Climate Change is now a Climate Crisis

By Frank Sherman

Recently, we took time to reflect on another eventful engagement season and to chart the strategic direction for the coming year.

Looking back at the 2019 engagement season and more than one-hundred climate engagements by ICCR members, we observe:

  • In a notable exception, the electricity generation sector is at a decarbonization tipping point driven by cheaper renewable energy, growing industrial and public demand, and changing public opinion. Securitization laws, distributed energy resources (e.g. rooftop solar) and community solar projects are growing in popularity. The “electrification of everything” shows promise of demand growth, energy savings and environmental sustainability. A growing number of utility companies (nine, according to NRDC) have followed Xcel’s lead by committing to carbon-neutral electricity production by 2050 or sooner.
  • In the face of regulatory rollbacks, natural gas production and distribution companies are committing to voluntary methane leakage reduction targets to salvage the ‘bridge-fuel’ story. With 6000 mid- and small-scale producers, the majors are now advocating for a stronger regulatory regime! Investors have been successful in tying support for meaningful regulation to reputational risk.
  • As investors shifted from demanding scenario assessments to Paris-compliant business plans, U.S. oil & gas companies continued to defend their business-as-usual business model while their European counterparts broke rank. A BP supported climate resolution obtained a 99+% vote while Shell agreed to set GHG reduction targets for their products as well as their operations. In contrast, CA100+ investors at Exxon Mobil recommended voting against the Board after the company omitted their GHG reduction target proposal.
  • With noted exceptions (Wells Fargo and Goldman), large financial companies are starting to assess climate risk in their portfolios. Mid-cap companies were slower to respond to our letter campaign, largely it seems, due to limited capacity to conduct broad risk assessment. Investors will connect them with tools they can use to do a straightforward climate footprint analysis.
  • Political spending and lobbying resolution votes, several of which emphasized climate change, increased to 31%.
  • Engagements calling for science based (GHG reduction) targets made slow progress in contrast to the scientific community call for more urgent action.

Impacting the climate science and changing political landscape, 2018 was the wettest year on record while wildfires in California resulted in the first climate change bankruptcy of Pacific Gas and Electric. Global carbon emissions reached a record, and the U.S. power sector reversed its’ multi-year decline.  The IPCC special report warned that countries’ pledges to reduce their emissions are not in line with limiting global warming to 1.5°C. Some are responding to the crisis – 80 countries are planning to increase their climate pledges ahead of schedule. The UK is the first member of the G7 to legislate net zero emissions, joining Finland and Costa Rica.

The 4th U.S. National Climate Assessment Report starkly warns of risks to the U.S. economy while the Trump administration’s environmental rollbacks are poised to increase GHG emissions significantly. Public opinion is finally shifting with over 70% of Americans saying climate change is a reality, with most believing human activity is primarily responsible. Republican millennials support a carbon tax 7-to-1 with 85% stating that the Republican position on climate change is hurting the party. The Midterm elections flipped the House of Representatives and 7 state governorships to Democrats. Twenty-one states have now joined the U.S. Climate Alliance committed to the Paris Climate Agreement. Four states (CA, WA, HI, NM) and Puerto Rico have targeted 100% clean energy by 2050 or sooner, with nine additional states (IL, MA, MI, MN, MS, NC, NY, PA, WI) proposing similar legislation. The Green New Deal resolution changed the conversation on Capitol Hill and the Climate Action Now Act put the House on record as supporting the Paris Accord.    

Financial markets are not immune to this crisis. Munich Re predicts climate change will price regions out of insurance. The broad acceptance of the TCFD guidelines increases pressure on companies to improve disclosure.

Considering the broader investor landscape and NGO campaigns, the CA100+ global initiative focused on large emitters and led by large asset managers, pension funds, and sovereign funds. Some ICCR members participate in the CA100+ teams while others continue parallel engagements to reinforce the message. Still others are shifting focus to mid-cap companies. We believe that more coordination is needed to increase effectiveness.

Efforts to make methane emissions reduction targets the norm have been limited to the oil & gas majors and larger natural gas producers. The EPA’s proposed rollback of the New Source Performance Standards regulating oil and gas emissions will further erode the regulatory floor, especially as the EPA now proposes to deregulate methane. We look forward to publication of an EDF study on methane measurement and mitigation and Union of Concerned Scientists has formed a working group to study CCS.  

Efforts towards a Just Transition have born fruit as investors and companies have a growing awareness of the unintended, negative consequences that decarbonization has on people. We made a good start with last October’s investor statement, representing $3.7 trillion in assets, and the CA100+ framework, which includes just transition questions; however, most companies lack the policies and practices to address these issues. Addressing the needs of employees, customers and local communities will accelerate transition rather than deter it.

