There are few forces as mighty as the power of the purse, and just as capital drives the actions of people and the movement of things, so can its absence. Investment can stand up a transnational corporation; a boycott, at least in theory, can take it down.
This axiom played out on a big stage in the spring of 2020 when JP Morgan Chase, which lent more than $195 billion to gas and oil companies over the previous three years, faced a revolt at its annual shareholder meeting. At the virtual meeting, 49.6 percent of shareholders voted to require Chase to produce a plan to align its business with the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement to hold an increase in global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit the rise to 1.5 degrees.
Shareholders also pressured the bank to remove from its board Lee Raymond, the former chief executive officer of ExxonMobil and a renowned climate change denier. That action followed sustained pressure by activists including Bill McKibben, who wrote in an April 2020 New York Times op-ed that Raymond led ExxonMobil while it “helped pioneer corporate efforts to create doubt about climate change” even when its own scientists knew the truth and the corporation was moving to protect its infrastructure from sea-level rise.
The year 2020 began with BlackRock, the world’s largest money manager, announcing a dramatic shift toward prioritizing climate change in its investment strategies. It also began with the mayors of two world capitals — Bill de Blasio of New York and Sadiq Khan of London — urging their counterparts around the world to join them in divesting their municipalities’ pension funds from fossil fuel holdings. They presented “Divesting from Fossil Fuels, Investing in Our Future: A Toolkit for Cities,” a guide to divesting while increasing sustainable investments produced by C40, a network of megacities committed to addressing climate change.
On campuses around the world, students are demanding that their university divest from fossil fuels. Divest Ed offers training and strategy for student-led divestment campaigns. As of May, 2020, GoFossilFree.org listed a total of 1,195 institutions and over 58,000 individuals representing more than $14 trillion in assets, which have begun or committed to a divestment from fossil fuels. 30% of those commitments came from faith-based organizations and 15% from educational institutions including Stanford, the University of California, the University of Hawaii, Georgetown, and most recently University of Vermont, to name a few in the United States.
Wall Street has collectively gotten the message, and today’s investors, millennials very much included, can choose from a number of mutual funds that emphasize sectors from low-carbon electricity and energy efficiency to copper, which is essential for wind- and solar-power infrastructure as well as electric-vehicle-charging stations.