The Climate Change Crisis – “Covering Climate Now” Can Help to Shape The Public Dialogue

Introducing a new series of perspectives from G&A Institute…

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

We are bringing you a series of commentaries on the climate change crisis to share news, research results and perspectives to you in an organized way.

Fact:  We are facing dire outcomes for humanity and planet if we don’t move faster with strategies and actions to address the challenges of climate change.

We’re calling our shared perspectives “About the Climate Change Crisis”.

Global Warming.  Droughts. SuperStorms. Floods.  Rising Seas. Outbreaks of forest fires.  Loss of Species.  Degradation of farmlands.  Food Shortages. 

These should be defined as crisis situations, no?

Despite these dangers, the public dialogue on “climate change” issues in the United States reflects in some ways the divide in public opinion on critical issues facing the American public, government, business, the financial sector.

Climate changing? Yes and No. Human activities  causing the changes? Yes and No.
Should we be worried? Yes and No.

And so it goes.

The United States of America participated in the 2015 Paris (COP 21) meetings and signed on to the Paris Agreement along with almost 200 other nations, with President Barack Obama becoming a signatory in April 2016 and in September 2016 by presidential action presented the necessary documents to the U.N. General Secretary Ban Ki-moon.

The People’s Republic of China also presented the documents, a collaboration negotiated by President Obama. (This step by Barack Obama avoided presenting what amounted to an international treaty agreement to the U.S. Senate for ratification, required by the U.S. Constitution – approval assuredly would not happen in today’s political environment.)

The U.S. also contributed US$3 billion to the Green Climate Fund.

And so also by executive order, his successor in the Oval Office, President Donald Trump in March 2017 with swipe of a pen signaled the start of the complex and lengthy process of removing the U.S. from the historic Paris Agreement to limit the damage of global warming.

By his side: EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt (since gone from the environmental agency).

The backdrop: scientific reports that 2016 was the warmest year on record to date!

And credible scientists telling us that we have a decade at most to get control of climate change issues!

Prior to becoming president Donald Trump declared among other things that climate change was a Chinese hoax. (One of his positioning comments on the subject: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive” – November 6, 2012 tweet.)

But climate change is real – and we face a climate crisis in 2019!

What Did the Current U.S.A. Leader Do?

President Trump on November 4, 2019 officially notified the international community – and specifically the community of the United Nations – that the process of withdrawal was beginning and would be complete one year from now — the day before Election Day 2020.

Note that in November 2018 the government of the United States of America published the fourth climate change assessment by key U.S. government agencies: the “Climate Science Special Report” was prepared by the U.S. Global Change Research Program of the Federal government. (We’ve including an overview in this series.)

The contents are of significance if you are an investor, a company executive or board member, an issue advocate, public sector officer holder or civic leader, consumer — or other type of stakeholder.

There are volumes of data and descriptions in the report presenting a range of “high probability” climate change outcomes in this the 21st Century.

Adding credibility to the Federal government’s report to the nation and the world:  11, 258 scientists in 153 countries from a broad range of disciplines (biosciences, ecology, etc.) published a report in the Bioscience Journal (November 2018) – “World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency” – setting out a range of policies and actions that could be (adopted, taken) to address the emergency.

Good News About News Media

Good news from the purveyors of news to millions of people: the publishers of Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation created the “Covering Climate Now” (the initiative was launched in April 2019) intended to strengthen the media’s focus on the climate emergency.  The lead media partner is The Guardian.

The founders are now joined by cooperating media that today reaches more than one billion people worldwide. Representatives of 350 newsrooms in 32 countries have joined to ramp up coverage of the climate crisis and possible solutions. The campaign is designed to strengthen the media’s focus on the climate emergency.

Combined, the cooperating media reach more than one billion people worldwide.

Participants in the campaign include Bloomberg, Agence France-Press, The Guardian, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, The New Jersey Star Ledger, The Oklahoman, Corporate Knights, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Seattle Times, La Republica (Italy), The Hindustan Times (India), Asahi Shimbun (Japan), La Razon (Spain), Greenbiz.com, Huffpost, Mother Jones, Rolling Stone, Scientific American, Teen Vogue, Vanity Fair, and many many other communications platforms.

Partner organizations in the campaign include wire services, news agencies, newspapers, magazines, digital news sites, journals, radio, podcasters, and institutions like Princeton University and Yale Climate Change & Health Initiative.

