels of protectionism and nationalism, which may usher in a new era of more local decision-making and civic participation.

Sixth – Asia’s Changing Consumerism; China leads the way with India, Japan, South Korea and Thailand close behind in moving more people into middle class status.  But, we are losing our global capacity to sustain them as the pursue the good life.  Millennials may slow the trend in Asia (they’re more conscious consumers).

Seventh – Biodiversity is Now in Freefall; scientists see mass extinction of some plant and animal species and one-fifth of the valuable Amazon rainforest has disappeared. (Something has to give to make room for growing food to meet the needs of the growing Earth population.) Little is being done about this, say the report authors.

How can we meet these global environmental challenges – what principles can be adopted to preserve the good life so many of the citizens of Earth enjoy today?  Some are spelled out in the Top Story for you.

Author Timothy J. McClimon is president of the American Express Foundation and serves on not-for-profit boards. He also teaches at New York University and at Johns Hopkins University.

Click here for more on the Forum for the Future (not for profit).

Each of the 7 trends has a chapter devoted to the issues. 
Click here for the full report.


This Week’s Top Stories

7 Global Trends Impacting The Sustainability Movement   
(Tuesday – April 16, 2019) Source: Forbes – the Forum for the Future advances seven trends that have major implications for how (or if) we will be able to address current global environmental challenges…

When Will Sustainable Investing Be Considered to be in the Mainstream?

by Hank Boerner – Chair and Chief Strategist, G&A Institute

“Movements” – what comes to mind when we describe the characteristics of this term are some 20th Century examples.

The late-20th Century “environmental movement” was a segue from the older 19th and early 20th Century “conservation movement” that was jump started by President Theodore Roosevelt (#26), who in his 8 years in the Oval Office preserved some 100,000 acres of American land every work day (this before the creation of the National Parks System a decade later).

The catalysts for the comparatively rapid uptake of the environmental movement?  American rivers literally burned in the 1960’s and 1970’s (look it up – Cuyahoga River in Ohio was one).

And that was just one reason the alarm bells were going off.  New York’s Hudson River was becoming an open, moving sewer, with its once-abundant fish dying and with junk moving toward the Atlantic Ocean.  Many East Coast beaches were becoming fouled swamp lands.

One clarion call – loud & clear — for change came from the pen.  The inspired naturalist / author Rachel Carson wielded her mighty pen in writing the 1962 best-seller, “Silent Spring”. 

That book helped to catalyze the rising concerns of American citizens. 

She quickly attracted great industry criticism for sounding the alarm…but her words mobilized thousands of early activists. And they turned into the millions of the new movement.

She explained the title:  There was a strange stillness.  Where had the little birds gone? The few birds seen anywhere were moribund; they trembled violently and could not fly.”  (Hint:  the book had the poisonous aspects of the DDT pesticide at its center as the major villain.)

Americans in the 1960s were becoming more and more alarmed not only of dumping of chemical wastes into rivers and streams and drifting off to the distant oceans —

—but also of tall factory smokestacks belching forth black clouds and coal soot particles;

–of large cities frequently buried beneath great clouds of yellow smog a mile high on what were cone clear days;

–of dangerous substances making their way into foods from the yields of land and sea;

–of yes, birds dropping out of the sky, poisoned;

–of tops of evergreen and other trees on hilltops and mountains in the Northeast burned clean off by acid rain wafting in from tall utility smokestacks hundreds of miles away in the Midwest…and more. 

Scary days. For public health professionals, dangerous days.

We will soon again be celebrating Earth Day; give thanks, we are long way from that first celebration back in spring 1970. (Thank you, US Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin for creating that first Earth Day!)

Most of our days now are (as the pilots cheer) CAVU – ceiling (or clear) and visibility unlimited. 

We can breathe deep and as we exhale thank many activists for persevering and driving dramatic change and creating the modern environmental movement… and on to the sustainability movement. 

And now – is it time (or, isn’t time!) for another movement along these lines…the sustainable investing movement going mainstream? 

Experts pose the question and provide some perspectives in this week’s Top Story.

In Forbes magazine, they ask:  “Why Hasn’t Sustainable Investing Gone Viral Yet?”

Decio Fascimento, a member of Forbes Council (and chief investment officer of the Richmond Global Compass Fund) and the Forbes Finance Council address the question in their essay.

In reading this, we’re reminded that such mainstream powerhouse asset managers as BlackRock, State Street/SSgA, Vanguard Funds, TIAA-CREF, and asset owners New York State Common Fund, New York City pension funds (NYCPERS), CalPERS, CalSTRS and other capital market players have embraced sustainable investing approaches. 

But – as the authors ask:  what will it take for many more capital market players to join the movement?  There’s interesting reading for you in the Top Story – if you have thoughts on this, send them along to share with other readers in the G&A Institute universe.

Or send comments our way to supplement this blog post.


This Week’s Top Stories

Why Hasn’t Sustainable Investing Gone Viral Yet?
(Wednesday – April 10, 2019) Source: Forbes – Let’s first look at what sustainability looks like in financial terms. In sustainable investing, the ideal scenario is when you find opportunities that produce the highest returns and have the highest positive impact. 

And of further reading for those interested: