Shelley Alpern, Director of Social Research & Advocacy at Clean Yield Asset Management, penned a piece on Monday weighing in on fossil fuel advocacy among institutional investors.
Most institutional investors have declined calls to divest from fossil fuel assets, citing their fiduciary duties as a major reason.
Instead, many have opted to use their clout as major shareholders to actively engage with companies.
But Alpern is skeptical of this tactic.
Institutional investors and asset owners owe it to themselves to understand when engagement works and when it doesn’t.
On the whole, shareholder engagement has an admirable track record. Its practitioners can take credit for many achievements: increased disclosure of corporate political spending; reduced waste, pollution and water usage; greening supply chains; broad adoption of inclusive nondiscrimination policies; and greater diversity on corporate boards. Not to mention the anti-apartheid campaigns of the 1980s.
Engagement succeeds when we can make a persuasive case that change will enhance shareholder value, reduce business or reputation risk, or both. Ethical imperatives rarely carry the day on their own.
Engagement will fail when a company with flawed policies or practices perceives them to be unalterable. As engagement with tobacco companies demonstrated, it also will not work when the goal is to change the core business model of a company.
She then looks at the track record of shareholder engagement with fossil fuel companies:
It’s been 23 years since the first climate change proposal was filed at a fossil fuel company. Using conservative estimates based on records kept by the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, at least 150 such proposals have been filed at fossil fuel companies since, and at least 650 climate proposals and dialogues on climate change have taken place at non-fossil fuel companies.
Space limitations preclude a detailed inquiry into these engagements, so let’s take a snapshot look at the most recent efforts and where things stand as of right now.
In late 2013, 77 institutional investors with more than $3 trillion in assets called on 45 companies to assess the potential for operational assets to lose value if carbon regulations become stricter and if competition from renewables takes market share.
Most coal and electric power companies didn’t provide the written responses requested. Most oil and gas companies did respond, but none acknowledged the existential threat to their activities or the need to scale them back. As former SEC Commissioner Bevis Longstreth observed, ExxonMobil not only denied that any of its reserves could become stranded, but also stated that it is “confident that future reserves, which it intends to discover and develop in quantities at least equal to current proved reserves, will also be unrestricted by government action.” With this report, Longstreth concluded, “ExxonMobil has thrown down the gauntlet after slapping it hard across the collective face of humanity.”
Two successive waves of “carbon asset risk” shareholder proposals followed this initiative, but have done nothing to budge the denialist positions held by their targets.
Read the entire piece here.
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