All in the Family: Fossil Fuel Divestment

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABy Anders Ferguson, Partner

How does one respond to thoughtful criticism about divesting from the global fossil fuel companies?

The comments of Stephen L. Carter, professor of law at Yale, are indicative of the broadening debate. Carter posits, “Do Unto Exxon as You Would Do Unto Yourself.” His comments were in response to the United Church of Christ’s decision to divest of fossil fuel stocks. Carter asks, why is it that we only focus on the companies we want to change? How about ourselves and our use of carbon?

The experience of university students may be very useful in teaching us how to approach the issue. Around the nation, thousands of students are pushing their colleges to divest from fossil fuels. They are part of a major national campaign led by Bill McKibben of, which is likened to the successful Apartheid divestment movement of the 1990’s.

Students Committed To Change

Last spring, students from Middlebury and Oberlin Colleges approached me seeking professional investment insight about the divestment issue. They were all actively working for fossil fuel divestment of their colleges’ endowments. They wanted help in preparing to talk seriously with their colleges’ Trustees. I was impressed with these students’ grasp of the complicated issues involved, particularly their deepening understand of the investment-related concerns. (I proposed to a couple students that they had promising careers in sustainable investing if interested!)

In response, Veris prepared an analysis, Fossil Fuel Divestment in Endowments, which was well-received. The more I listened to, and considered the students’ approach, I wondered if there weren’t additional ways to advance the college divestment initiatives. Institutions are rarely “first adopters” of major shifts in investing strategy. While institutions including college/university endowments have the greatest total assets globally, students, alumni and their families also control significant fortunes. Often, activist families are early “canaries in the mine.” Put simply, if they so choose, individuals and families can make a decision tonight over dinner to divest from fossil fuels.

The Veris Approach

At Veris, we also consider and encourage multiple strategies for analyzing and advancing fossil fuel divestment. The college endowment divestment push is a globally relevant and powerful campaign. Hugely visible. Cities and religious institutions are also joining. But let’s remember that primary change agents in such major decisions are, in the end, me and my neighbor; a college activist and her or his mother. 

Hence my question back to the enthusiastic students crusading for Fossil Fuel Divestment: “What about your colleges’ AND your parents’ portfolios?” You can educate many investors and influence many billions of dollars of assets if you engage your families. And as a student activist, you will learn a lot about what it takes to make investment decisions – which will greatly increase your effectiveness with college Trustees.

In the end, you and me and our collective decisions, cause change. We like to think it is companies or institutions or governments or our religious institutions. Really, each of us can make a difference. As we make new decisions, as we change our minds, we influence everyone around us, including college Trustees.

It’s Worth The Effort

It’s scary. It may be emotional. It’s likely controversial. Money pushes buttons. But every family that considers changing their portfolios to be more sustainable, to have more impact in the world, broadens the ripples for change.

Student leaders of the divestment campaign should consider seeking sustainable investment training from their supporters to be more effective in working with their colleges’ trustees. This also prepares students for personal conversations with their parents.

Board rooms are critical, but dinner tables are often where the conversations start that lead to change in board rooms.

Anyone free for dinner?

Lebron, Bill & Fossil Fuels

The Heat

In game 6 of the NBA championships, Lebron James led the Miami Heat past the San Antonio Spurs, winning 103-100–the same day the Miami heat index reportedly reached 103. If Lebron James is the face of the NBA champion Miami Heat, environmental activist Bill McKibben is the face of the national fossil fuel divestment movement led by

McKibben’s campaign to mobilize investors to divest from the companies that hold the world’s 200 largest fossil fuel reserves has an important relationship to temperature, in Miami and globally. The International Energy Agency has stated that to keep temperatures within 2 degrees Celsius of pre-industrial levels, we cannot burn more than one-third of the world’s known fossil fuel reserves before 2050. Experts suggest that above 2 degrees Celsius, human habitability and earth ecosystems become fatally compromised. This temperature target was the catalyst for McKibben’s call to divest, a call that has been answered by five colleges and eleven cities nationally to date.

At the heart of the movement are student leaders at campuses across the country, calling for college endowments to divest for ethical and symbolic reasons. The fossil fuel divestment movement seeks to create dialogue and motivate university trustees, who are decision makers on over $400 billion in endowment assets, to consider the responsibility in addressing global challenges such as climate change.

