Merryn Somerset Webb’s call for investors concerned about climate change not to sell out of fossil fuel and mining stocks struck a chord with FT Money readers.
Many of the 250 people who responded to last week’s article — Want a greener world? Don’t dump oil stocks — echoed her call for investors to remain shareholders at big oil and mining groups and engage with the managers to pursue green targets.
Smaller numbers of readers who wrote in or left comments on the ft.com website disagreed; they argued that it was better to dump fossil fuel and mining stocks to put pressure on the share price and force executives into green-oriented action.
One reader, a lawyer, emailed to say that many people in finance believed in engagement on green issues but failed to make their case convincingly. “It should be a simple message to deliver, and digest, but it is being done across the sector in a muddled, contrived, caveated manner, and that generally poor job is being done every day by huge numbers of extremely bright people who are otherwise very good at stakeholder engagement and public speaking.”
Commenting online, Free Speech backs engagement. “Giving up on Exxon and selling Exxon stocks means that the new shareholders will not be harassing the chief executive about climate change any more . . . the chief executive would love that . . . If you sell, you help him ignore the problem for longer.”
Zen Investor writes: “Fossil fuels are not going to disappear overnight. If they did, the world economy would simply shut down. In the meantime, we need responsible companies to extract oil until it’s no longer needed. It is not irresponsible to invest in the oil patch so long as supplies are needed, but we should do it cleanly.”
Dpy argues that tough-minded engagement has been proved to work. “All of the green commitments to date by European oil majors have been achieved under the threat of divestment, and the chief executives all publicly mention activist shareholders and their worries over divestment risk to justify the new strategies.”
Wanderer suggests that the same methods work in related sectors. “I hold shares in maritime cruise companies, eg. Carnival, and as soon as they are back in business, I will put pressure on them to clean up their acts, stop using dirty gas oil fuel (use natural gas), don’t go to Venice and don’t dump garbage overboard. The age of responsible shareholding is upon us.”
Nathan advocates a hard form of capitalism, arguing that companies should be free to prioritise profits within the limits of the law and regulation, and not be pushed into pursuing environmental social governance (ESG) aims by activists. He writes: “If it makes money, then they should do it. If it doesn’t make money, then they shouldn’t. When ESG principles make a company more profitable, you won’t have a conflict of interest, and you won’t need ESG activism.”
Other readers take the opposite view — that divestment has an important role in pushing companies to go green. Econguy says: “The strongest message to chief executives is a falling share price which hurts them personally, and then of course hampers their expansion plans by increasing [the] cost of capital for investments not aligned with the future economy.”
Ocean Man says: “We should be forming a cordon sanitaire around the big oil companies and any institutions who choose to invest in them.”
Joel M argues that divestment works, citing Shell as saying that it raises capital costs. He thinks engagement can be effective with individual companies, but that it is difficult to imagine it taking a whole sector, such as oil and gas, out of its core business. “In some cases I believe it is potentially impossible or at least without historical precedent to change a sector.”
Therealligs points out that the real fault lies with consumers, not energy producers. “The environmental activists need to acknowledge the fact that energy companies do not have a carbon footprint, we who use their products do. So selling their shares is just posturing: insulating our homes and turning down the heating, keeping our smartphones for at least five years, buying fewer but long-lasting clothes . . . only taking local public transport (and not flying to Ibiza for holidays), etc, is how to save the planet. But all that would take personal sacrifice, so protesting against nasty corporations is probably just easier.”