“Follow the money,” Deep Throat tells Bob Woodward in All The President’s Men. That approach often works for investigators – and for investors. But sometimes it can backfire dramatically, as when all Wall Street flocked to overpriced derivatives that collapsed in 2008.
Now, some leading central bankers, regulators and investors warn we could see a similar collapse if markets don’t better factor climate change into our investing decisions. Already, fossil fuels have significantly underperformed the broader market for five straight years.
“The challenges currently posed by climate change pale in significance compared with what might come (including) global impacts on property, migration and political stability, as well as food and water security,” Mark Carney, the Bank of England Governor and former Goldman Sachs partner warned Lloyd’s of London insurers.
Sarah Breeden, Carney’s Bank of England colleague, recently reiterated that warning. “Climate change poses significant risks to the economy and to the financial system, and while these risks may seem abstract and far away, they are in fact very real, fast approaching, and in need of action today,” she said. “The financial system needs to act now to plot a new course to safer waters.”
The World Bank predicted that unless we take “concerted action” to cut greenhouse gas emissions, “the worsening impacts of climate change” would turn more than 140 million people into climate refugees by 2050. If we look at the political turmoil in the U.S. and Europe that’s resulted from thousands seeking refuge over the past few years, we can just imagine the upheaval and conflict that could arise as 140 million people seek safe haven.
The 2015 Paris Agreement by 186 nations to reduce greenhouse gasses was the world’s first “concerted action.” President Trump’s vow to withdraw, and the fact that major industrialized nations have not implemented the emission cuts they pledged, shows how difficult it is given that the global economy remains largely founded on fossil fuels, despite their diminishing returns, excessive subsidies, contributions to greenhouse gasses and climate-related catastrophes.
In fact, securing uninterrupted access to fossil fuels has been seen in the U.S. as top national security issue since the 1973 and 1979 oil crises. Since then, support for exploration, drilling, refining and transport of oil and gas has been woven into U.S. military, diplomatic, economic, tax and even some environmental policies.
And yet even the military is warning that continued reliance on fossil fuels undercuts rather than guarantees our national security. Fifteen retired admirals and generals in 2017 signed a report saying the U.S. should protect its national security by taking the lead in advanced and renewable energy back from China and Europe. More than 1,100 companies, including energy giants such as ExxonMobil, say the US should stay in the Paris Agreement to combat climate change.
The insurance and credit rating industries are also sending warning signals. Insurers are increasingly refusing to provide insurance in areas at clear risk of fire or flooding. The Society of Actuaries this year ranked climate change as their top risk factor, ahead of cyber damages, financial instability or terrorism. Moody’s, the credit rating agency, bought a climate data firm, signalling greater scrutiny of climate risks.
“If the risk from wildfires, flooding, storms, or hail is increasing, then the only sustainable option we have is to adjust our risk prices accordingly… it might become a social issue,” Ernst Rauch, Munich Re’s chief climatologist, told The Guardian’s Arthur Nelsen. “Some people on low and average incomes in some regions will no longer be able to buy insurance.”
Business is taking steps to avoid the crisis. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Initiative is promoting “a national energy agenda that drives innovation, lower emissions and fosters economic growth… helping America address climate change.”
“Complacency is our greatest enemy,” the Institute has written. “We must develop new, affordable, diverse, and clean sources of energy that will underpin our nation’s economy and keep us strong both at home and abroad… If we do not take this challenge seriously, America’s economic prosperity, national security, and global standing will be at risk.”
General Electric announced in June that it will close a California gas plant because it could not compete with solar and wind. In July, GE and Blackrock announced a partnership to provide distributed solar and storage, which allows people and businesses to reduce their dependence on grids that might go down.
These moves are driven by economics, not by politics. Renewables are now less expensive than fossil fuels in most global markets, according to both IRENA and an industry report. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power announced a record low solar price of 1.99¢/kWh, and just 1.3¢/kWh for energy storage. Portugal bested that with a record low of 1.6¢/kWh for solar.
Nature reports that China has reached “grid parity,” meaning that unsubsidized distributed rooftop solar is cheaper than grid electricity. The U.S. EIA forecasts that 66% of new electric generating capacity in 2019 will come from solar and wind, with 34% from gas, while 54% of system retirements will come from coal, 27% from gas and 18% from nuclear.
These facts reflect a transformational tipping point in the world’s energy production capabilities. “Follow the money,” as Deep Throat said – not where it’s been, but where it’s headed.
A U.S. government report recently predicted that “more frequent and intense extreme weather and climate-related events (will) damage infrastructure, ecosystems, and social systems (as well as) the rate of economic growth.”
If the hard evidence of climate change doesn’t convince us, like the frog in the proverbial pot of water, that the temperature is becoming dangerously warm, maybe the record low prices of renewables, and the warnings of central bankers and business leaders will:
We face a crisis, and we need to start acting like it. We need to adjust our thinking, policies and investments to protect our economies, health and future. And we need to start now.