Could it be that the press, especially the U.S. press, can turn the tide of public opinion (with the naysayers and public doubters) with increasing and accurate coverage of the climate story?

Is the “media awake”?   That question was posed and answered in September 2019 by Mark Hertsgaard (The Nation) and Kyle Pope (CJR editor) addressing the  initiative.

Their comments are here for you: https://www.cjr.org/covering_climate_now/climate-crisis-new-beginning.php

Is this where you get your news a participant? Check the list here: https://www.coveringclimatenow.org/partners

Participating publisher Corporate Knights points out to us that “climate change” was suggested as a term to use by pollster Frank Luntz to President George W. Bush instead of the more frightening term, “global warming”. Let’s not scare the people. Gently move them forward.

We do need to return to the more accurate and realistic title of global warming. The threats posed by warming of land and sea are visible to us – every day now!

But, OK, if climate change is the popular branding, then let’s talk about the climate change crisis or emergency (so says the media collaboration).

We’re presenting this series of climate change crisis commentaries to help to tell the story of the climate change crisis or emergency.

The title is About the Climate Crisis, following the lead of the collaborating journalists.

The Good News

The good news as background to the above is that cities and states are “still in” and implementing strategies and actions to follow the Paris Accord in their jurisdictions. 

Corporations participated in the Conference of Parties (COP) meetings and especially the Paris COP 21 meetings.

Companies have been launching and reporting on their sustainability journey — actively addressing climate change issues — and investors are building more climate change considerations into their financial analysis and portfolio management. 

Combined these actions are keeping the United States in the game and helping to maintain the nation’s edge in climate change matters. Of course, we can ALL do more!

Let us know how we are doing. And please do suggest to us issues and topics and developments that might be of interest to you and other readers of the G&A Institute’s Sustainability Update blog.

Please do Stay Tuned to our ongoing blog commentaries.

U.S. States and Cities — “Still In” to the Paris Agreement — and Great Progress is Being Made

By Hank Boerner – Chair & Chief Strategist, G&A Institute

This is our second commentary this week on the occasion of the first anniversary of the decision by the Trump White House in June 2017 to begin the multi-year process of formal withdrawal of the United States of America from the Paris COP 21 climate agreement…

The action now is at the state and municipal levels in these United States of America.

Where for years the world could count on US leadership in critical multilateral initiatives – it was the USA that birthed the United Nations! – alas, there are 196 nations on one side of the climate change issue (signatories of the 2015 Paris Agreement) and one on the other side: the United States of America. At least at the sovereign level.

Important for us to keep in mind: Individual states within the Union are aligned with the rest of the world’s sovereign nations in acknowledging and pledging to address the challenges posed by climate change, short- and longer-term.

Here’s some good news: The United States Climate Alliance is a bipartisan coalition of 17 governors committed to upholding the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change. These are among the most populous of the states and include states on both coasts and in the nation’s Heartland.

The Paris meetings were in 2015 and at that time, the USA was fully on board. That was in a universe now far far away, since the election of climate-denier-in-chief Donald Trump in 2016.

On to the COP 23 and the USA

In 2017, two years after the Paris meetings, the USA officially snubbed their sovereign colleagues at the annual climate talks. A number of U.S. public and private sector leaders did travel to Bonn, Germany, to participate in talks and represent the American point-of-view. This included Jerry Brown, Governor, California (the de facto leader now of the USA in climate change); former New York City Mayor (and Bloomberg LP principal) Michael Bloomberg; executives from Mars, Wal-mart and Citi Group.

While the U.S. government skipped having a pavilion at the annual United Nations-sponsored climate summit for 2017, the US presence was proclaimed loud and clear by the representatives of the U.S. Climate Action Center, representing the climate change priorities of US cities, states, tribes and businesses large and small who want action on climate change issues.

Declared California State Senator Ricardo Lara in Bonn: “Greetings from the official resistance to the Trump Administration. Let’s relish being rebels. Despite what happens in Washington DC we are still here.”

# # #

As the one year anniversary of President Trump’s announcement to leave the global Paris Agreement (June 1, 2018), state governors announced a new wave of initiatives to not only stay on board with the terms agreed to in Paris (by the Obama Administration) but to accelerate and scale up their climate actions.

