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Insuring Hell on Earth

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So for now this is the last of the guest blogs by Dr. Gail Bradbrook, the co-Founder of Extinction Rebellion. I do hope you have enjoyed something of the challenge, passion and alternative ways of seeing things that Gail has brought (find the others here). I invited Gail to contribute because I feel these difficult times require us to come together and listen to each other…Maybe between all of our ideas and thoughts, are the seeds of the better world we hope to leave to our children.

Fiduciary Duty: Insuring a world fit for our children’s retirement?

Pensions and insurance are here to help us have a happy retirement and manage risk, right? Erm…

Andrew Medhurst, a former investment banker and pension specialist, disagrees. Reflecting on how younger people are being encouraged to invest in pensions, Andrew says “Their money is being invested in an unlivable planet. The stock market growth on which they rely is fueled (literally) by investments in companies whose business plans are sending us to a 4 degree Celsius world. Such a world would include a thirty foot sea level rise, heatwaves and droughts and serious food supply problems, not to mention over half of all animal and plant species becoming extinct. I’m not sure what comfort their pension pots will provide if, by some miracle, the stock markets and financial systems haven’t long since collapsed years earlier under such a scenario.” 

UK pension funds have an estimated £128 billion invested in fossil fuels, equivalent to nearly £2,000 for every person in the UK.  £300 billion of pension money is linked to deforestation -that is £2 of every £10 invested. The cosy retirements some of us are hoping for may also be helping to destroy the future of our grandchildren. Unable to square his duty as a parent with the wider context of his 30 year long career in the City, Andrew Medhurst gave up his six figure salary and joined Extinction Rebellion as a volunteer.

As Insure our Future make plain- the best insurance is to keep fossil fuels in the ground and yet insurance companies continue to insure oil, gas and coal. Without insurance, most new fossil fuel projects could not go ahead and current projects would have to close. Lloyd’s of London is estimated to have accounted for approximately 40% of the total global energy insurance premium in 2018 ($2.6 billion of the total $6 billion), based on figures published in 2020 by the London Market Group. The wider London insurance market writes another 15% giving the London market overall 55% of the total global energy sector insurance premium. A scorecard is being kept on the climate policies of insurers and those on the wrong side of history can expect to be targeted by activists.

Rishi Sunak announced that  “Russian companies in the aviation or space industry will now be prevented from making use of UK-based insurance or reinsurance services directly or indirectly. This measure will severely limit their access to the global insurance and reinsurance market.” Why doesn't the UK Government do the same for insurance of fossil fuels? (probably because they are busy issuing new fossil fuel licenses!). It is likely to be down to individual insurers, like Swiss Re, to do the right thing. Therefore Insure our Future have written a letter to CEO’s in the industry to highlight their responsibilities at this time and another regarding regulation of the sector. The irony and the issue therein of the insurance sector also attempting to insure against climate risk should not be lost!

What meaning then are we able to give to insurance and pensions when their very (stated) purpose is undermined by their actual activities? Insuring the Uninsurable report states The insurance industry threatens its own survival by ignoring the risks inherent in climate change, now universally recognised as a major threat to financial stability. Has the purpose of pensions and insurance become overshadowed and swallowed up by the underlying purpose of our economic system (growth for its own sake, that lines the pockets of and creates power for a few) and the paradigm created to justify it - the story of more? Does making money or increasing financial wealth top all other considerations however illogical? 

Central here is a need to understand the difference between crises and collapse. As the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (based at Cambridge University) makes clear, the potential for global heating to end humanity is 'dangerously underexplored'. Dr Luke Kemp, a researcher at the centre says “We know least about the scenarios that matter most.”

Existential risks mean that money may not offer protection or security in the future. As the Cree proverb goes: "When all the trees have been cut down, when all the animals have been hunted, when all the waters are polluted, when all the air is unsafe to breathe, only then will you discover you cannot eat money." 

Where does this leave those who have fiduciary duties (variously defined e.g. here and here) - those with duties to act with ethics and loyalty on behalf of clients who seek a profit? Fiduciary duties have been used as a rationale to argue that investors shouldn’t take account of environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues in their investment processes and decision-making. The matter ought to have been resolved back in 2005 when the Freshfields report argued thatintegrating ESG considerations into an investment analysis so as to more reliably predict financial performance is clearly permissible and is arguably required in all jurisdictions.”

Despite this, “many investors continue to point to their fiduciary duties and to the need to deliver financial returns to their beneficiaries as reasons why they cannot do more on responsible investment”. US expert on fiduciary law Keith Johnson describes a form of capture: "The investment professionals have basically pushed out the attorneys from interpreting fiduciary duty”.

So, if there is still a struggle to integrate ESG (which earlier blogs have critiqued) what hope is there for fiduciaries to think about existential risk? 

As Paul Watchmen (Honorary Professor, School of Law, University of Glasgow) states “The concept of fiduciary duty is organic, not static. It will continue to evolve as society changes, not least in response to the urgent need for us to move towards an environmentally, economically and socially sustainable financial system.”

The groundbreaking report from Climate Safe Lending Network and Positive Money asks what the role of banking regulators is in a burning world and proposes a ten point action plan. The final of which is: A global reset on the definition of ‘fiduciary responsibility’ based on a legal framework for environmental impact

Legal actions aimed at pension companies have been taking place (see here, here and here) and others are planned to test whether they can be considered to be a public nuisance, breaching fiduciary duties, the public trust doctrine, specific contracts and liabilities and committing financial fraud! Meanwhile a recent report condemns auditors for ducking responsibilities with respect to climate reporting.

Bank of Nature are a not for profit, imagining alternatives to the current arrangements for pensions and large institutional investors. They are proposing ways in which our future prosperity and that of our home can be combined, proposing there is an "Untaken Safer Alternative" that fulfills fiduciary duty and stewardship missions and indemnifies against future claims. Here is their Open Letter to Fiduciaries.

So what can individuals do who aren’t fiduciaries? 

  • Take the actions suggested by Make My Money Matter to help push the pension and banking sector towards ethical and green investment.
  • Don’t forget employees can and have had real power in making change. There’s a guide with ideas written for you already!
  • Actuaries - you have a role too - here’s a suggestion for how you can step up to the climate emergency
  • Heads up! This autumn a powerful new climate communication experience will be launched called The Week. More information here - you can become a host and help reach the scale that’s needed for change.
  • Support Ecocide Law - which would criminalise the mass damage and destruction of the environment at the highest legal levels caused by the decisions of business leaders.
  • Insurance Rebellion are calling on Lloyds of London to stop insuring and/or reinsuring all fossil fuel and biomass companies and projects; also to exclude them from syndicate level assets, and relevant funds. You can join them here.  Likewise Coal Action Network with their Insure Climate Justice demands.
  • And, of course I would say this: join Extinction Rebellion.  

As Stephen Fry said in defence of Extinction Rebellion recently- Something has to be done!!

Rebel for Life.

 

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Chris M Skinner

Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog, TheFinanser.com, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal's Financial News. To learn more click here...

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