Last week, the New York State Senate voted to divest fossil fuel investments from its $266 billion pension portfolio. Co-sponsor Liz Kueger offered this rationale: “Fiduciary and moral responsibility require the process of divestment to begin now. The writing on the wall could not be clearer: fossil fuel producers are a bad long-term investment.” The Fossil Free movement is deservedly celebrating this major accomplishment.
The day after I read this news about New York State’s divestment, an article in Bloomberg Green ran an equally dramatic story on the other side: “Since the start of 2016, banks extended more than $1.6 trillion of loans and underwriting services to fossil-fuel companies planning and developing oil, gas and coal projects.” In many cases, these are the same banks with managers in other departments promising to divest. How can their minds be changed?
It was to answer this question that Harvard’s Office for Sustainability convened a Zoom panel called “Changing Hearts and Minds: A Moment for Reimagining?” Four academics representing the humanities, religion, indigenous cultures, and business were asked, what is needed to persuade non-believers? They all agreed: we’ll have to change our national narrative, the stories we tell ourselves and each other to survive and thrive. Primary among these corrosive-to-climate narratives is The American Dream, in which success is achievable only through individual effort. In contrast, saving us from climate change require universal collective active.
Many believe the year 2020 is pushing us towards that collective ideal. Between finding cures for COVID and ending racist police practices, we’ve used collective methods—interstate, global, interdisciplinary, intergenerational, interagency, public-private partnerships and so on—that work well to address climate change.
But Harvard Business School Professor and panelist Mark Kramer pointed out another fall-out of the American Dream, the “modern perspective that everything has a price and that everything can be evaluated in economic terms…(that) if you’re serious about making money, you shouldn’t care about doing good.”
This is a narrative that still prevails. We see that in the banks that commit to divestment while investing in fossil fuel exploration. I was shocked when a good friend, an environmentalist and a savvy investor, told me he’s investing in a partnership to fund oil exploration in the Permian Basin of Texas. His rationale? He has to optimize his returns so he can afford to support environmental organizations.
My friend is serious about making money and serious about addressing climate change, yet he doesn’t see how his approach to one compromises the other.
The irony is that, as I wrote repeatedly in blogs for CSRHub, companies that embrace climate solutions actually do better. As Harvard Professor Kramer said, “The reality is that companies have a lower environmental footprint that are more innovative about environmental products and solutions are actually more successful and more profitable.”
We’ve tackled this problem incrementally and achieved incremental progress, but given how fast our environment is failing, we must accelerate the process if we are to save our planet.
The alternative could be grim. Many have written about increasingly extreme weather and species decimation if global warming is not mitigated. But our culture is also in peril. As explained by population ecologist Peter Turchin in The Atlantic, 2020 could be the start of a five-to-ten-year period where existing systems are “burned to the ground.” Turchin’s predictions are already coming to pass, accelerated by the pandemic. As he forecast, conditions for civil unrest and violence are in place: U.S. debt has exploded, living standards are declining, and even the elite can’t find jobs. With all those dire societal problems to solve, will we have energy left over to act on climate change?
On the other hand, these horrors of 2020 might just move us closer in 2021 to the collective, away from our money-centric narrative towards one that supports planetary survival. Writing in Refinery29, journalist Vicky Spratt described how our current turmoil might alter our narratives: “So perhaps there is a message for us here, in the last days of 2020: that if we realign our ambition so that it could benefit society as a whole, so it could work for the communities we inhabit and not just for ourselves, then maybe we might be onto something. What's more, we might be in a better position the next time the **** well and truly hits the fan.”
Carol Pierson Holding is President and Founder, Holding Associates. Carol serves as Guest Blogger for CSRHub. Her firm has focused on the intersection of brand and social responsibility, working with Cisco Systems, Wilmington Trust, Bankrate.com, the US EPA, Yale University’s School of Environmental Sciences, and various non-profits. Before founding Holding Associates, Carol worked in executive management positions at Siegel & Gale, McCann Erickson, and Citibank. She is a Board Member of AMREF (African Medical and Research Foundation). Carol received her AB from Smith College and her MBA from Harvard University.
CSRHub offers one of the world’s broadest and most consistent set of Environment, Social, and Governance (ESG) ratings, covering 20,000 companies. Its Big Data algorithm combines millions of data points on ESG performance from hundreds of sources, including leading ESG analyst raters, to produce consensus scores on all aspects of corporate social responsibility and sustainability. CSRHub ratings can be used to drive corporate, investor and consumer decisions. For more information, visit www.CSRHub.com. CSRHub is a B Corporation.