The Role of Sustainable Investing

Sustainable investors, like Veris, have long promoted re-allocating investment capital away from carbon intensive companies towards climate change solutions. This includes investments in alternative energy, energy efficiency, natural resources (e.g. water, farmland, and forestry), green building and green infrastructure developments.

While global fossil fuel reserves are a critical data point to consider when investing in the energy sector, as pointed out by McKibben’s movement, there are many other key considerations–hydrofracking, pipeline development and rapidly changing technology–for sustainable investors. Furthermore, sustainable investors use Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) investment criteria to consider factors beyond a company’s fossil fuel reserve size. These criteria include specific data points, such as a company’s decision-making process from a governance perspective, impact on the community and treatment of workers.

At Veris, we practice a holistic portfolio approach to mitigate climate change. We enable our clients to divest as appropriate, invest proactively in climate change solutions, support shareholder engagement to shift corporate behavior of the worst environmental offenders across all asset classes. We are not alone in this approach. Many leaders, including those at the center of the divestment movement, agree. The fossil fuel divestment movement, mentioned by President Obama in a recent speech, is a catalyst for transformational dialogue across mainstream board rooms around risk and responsibility.

At Veris, we advance connections between our clients, their investment portfolios, and the world they want to create. We all live in a world where we cannot escape fossil fuels–from the clothes we wear, the food we eat, to the cars and planes we travel in. We can, however, use our assets–as individuals, municipalities and endowments–to increase investment in climate solutions that transform our lives and economy.

Welcome to the Veris Blog

Welcome to the inaugural issue of IMPACT: Ideas and insights changing the world and the way we invest. We created IMPACT to share the latest thinking and perspective of the Veris Team and to highlight a couple of key trends and research about sustainable and impact investing.

We live in transformative times.  An epoch of deep change is under way, creating new ideas and action amidst a sea of profound challenges and creative destruction.  Climate change may be altering our planet, our ecosystem, and other essential life-giving and supporting factors in unimaginably negative ways. Human health may be in decline from chronic disease and global pandemics caused by modern lifestyles; they are swamping not only the American healthcare system, but also rapidly growing nations like China and India.

Core industries are dying. In manufacturing, human hands are being replaced by robots, or otherwise by the hands of lower-wage workers in emerging countries. Very high and chronic unemployment may become structural in Western economies.  Our social safety nets are crumbling.

The Power of Innovation

At the same time, innovation and new technologies are driving a rapid shift to sustainable industries. Astoundingly, wind energy is threatening nuclear and power electric production in the US. Global companies and social entrepreneurs are simultaneously seeking new ways to build more sustainable companies and enterprises to solve intractable environmental and social dilemmas.  In fact, sustainable corporate practices are growing so rapidly that we are seeing a whole class of companies beginning to “break away” from the pack. They are outperforming and out-innovating their competitors based on serious and holistic sustainable business practices.

In local communities, we are seeing community-based organizations, NGOs and individuals taking action to build more resilient and life-giving communities.  Just look at the explosion of local food systems, community energy, Community Development Banks, energy-efficient buildings, new indicators to measure human prosperity. All of this is creating communities that have a resilient, sustainable vision of places people can live and work. Look around. It won’t take long to find these and other practical examples of “new wealth” being built in your community.

The Veris Solution

At Veris, we track these macro and micro trends and work to understand them. We work with families and foundations who care as much about performance as using their wealth to positively impact society. We also work with a wide ecosystem of colleagues across the sustainable investing landscape to create and advance cutting-edge approaches to fully integrating sustainable business practices and impact investing.  After all, capital drives economies and our individual values drive how we invest our capital.  Veris supports those changing their practices to make a difference in their lifetime and for future generations.

Featured in this inaugural issue is a highlight on one way that Veris walks our talk to create impact inside our company and in the world: our membership in the world of B Corporations.  We are thrilled to be named a Best for the World B Corp and to be the only wealth manager with that distinction.

In upcoming posts we will highlight issues ranging from:

  • Green technologies transforming products and production
  • Gender Lens Investing recognizing and empowering women, girls and companies
  • Community wealth building renewing communities
  • Sustainable food systems bring local and sustainable food back home
  • And on…

We hope you enjoy IMPACT.  We promise only relevant and pithy commentary combined with breaking stories. In a world of information overload, we curate content to give you insight and ideas that are changing the world and the way we invest…in under 5 minutes.

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