Recalling Fr. Mike Crosby’s prophetic statement, “We are at a Kairos moment,” we look forward to developing with our allies a new strategy statement regarding future engagement of the oil & gas sector to help investors differentiate between fossil fuel companies making progress and those protecting business-as-usual models. Rollout will be stepwise with more guidance forthcoming. Finally, alongside our allies, we have reviewed a draft climate change principles which reflect an increased urgency and stepped up action.

Finally, let us turn to our 2020 engagement strategy. Given our progress in recent years within the electric utility sector, we expect to expand engagements further into mid-cap companies and push for net-zero carbon targets. We will collaborate with NGO’s and other partners to engage the state utility commissions and give input on the Green New Deal. ICCR is planning a multi-stakeholder Roundtable in December to discuss the challenges of decarbonization and promote a just transition.

Investors engaging the financial sector are promoting a shift from simply assessing climate change risk to their own operations to assessing the climate-related risk they facilitate through their lending and underwriting. Coordinating with the Climate Safe Lending Initiative, they plan to engage the top five U.S. banks and some regional banks in 2020 on climate risk. Investors will ask banks to follow the TCFD recommendations, complete a climate impact assessment, pledge no new fossil fuel investments, and ultimately, decarbonize their portfolio (Banking on Climate Change: Fossil Fuel Finance Report Card 2019). Planned for early September, an investor brief and webinar will educate interested investors. As well, we will ask smaller banks to join the Platform Carbon Accounting Framework to calculate their carbon footprint.

Our methane work will continue to promote best practices in measurement and management to minimize methane leakage. We plan to engage companies on including their “non-operated assets” (i.e. joint ventures) in their methane targets, and step up engagement of distributors and retailers to source “sustainably produced” natural gas. At the same time, we recognize that natural gas can no longer be viewed as a “bridge fuel” to clean energy and agree that no new gas power plants can be justified given the climate crisis. On the other hand, replacing industrial and residential uses of natural gas remains a challenge.

It is clear that we recognize the increased urgency and need to step-up our demands. Within ICCR, we reflect this by the change to our Program name from Climate Change to Climate Crisis. This can no longer be considered a gradual change. We are in crisis mode so we need to respond differently!

Faith-Based Shareholders: In It for the Long Haul

While it may seem like a long time, it is heartening to recall that Moses and the Israelites spent 40 years in the desert, waiting to enter the promised land.

Almost 30 years ago, Fr. Mike Crosby, O.F.M., Cap. began a dialogue with executives from Wendy’s. Concerned that adequate progress was not being made on due diligence concerning potential and actual human rights issues, the Capuchin Province of St. Joseph filed a shareholder resolution on human rights this year. The company challenged the resolution, and the Securities Exchange Commission ruled that the resolution could be omitted. As our resolution had been omitted by the SEC, it would not be coming to a vote, but I attended the shareholder meeting in Dublin, OH on behalf of the Capuchins so as to make a statement to the board and the company officers about our concerns in the area of human rights due diligence.

The team from Wendy’s were very gracious hosts. Having arrived early, a member of the investor relations team took me to visit what had been the office of Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas. I had the opportunity to meet executives who have been on calls with us. Personally, I find it helpful to have a face to put to the voice that I hear on the phone. I also had the opportunity to meet CEO Todd Penegor, board chair Nelson Peltz, and chief legal officer E.J. Wunsch, as well as other members of the board.

The meeting itself lasted a bit over 75 minutes. After a brief video highlighting Wendy’s 50 years, Mr. Peltz opened the meeting. Three items of business were conducted: a vote concerning the board of directors, a vote concerning the company’s auditors, and, finally, an advisory vote concerning executive compensation. The video to the voting was completed within a swift 11 minutes. Next, Mr. Penegor gave an overview of the company’s business plan. Following Mr. Penegor, Liliana Esposito, the chief communications officer, addressed corporate social responsibility and gave an ESG update.

Upon the conclusion of Ms. Esposito’s remarks, the floor was opened to general questions and comments. First, Kerry Kennedy, daughter to the late Robert F. Kennedy, spoke in favor of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and the Fair Food Program. Next, Mr. Peltz recognized me, and I approached the microphone to offer my statement.

My remarks aimed to accomplish four things:

  • To identify the abundant risks for human trafficking and forced labor in agricultural supply chains;
  • To describe the fundamental shift effected by laws here in the U.S. and abroad that, while good and necessary, codes of conduct and audits are no longer sufficient;
  • To outline a better process, employed by many leading companies: a human rights risk assessment that incorporates the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights;
  • And to encourage Wendy’s to take these necessary steps that, at heart, are in accord with the deepest values of the founder, Dave Thomas, and the company.

