By Christine Skolnik
350 Chicago faces two distinct challenges when it comes to persuading local pension funds to divest. The first is the effect of the massive disinformation campaigns launched by the fossil fuel industry in response to divestment initiatives in the U.S. and around the world. These campaigns have not only misrepresented facts related to the fiscal case for divesting from fossil fuel assets, they may be based on questionable reporting practices by the fossil-fuel industry. Fossil fuel industry lies, and financial liabilities will be the main focus of the current article.
The second issue is the local history of pension funds in Chicago. I’d like to review some of this history immediately below, just for context. At the end of the article, I will tie the two challenges together and suggest a possible strategy for 350 Chicago and other divestment campaigns. Although we lack standing to demand that our tax dollars be responsibly invested through pension funds (because of laws protecting pension funds from government interference), we do have a right and a responsibility as citizens to uncover the elaborate web of media deception and outright lies spun by the fossil fuel industry. Financial mismanagement has cost Chicago taxpayers in various ways including the devaluation of city bonds and an additional tax burden today as we pay for pension underfunding in the past. If we are not vigilant, we may also have to pay the price for bad investments in the future.
The Chicago Pension Landscape
Chicago has been facing a pension crisis for many years. The crisis is a result of systematic underfunding of municipal employee pensions over decades and the recession of 2008. Some parties have also cited poor management of investments, but this is not a clear argument—not yet. The first factor is the overwhelming cause. The Richard M. Daley government underfunded pensions for decades and, because of his long career in office, the problem wasn’t addressed until it was far too late. Read more about the history of municipal pension funds in this Chicago Tribune article.
Most people know that the stock market is a game of averages. If the pensions had been properly funded before 2008, they would likely have made gains that would have offset the losses in the Great Recession. However, with a lack of capital investment and lack of accumulated interest, the recession had a disproportionate effect. Since then, fund managers have projected higher returns on investment than they have achieved. This is not uncommon. No one can really predict what will happen in the future. However, again because of underfunding and legacy mismanagement of City finances, these shortfalls have had a disproportionate effect. In any case, Chicago is legally bound by the Illinois constitution to honor its pension responsibilities.
These circumstances leave 350 Chicago in a difficult position. The pension funds are a political hot button: the citizenry is resentful, and both the City and the fund managers have been accused of mismanagement. Thus, both the City and the fund managers are, presumably, very wary about making changes. And this problem is exacerbated by fossil-fuel disinformation campaigns, as we will illustrate presently. However, there is one general strategy that might give environmental groups an opening. This strategy will be the subject of the last section of this paper, but it begins and ends with uncovering half a century of fossil-fuel industry deception.
The Cover Up
The fossil fuel industry has been funding elaborate, multi-layered, disinformation campaigns for decades and has stepped up its efforts in response to the divestment movement. These campaigns speak to the industry’s lack of transparency and outright corruption. Such tactics seem to indicate that the industry is hiding something. What are they hiding? Recent lawsuits and media reports suggest that the industry is hiding not only the effects of fossil fuels on climate, but also the potential cost of future (likely imminent) climate change regulations on its business.
In 2018, 350 Chicago leader Larry Coble contributed two important white papers on the fossil fuel industry to the 350 Chicago archives. The Fiscal Case for Fossil Fuel Divestment, which Coble wrote along with Joe Antoun, a Certified Financial Planner, outlined the many risks associated with fossil-fuel investments. The second paper, Opposition to Fossil Fuel Divestment: A Study of Divestment Facts.com included a detailed description of the fossil fuel industry’s disinformation campaigns and a jaw-dropping case study. The second paper inspired new research into the American Petroleum Institute, summarized here, as well as the general rhetorical strategy proposed in this paper.
Since the 1950’s, the American Petroleum Institute has been working to protect the oil industry from liability and damage to their reputation. Their first campaigns were launched in the context of air pollution. In the 50’s and 60’s, “the API worked to downplay the threat of smog to human health in Los Angeles by hiring their own scientists that would disparage leading smog control scientists, while promoting the idea that pollution controls would be too costly.”