Consider: The Alliance members say they are on track to have their state meet their share of the Paris Agreement emission targets by 2025.

Consider: The governors represent more than 40 percent of the U.S. population (160 million people); represent at least a US$9 trillion economic bloc (greater than the #3 global economy, Japan); and, as a group and individually are determined to meet their share of the 2015 Paris Agreement emissions targets.

Consider: Just one of the states – California – in June 2016, according to the International Monetary Fund, became the sixth largest economy in the world, ahead of the total economy of France (at #7) and India (#8).

Consider: The US GDP is estimated at $19.9 trillion (“real” GDP as measured by World Bank); the $9 trillion in GDP estimated for the participating states is a considerable portion of the national total.

The states involved are: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

The initiatives announced on June 1, 2018 include:

Reducing Super Pollutants (including hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), one of the Greenhouse Gases, and harnessing waste methane (another GhG).

Mobilizing Financing for Climate Projects (through collaboration on a Green Banking Initiative); NY Green Bank alone is raising $1 billion or more from the private sector to deploy nationally).

Modernizing the Electric Grid (through a Grid Modernization Initiative, that includes avoidance of building out the traditional electric transmission/distribution infrastructure through “non-wire” alternatives).

Developing More Renewable Energy (creating a Solar Soft Costs Initiative to reduce costs of solar projects and drive down soft costs; this should help to reduce the impact of solar tariffs established in January by the federal government).

Developing Appliance Efficiency Standards (a number of states are collaborating to advance energy efficiency standards for appliances and consumer products sold in their state as the federal government effort is stalled; this is designed to save consumers’ money and cut GhG emissions).

Building More Resilient Community Infrastructure and Protect Natural Resources (working in partnership with The Nature Conservancy and the National Council on Science and the Environment, to change the way infrastructure is designed and procured, and help protect against the threats of floods, wildfires and drought).

Increase Carbon Storage (various states are pursuing opportunity to increase carbon storage in forests, farms and ecosystems through best practices in land conservation, management and restoration, in partnerships with The Nature Conservancy, American Forests, World Resources Institute, American Farmland Trust, the Trust For Public Land, Coalition on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases, and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation).

Deploying Clean Transportation (collaborating to accelerate deployment of zero-emissions vehicles; expanding/improving public transportation choices; other steps toward zero-emission vehicles miles traveled.

Think About The Societal Impacts

The powerful effects of all of this state-level collaboration, partnering, financial investment, changes in standards and best practice approaches, public sector purchasing practices, public sector investment (such as through state pension funds), approvals of renewable energy facilities (such as windmills and solar farms) in state and possibly with affecting neighboring states, purchase of fleet vehicles…more.

California vehicle buyers comprise at least 10% (and more) of total US car, SUV and light truck purchases. Think about the impact of vehicle emissions standards in that state and the manufacturers’ need to comply. They will not build “customized” systems in cars for just marketing in California – it’s better to comply by building in systems that meet the stricter standards on the West Coast.

US car sales in 2016 according to Statista were more than 1 million units in California (ranked #1); add in the other states you would have New York (just under 400,000 vehicles sold); Illinois (250,000); New Jersey (250,000) – reaching to about million more. How many more vehicles are sold in the other Coalition states? Millions more!

(Of course, we should acknowledge here that the states not participating yet have sizable markets — 600,000 vehicles sold in Florida and 570,000 in Texas.)

Project that kind of effect onto: local and state building codes, architectural designs, materials for home construction; planning the electric distribution system for a state or region (such as New England); appliance design and marketing in the Coalition states (same issues – do you design a refrigerator just for California and Illinois?).

There are quotes from each of the Coalition governors that might be of use to you. (Sample: Jerry Brown, California: “The Paris Agreement is a good deal for America. The President’s move to pull out was the wrong call. We are still in.”) You can see them in the news release at: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5a4cfbfe18b27d4da21c9361/t/5b114e35575d1ff3789a8f53/1527860790022/180601_PressRelease_Alliance+Anniversary+-+final.pdf

# # #

In covering the 2017 Bonn meetings, Slate published a report by The Guardian with permission of the Climate Desk. Said writers Oliver Milman and Jonathan Watts: “Deep schisms in the United States over climate change are on show at the U.N. climate talks in Bonn, where two sharply different visions of America’s role in addressing dangerous global warming have been put forward to the world.

