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.

 

 

 

 

s