In the 1990’s the API organized and funded a “Global Climate Science Communication Plan” to discredit the science of global warming. These types of initiatives have continued into the twenty-first century with the help of climate denial scientists. Between 2008 and 2017, the API spent a shocking $663 million on a combination of public relations, advertising, and communication.
Coble’s Opposition to Fossil Fuel Divestment: A Study of Divestment Facts.com focused on another industry association, the Independent Petroleum Association of America. IPAA appears to be an association of small petroleum producers but is funded by big oil interests including Chevron, Exxon Mobil, and Shell. According to Coble, the organization has been focused on opposing Fossil Fuel divestment campaigns since 2015:
In an effort to delegitimize groups such as those affiliated with 350.org on college campuses and active in American cities seeking the elimination of fossil fuel assets from university endowments, city operational budgets, and municipal and state pension funds respectively, the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) launched a multi-faceted project to blunt the momentum of the divestiture movement in the United States.
API and IPPAA tactics are summarized in the next section of this paper.
More recently, industry PR efforts have focused on political campaigns and placing fossil-fuel executives, lawyers, and lobbyists in high-ranking political positions. This is because alternative energy has become cost effective, will become cheaper in the near future and is already cheaper than fossil-fuels in many regions of the country. In other words, direct political influence and control of regulations are among the few strategies that can stop the bleeding. However, these political maneuvers rely on ongoing public disinformation initiatives that have succeeded in persuading a large sector of the general public that fossil-fuels are essential to American economic stability and growth. Most Americans simply cannot grasp that oil represents economies of the past and that investment in alternative energy promises economic growth in the future, as so many other countries around the world understand. At the time that Trump was appointing a fossil-fuel cabinet, China announced a five-year plan to invest $300 billion dollars in renewable energy. Though the federal government has changed dramatically since the 2020 election, State and local governments are still capable of impeding the transition to renewable energy sources, as evidenced by Texas Governor Abbott’s bizarre statements, last year, that renewable energy, and not grid failure, was somehow to blame for the massive blackouts following unexpected winter storms.
Fossil-fuel disinformation campaigns are startling in their complexity and multiple levels of deception. These tactics have obviously worked for the industry, but they are also a potential Achilles heel. Because the industry hasn’t covered its tracks well enough, the lies and deceptions are easy to uncover. If the general public came to understand the depth of corruption in fossil fuel industry PR campaigns, then the strength could become a weakness. By mounting such elaborate campaigns, the fossil fuel industry has effectively put its corruption on display. These tactics also strongly suggests that they are hiding something. Though recent court cases accusing the industry of misrepresenting their financial risks have not been successful, the misleading campaigns point to foul play as do the facts of the suits themselves. The New York State suit, for example, focused on the fact that ExxonMobil used one method for reporting risks internally and another method for external reports. More significantly, the suit arose from a sudden decline in stock prices arguably related to public exposure of ExxonMobil’s misrepresentation of “the potential costs of climate change on its business”
New York State lost the lawsuit because they failed to prove that investors were actually influenced by potentially misleading reports, but it is only one of many lawsuits being brought against the fossil fuel industry by U.S. cities and states. The industry has experienced a great deal of bad PR to say the least. The proven record of the fossil fuel industry to deceive the public through disinformation campaigns in addition to a long string of lawsuits from various quarters will likely make it easier for the public to believe that the industry is also deceiving shareholders, investment advisers, and fund managers. Thus, a strategic environmental activist goal could be to continue to erode public and economic sector confidence in the fossil-fuel industry.
The Coble white paper clearly outlines the various levels of deception involved in the fossil fuel disinformation campaigns. The first step is the co-opting of industry organizations like the API and IPAA. In the second step, industry organizations hire consulting and public relations firms like Democracy Data & Communications, Compass Lexecon, and FTI Consulting. These public relations firms then create fake grass-roots organizations—a practice called “astroturfing.” They also hire academics to publish specious articles in open-access data bases that are neither peer-reviewed nor sponsored by academic institutions. This is a double-barreled third step. (Section titles are included in this and all future end notes to the “Opposition to Fossil Fuel Divestment” article, for quicker reference.)
