Earlier this year, one of Meryam Omi’s deputies at Legal & General Investment Management sat down with board members and managers from Exxon Mobil Corp. to discuss how the oil giant could address climate change. LGIM, which manages about $1.3 trillion, is one of Exxon’s top 20 shareholders.
The Exxon delegation listened, but it didn’t accept the suggestions, says Omi, LGIM’s head of sustainability and responsible investment strategy. Around the same time, Exxon persuaded the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to block a shareholder resolution that pushed the oil giant to do more to address climate risks.
So, in June, London-based LGIM announced that it had dumped about $300 million worth of its Exxon shares and would use its remaining stake to vote against the reappointment of Exxon Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Darren Woods. “There’s got to be an escalation,” Omi says.
As the risks of climate change have become more pronounced, so have efforts by major investment firms to push companies in greener directions. They tried talking. Then they started backing shareholder resolutions. Now, LGIM is at the forefront of a more aggressive, and controversial, tactic: divesting. “You cannot have the same conversation for 15 years with no results,” Omi explains. (Exxon responded to LGIM’s announcement by saying that it publishes an annual tally of emissions from its operations and is on track to meet targets for reducing methane emissions.)
Momentum is gathering, says Mark Lewis, who leads climate change investment research for Paris-based BNP Paribas Asset Management. He likens it to the divestment campaign that forced companies participating in apartheid-era South Africa to change course, and he invokes the spirit of Gandhi: “They’ve ignored us and laughed at us. I think now they’re fighting us. So next we win.”
I have stated plenty of times that I am extremely skeptical that capitalism can lead us out of the climate crisis. A system that has developed to create profit off transforming the products of the natural world into industrial and consumer goods is inherently unable to not do that, especially when short-term profits reflected in quarterly reports are the coin of the realm. But at the very least, we need people to try. Given that fossil fuel companies are as dirty as it gets, if they aren’t going to listen, then trying divestment to pressure them is surely something we should all support.