Subsequently, Chelsea Rudman of the Workers Rights Consortium spoke similarly of the value of worker-driven social responsibility efforts. Lena Brook of the Natural Resources Defense Council spoke about the use of medically-important antibiotics in meat and poultry served at Wendy’s. A shareholder asked a question concerning the updating of restaurant infrastructures. Mike Telford of the National Pork Producers Council thanked Wendy’s for their relationship with pork producers. Nelly Rodriguez, from the CIW, offered a moving witness, in Spanish, about the importance of the Fair Food Program. Another shareholder asked a question concerning non-meat substitutes. Finally, a shareholder, who is also an adoption assessor, rose to speak a word of thanks for Wendy’s commitment to the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. Soon thereafter, the meeting was adjourned.

While the meeting maintained its decorum, no attendee could be blind to the concerns raised by the different voices. While I am disappointed that our resolution did not come to a vote this year, SGI remain committed to working with Wendy’s to improve their practices in the area of human rights.

As the saying goes, Rome was not built in a day. Even after a 40-year sojourn in the desert, the fact is that Moses never made it into the promised land, but he did see it before he died. Faith-based shareholders differ from day traders. We are in it for the long haul. We genuinely care about the companies we engage. We will bring items to their attention that may make company leadership uncomfortable. We do so, because we are committed to protecting people and the planet. We believe that the interests of the company, through the long haul, align with the interests of people and the planet.

The statement prepared for the 2019 Wendy’s shareholder meeting can be found here.

The surprisingly powerful voice of shareholders

By Mark Peters, Director of Justice, Peace and Reconciliation, Priests of the Sacred Heart, US Province, Member, SGI Board

How did I, someone who’s never been much into shopping and stores and has gotten his clothes from Kohl’s since junior high, find myself addressing the CEO, Board and a smattering of shareholders of Macy’s, Inc. in Cincinnati last month? It’s all thanks to a Capuchin priest who had the foresight to see how important corporations would become in the 21st Century.

Fr. Mike Crosby, OFM Cap, died two years ago, but he lives on in the work of Seventh Generation Interfaith Coalition for Responsible Investment. Fr. Mike recruited me back in 2014 and coached me through my first shareholder resolution, which was with TJX, the company that owns TJMaxx, Homegoods and Marshalls. We got 3% of the vote, a victory because you needed that much to bring it back the next year. That time we got under the next benchmark and that was the end of that campaign, though not of our continuing dialogue with TJX. Votes under 5% are not unusual in this line of work! We often plant seeds that don’t bear immediate fruit.

This year Chris Cox, Associate Director of SGI (along with Executive Director Frank Sherman, who was mentored by Mike), directed our resolution with Macy’s, requesting a report on their process for ensuring that no vendor is engaged in forced labor (their byzantine supply chains are the reason their clothes are so cheap and the company is so profitable). Chris consulted with experts in the drafting of the resolution and provided me with lots of material for the dialogue that the company agreed to after we filed. But ultimately the company would not agree to undertake the report, so we did not withdraw, as is sometimes done when a company does make a good faith beginning.

That’s what brought me to Cincinnati on May 17. Someone needed to be present to “move” the proposal, as the Board had made known it’s opposition to it and it would be dropped if no one spoke for it. However, Macy’s was stingier than most with the time they allot speakers, and we were told we had only one minute. So 800 miles driving and a hotel stay, all for the sake of 90 seconds (try and keep me to 60!) of opportunity to sway the votes of a mere handful of shareholders present at the (to me) surprisingly sparsely-attended AGM (annual general meeting) — all of whom, as it turned out, had apparently already voted their shares prior to the meeting.  So I was basically just talking to the board.

But in the end the shareholders spoke to them as well, because our proposal received 40% of the vote!  Chris and I were shocked, but very pleasantly so, as this ensures us a continued seat at the table with the company, and the very real chance of a win next year. Apparently investors are starting to care about human trafficking!

As often happens (and as someone else has done for us with this same proposal at the TJX AGM this week outside of Boston), we’d been asked to move another group’s proposal, this one on transparency on political contributions. I read their statement as well, and that proposal actually received 53% of the vote. I spoke to the Corporate Counsel afterward, and she said the company would likely implement the proposal because of that showing.

A number of other SGI members have had successful outings this proxy season, especially those working on climate change-related resolutions, which for most investors is now clearly a strong value. Now begins the work of readying ourselves for the next season!

Mark’s statement at the annual shareholder meeting can be found here.