The API has launched a number of “astroturf” organizations and campaigns including Energy Citizens and Vote4Energy. Energy Citizens websites are hosted by Democracy Data & Communications, a PR firm that was paid $43 million by the API between 2011 and 2017. The “astroturf” organizations give the illusion that consumer and civil rights are under attack. They make environmental organization seem somehow undemocratic though in fact the PR tactics are an attack on real grass-roots initiatives.
As part of this multilevel strategy, Industry PR firms hire academics to influence fiduciaries and give them ammunition to stave off divestment campaigns. Among the academic “hired guns” are current and retired professors at top universities in the U.S. One of these academics, Dr. Paul Fischel (former professor at Northwestern University and University of Chicago Law School) is the Chairman and CEO of Compass Lexecon, a fossil-fuel industry consulting/PR firm. As previously mentioned, the “academic studies” are “published” in open-access databases such as Semantic Scholar and SSRN. It is vitally important to understand that these databases are not peer-reviewed journals and thus the author’s have no academic motive to publish them.
This information is then disseminated to a wide variety of “journalists,” who place fake news articles in the opinion columns of reputable newspapers and magazines. This is the fourth step. Investment advisors, trustees, and fiduciaries then cooperate willingly or under false pretenses to block real grass-roots campaigns such as student-lead divestment initiatives at various academic institutions. Particularly ironic, and ultimately damaging in terms of corporate reputation, are ExxonMobil’s complaints that environmental organizations are using fossil-fuel industry tactics. Such “big lie” strategies put the industry in an elite but growing category of public menaces.
A complex disinformation strategy was obvious in the University of Denver case study so well described in the Coble paper. Academics, industry leaders, and journalists testifying against student activists in private and public forums apparently represented different sectors of the public but were actually hired by fossil-fuel PR firms.
On Bad Authority
On the surface, “academic studies” legitimize the “news” stories planted by the fossil fuel industry. However, when you scratch the surface, you quickly see that this is “a house of cards” representing a hollow and vulnerable industry. Everything is coming from one, extremely biased source. None of the information is objective because it is being paid for by the fossil-fuel industry. In such a scenario, investment advisors are unwitting agents of the fossil fuel industry. Furthermore, when they advise various funds to keep investing in fossil fuels, based on disinformation, and when they dismiss the various arguments and facts illustrating the risks of investing in fossil fuels, they help the industry at both actual (present-day) and potential (future) costs to their clients. However, if fiduciaries are categorically uninformed because of the massive fossil-fuel cover up this complicates fiduciary responsibility.
Media disinformation about financial costs and benefits are perhaps the most complex strategy of the fossil fuel industry, but these are not the only arguments. Similar tactics are used to characterize environmental organizations including student and other community divestment groups as self-interested and hypocritical. Fossil fuel agents set up a false dichotomy between economic interests and the environment. They claim to be interested in the public’s economic interests and simultaneously claim that environmentalists don’t care about economics. We have seen these talking points over and over again in the fossil-fuel PR and, not coincidentally, in political rhetoric against pro-environmental policies.
Again, this is a false dichotomy. The best businessmen in the world are investing in alternative energy. Bill Gates’s investment in “Heliogen” (concentrated solar power) and green hydrogen is one example. Elon Musk’s investment in SolarCity, a solar panel and roof tile company is another example. Even the fossil fuel companies are starting to invest in alternative energy. This is no reason to keep investing in fossil fuel companies, however, as they continue to deploy most of their resources to extract and burn fossil fuels so that they can get the most use of their in-ground assets before the carbon bubble bursts.
I now offer a brief summary of the actual financial risks of continuing to invest in fossil fuels for two reasons. 1. To highlight the actual financial consequences of fossil-fuel industry disinformation campaigns. 2. To explain why the industry is spending so much money to control the financial narrative and shore up its reputation. This is largely a summary of the two 350 Chicago papers I mentioned above: The Fiscal Case for Fossil Fuel Divestment and Opposition to Fossil Fuel Divestment. The former focuses on stranded assets, the carbon bubble, and emphasizes the dropping costs of alternative energy.
