Are Your Retirement Funds Fueling the Climate Crisis?

Andrew Behar - Are Your Retirement Funds Fueling the Climate Crisis?

They say ignorance is bliss, but ignorance won't save the planet. Over a hundred million Americans have 401(k)s, accounting for over 10 trillion dollars invested. But most of us have little or no clue which companies are bankrolled by our mutual funds, what environmental or personal risks are associated with those investments, or if they align with our personal values. Perhaps many of us would prefer not to know -- thinking that making a change could lower our returns -- but the truth is that our collective ignorance is not only putting our retirements at risk but also the planet we're leaving behind for our children.

Fossil free investing has grown exponentially in recent years. Faith-based and individual investors led the way in using environmental and social criteria to align their investments with their values. Large institutional investors like pension funds and company 401(k)s are starting to follow their lead. Investors large and small are loudly reaffirming commitments to a low-carbon economy.

"Many investors believe there is an ethical obligation not to profit from businesses that inherently accelerate climate change. Investors are also looking to fossil free investing to call attention to the fossil fuel industry's role in creating global climate change..."

That's why As You Sow launched Fossil Free Funds to provide the information we need so that our wealth can grow and make a difference. Using our free online tool, investors can calculate the climate-risk exposure of their mutual funds and make investment decisions based on the specific fossil fuel companies in their portfolios.

As we know, climate change is not a distant threat -- it's here, and it poses a significant challenge to our families, communities, and planet. Many investors believe there is an ethical obligation not to profit from businesses that inherently accelerate climate change. Investors are also looking to fossil free investing to call attention to the fossil fuel industry's role in creating global climate change and its influence over policymakers and the economy.

"401(k)s and similar retirement plans are still mostly invested in index funds with broad exposure to fossil fuel companies -- from Big Oil to small fracking companies to fossil-fired utilities."

Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility:Andrew Behar #AsksTheCEO of Exxon Mobil, May 21, 2020

Retirement plans are still heavily invested in coal, oil, and gas

As the financial industry looks to align their businesses with the Paris climate agreement, asset managers are starting to commit to exclude some of the most egregious climate offenders, like thermal coal producers, from the funds they offer in corporate retirement plans. However, 401(k)s and similar retirement plans are still mostly invested in index funds with broad exposure to fossil fuel companies -- from Big Oil to small fracking companies to fossil-fired utilities.

The world's largest and most influential asset managers are investing in deadly industries -- and they're using workers' retirement plan savings to do so. Through funds from asset managers like Vanguard and State Street, the retirement plans of companies like Amazon and Comcast are investing billions of dollars into fossil fuel companies.

As governments act to restrict emissions, these carbon reserves may become stranded assets. Investors are increasingly asking: will my savings be stranded too?

Avoiding financial risk of fossil fuels

Oil majors and coal mining companies continue exploring for new fossil fuel deposits despite knowing full well we can burn only a fraction of current proven reserves and avoid catastrophic climate change. As governments act to restrict emissions, these carbon reserves may become stranded assets. Investors are increasingly asking: will my savings be stranded too?

Renewable energy technologies are now cheaper than fossil fuels in many markets and are predicted to become cheaper and more widespread. At the same time, carbon reduction measures such as energy efficiency and carbon pricing are being enacted in markets across the globe. It's a quickly decarbonizing energy market, and fossil fuels are under pressure from all directions.

"Many companies working in energy, infrastructure, water... are increasingly leading the way in adopting clean and green products, services, and related infrastructure worldwide ... ensuring they remain competitive and retain value into the future."

Reinvesting in clean energy and climate solutions

Every day brings new evidence of the increasing cost-effectiveness of clean energy and renewables. There is a tremendous opportunity for carbon-free investing to fund energy efficiency and clean technologies and to speed the transition to a clean energy future.

Many companies working in energy, infrastructure, water, transportation, energy storage, air & environment, and agriculture are increasingly leading the way in adopting clean and green products, services, and related infrastructure worldwide. These leading companies are ensuring they remain competitive and retain value into the future.

It all adds up to investors realizing they can earn competitive returns while reducing exposure to the financial risk of fossil fuels.

"The first step is knowledge. The next step is action. You may need to talk to your financial planner, asset manager, or your workplace HR representative to move your money or to increase your low carbon and fossil-free investment options."

TED: Andy Behar - Engaging Business Through Shareholders, December 16, 2010.

Know what you own

The first step in intentional investing is to know what you own. If you're ready to get started greening your retirement savings, head over to Fossil Free Funds. Search the database to find out if your money is invested in increasingly risky high-carbon funds or the companies that continue to extract, consume, and burn fossil fuels. From there,  you can drill down into different fossil fuel industries and find the definition of fossil free that works for you. You can calculate the carbon footprint of your portfolio and compare it to a range of benchmarks. It's a level of detail on a fund's climate impact and exposure you won't find anywhere else.

Wondering how low carbon and fossil free are your 401(k) fund choices? Your 401(k) portfolio could be an engine for a more positive impact. Use our 401(k) Toolkit to learn how to add options to your employer-sponsored retirement plan that are sustainable and positioned for a future of cleaner, greener energy. It's time we wake up to the reality that our retirements may be contributing to the climate crisis.

Making a change

The first step is knowledge. The next step is action. You may need to talk to your financial planner, asset manager, or your workplace HR representative to move your money or to increase your low carbon and fossil-free investment options.

Some may initially resist action. Listen to what they have to say -- but remember, at the end of the day it is your money. You have the right to ask questions about how your money is being invested, and to have more low carbon and fossil free investment options available.