“Donald Trump’s decision [to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement] has created a vacuum into which dozens of city, state and business leaders have leapt, with the aim of convincing other countries that the administration is out of kilter with the American people…”

# # #

At the US City Level

Jacob Corvidae, writing in Greenbiz, explains how with the White House intending to withdraw, cities are now in the driver’s seat leading the charge against climate change.

Cities have more than half of the world’s populations and have the political and economic power to drive change.

The C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group is the Coalition helping cities to make things happen. The C40 Climate Action Planning Framework is part of a larger effort to make meaningful progress toward carbon reduction goals and build capacity at the municipal level. Cities are expected to have a comprehensive climate action plan in place by 2020. This will include 2050 targets and required interim goals.

The cities have the Carbon-Free City Handbook to work with; this was released in Bonn in 2017 at COP 23. There are 22 specific actions that can (1) drive positive impacts and (2) create economic development. This September the Carbon-Free Regions Handbook will be available. There is information for you about all of this at: https://www.greenbiz.com/article/every-action-how-cities-are-using-new-tools-drive-climate-action

The clarion call, loud and clear: We Are Still In!  Watch the states, cities and business community for leadership on meeting climate change issues in the new norms of 2018 and beyond.

University Endowments – Fidicuiary Duties – Whose Money is it — What Are “Societal” Responsibilities?

by Hank Boerner – Chairman, G&A Institute

Many of our nation’s colleges and universities — which are “Social Institutions” — have long had established endowments. Some are truly wealthy — these are pools of assets designed to serve future generations.  Other types of  various types of social institutions” are similarly wealthy. Endowment assets are managed in-house or by outside professional money managers.   Over the years, the college and university endowments have been in focus for sustainable & responsible investors (SRI advocates) — as they are right now.

For example, Harvard University has an endowment fund reported to have  US$36 billion in Assets Under Management (AUM) — the largest of these “funds-for-the-future” of the higher education community in the USA.

The students and other stakeholders would like to see “more responsible” investing by the Harvard endowment, such taking the decision to divestment shares of traditional fossil fuel companies in the portfolio. (think: “ExxonMobil“). Among the arguments, gaining ground. including beyond the university endowments discussion, is that these public companies have “reserves” (such as coal, oil, natural gas) that are important parts of their capital markets valuation, and with climate change and the development of renewable fuel sources and other factors, the reserves on the balance sheet will over time become “stranded assets” – thus, devaluating the business enterprise. That is, the coal or crude oil in the gorund will not be harvested and sold…they will be stranded and of little or no value.  And therefore, as fiduciaries, responsible for the fund in the future, a collision course is set up:  the fund needs in 2050 will be diminished as the value of the corporate holdings moves downward.

And so, students of the Harvard Law School have filed a lawsuit seeking to compel the endowment fiduciaries (the trustees) to divest holdings in fossil fuel enterprises.  Interesting:  their case is based on 17th Century transactions (back when whale oil and wood were the primary energy sources).  In 1640, Harvard College was established as a seminary and documents were filed with the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Under those documents, the 21st Century students argued that they had standing (to bring the action) under “special interest” provisions.

The endowment leadership responded:  “The endowment is a resource, not and instrument to compel social and political change…” (The New York Times). Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust has spoken on fossil fuel divestment.  In October 2013, a statement to the Harvard community said in part:  “[I] and members of the Corporate Committee on Shareholder Responsibility have benefitted from conversations [with students] who advocated divestment…while I share their belief in the importance of addressing climate change, I do not believe, nor do my colleagues on the Corporation, that university divestment from the fossil fuel industry is warranted or wise…”

The president also said that “…especially given our long-term investment horizon, we are naturally concerned about ESG factors that may affect the performance of our investments now and in the future…”  Harvard policy is engagement and collaboration, rather than “ostracizing” companies based on their product (such as fossil fuels). The Harvard Management Company brought on a VP for sustainable investing. (You should  read the full statement here: http://www.harvard.edu/president/fossil-fuels to understand the university’s official position on these issues).

Alice M. Chaney, who with six other Harvard students filed the lawsuit to compel Harvard Corporation (the governing body of the university) to divest fossil fuel companies, said the following: “We allege that Harvard’s investment in those companies violate its duties as a public charitable institution by harming students and future generations.” (Cheney is a law school student and member of the Harvard Climate Justice Coalition.)

The students — organized as “Divest Harvard” — have been campaigning on the issue.  The first step was a survey of students in 2012 — 72% at the college and 67% at the law school voted in favor of divestment.  Since then 200 faculty members, 1,000+ alumni, and 63,000 community members have signed divestment petitions, the group says.

The legal arguments:  the Harvard Corporation’s public charitable obligations include managing its endowment so as to protect the ability of Harvard students to learn and thrive. The Corporation also has a responsibility not to act in ways that threaten the health and welfare of future generations. (You can read her statement at: http://billmoyers.com/2014/11/22/suing-harvard/)

The pressure on universities to divest holdings in companies based on ESG issues is a long-time tradition.  American university interests were deciding factors, I believe, in the American and global campaigns to abolish Apartheid practices in South Africa in the 1980s and the aid to combatants in the civil war in Darfur more recently.  (The drive was to get investors out of the stock of US companies “supporting” the Sudan government which was making war on its own populations.)

Beth Dorsey, CEO of Wallace Global Fund and leader of the Divest-Invest Movement, commented on the Harvard University leadership’s opposition to divestment:  “In the last great divestment campaign, Harvard said ‘no’ before it said ‘yes’ and I think if just a matter of time.  Unlike the anti-apartheid movement, this is not just an ethical issue.  There is a powerful financial reason as well…”

As the lawsuit in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts / Suffolk County courts winds on, and the Divest Harvard protests continue, half a world away, the world’s largest Sovereign Wealth Fund – the US$800+ billion AUM Norway Government Pension Fund — just announced it will divest holdings in coal mining companies.  the list of companies will be made public on December 1.  The SWF will not divest oil and gas companies.  (Consider: the wealth of the wealth fund is primarily based on taxes on the country’s North Sea fossil fuels.)

While you think about that last tidbit, consider that the descendants of John D. Rockefeller — the 19th Century Titan of Industry who assembled the giant Standard Oil Company — have decided to divest their fossil fuel investments (in September 2013)! Great and great-great grandchildren Peter O’Neil, Neva Rockefeller Goodwin and Stephen B. Heintz are in the lead for the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which has $860 million AUM.

Said Stephen Heintz:  “John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil, moved American out of whale oil and into petroleum.  We are quite convinced that if he were alive today, as an astute business man looking out to the future, he would be moving out of fossil fuels and investing in clean, renewable energy…”   (More about this in The Guardian coverage of the announcement at: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/sep/22/rockefeller-heirs-divest-fossil-fuels-climate-change)

The Rockefeller family announcement was an important part of a “momentum moment” for fossil fuel divestment proponents.  The influential World Council of Churches joined the divestment movement. American cities are adopting similar policies (as many did in the anti-Apartheid movement).  Advocates are working under the umbrella of the Divest-Invest Movement.  To date some 800 institutional investors have pledged to withdraw more than $50 billion in fossil fuel investment over the coming 5 years.

ExxonMobil’s position?  In October The Wall Street Journal headline read:  “Exxon Blasts Movement to Divest From Fossil Fuels…the oil giant seeks to counter the campaign…”  The article by Ben Geman said that the company published a “lengthy attack about the divestment movement, positioning the argument that [the movement] is at odds with the need for poor nations to gain better access to energy, as well as the need for fossil fuels to meet global energy demand for decades to come…” The author is Ken Cohen, VP for Public and Government Affairs (writing in the company’s blog.)

“Almost every place on the planet where there is grinding poverty,” he wrote, “there is energy poverty.  Wherever there is subsistence living, it is usually because there is little or no access to modern, reliable forms of energy.”

And so, the battle lines are formed — advocates vs. university, asset owners (and managers) vs big fossil fuel companies, institutions and fiduciaries (in Exxon’s view) vs. the people of poor nations.

The positions (and actions) of two important institutional investors could create a tipping point:  Harvard University (with considerable wealth, influence, prestige, powerful alumni, world-class faculty, a powerful publishing arm and on and on) and the Norwegian Sovereign Fund, which invests in literally thousands of public companies…and soon will have $1 trillion in AUM to leverage in pursuit of its social / societal issues policies and investment actions.

Stay Tuned to the Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement…and the push back by giants of the fossil fuel industry and their allies in the US Congress and other power centers.

 

 

 

 

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