Stranded Assets refers to the likelihood that the in-ground assets of the fossil fuel industry will be stranded and unburnable. This will happen for two reasons. The world’s Carbon Budget will not allow for the continued burning of fossil fuels; and fossil fuels must remain in the ground in order to keep global temperature increase below 1.5 degrees Celsius and avoid the worst environmental and economic effects of global warming. Climate scientists have calculated the amount of carbon that can be emitted to avoid reaching this limit in the next few decades. This is the Carbon Budget. Here is a direct quote from the Coble paper: “With the overwhelming majority of fossil fuel reserves being unburnable, the market capitalization for both behemoth public firms and privately or state-owned oil, coal, and gas operations will be wiped out as assets are stranded.”
Given these geopolitical realities, every country and region will come to depend more and more on renewables to meet their international and local commitments to decarbonization. As this occurs, fossil fuels prices will fall, and more and more types of fossil fuels will become unprofitable. It is important to realize that major American cities have kept their Paris Accord promises even while the federal government under the Trump administration attempted to pull out of the agreement.
A Carbon Bubble is the projected effect of a sudden realization by investors that fossil fuel company assets are overvalued and a subsequent sudden shift in investment strategies. Coble compared this to the housing crisis that precipitated the Great Recession. While fiduciaries continue to warn institutions not to divest because divestment will lead to devaluation of fossil fuel stocks for sister institutions, the train has already left the station. Divestment is a rapidly growing global movement. Institutions that do not divest face real financial risks in the not-so-distant future.
The fossil-fuel industry continues to characterize the issue as special interest groups arguing against economics. However, governments and institutions that have divested are actually making smart short- and long-term economic decisions. To be clear, it is the fossil-fuel industry that is the special interest group lobbying to maintain their license to pollute, while environmental organizations are disseminating the economic facts and representing sound economic policy.
Another threat to fossil fuel value is the precipitous drop in the cost of alternative energy. Solar and wind energy costs drop every year and are cheaper than fossil fuels in many parts of the world and the U.S.. Once infrastructures are expanded and the storage problem is solved, fossil fuels will no longer be competitive. Green Hydrogen is poised to solve many long-term energy issues, such as home heating as well as long-haul commercial transportation problems, effectively eliminating the need for fossil fuels. As Nikola Tesla made clear over a hundred years ago, living on fossil fuels is like living off the capital in one’s bank account. Extending the analogy, living on renewable energy is akin to living off the interest. However, the amount of energy in the “interest” of renewables is incalculably greater, even on an annual basis, than the “capital” of fossil fuels.
Divestment is Not the Risk
Not divesting is the real financial risk. In the last few years a number of academic institutions have divested including the massive University of California system and prestigious institutions such as Harvard, Cornell, Brown, and Georgetown. Two New York City pension funds are also divesting, pulling an estimated $4 billion in investments from fossil fuel companies. In addition, the fossil fuel industry is international and is affected by what happens overseas. Thus, it is significant that 50% of academic institutions in the UK have divested from fossil fuels. Pension funds around the world, including huge government funds, are also divesting. Given these trends, academic institutions and pension funds are in a more vulnerable position now than they were five years ago, and this vulnerability will likely increase.
The economic landscape is changing quickly and dramatically at home and abroad. Here is a quote from a Center for International Environmental Law article on the COP24:
At COP24, a global group of 415 investors managing $32 trillion in assets issued the 2018 Global Investor Statement to Governments on Climate Change (GISGCC), urging governments to increase the rate of investment in renewable technologies and improve financial reporting on climate risks to avoid and mitigate material climate-related economic impacts. [. . .] Since 2010, over 1,500 institutional investors with over $39.88 trillion in investments have committed to divest from fossil fuel assets. We expect this trend to continue.
Given these circumstances and clear trends, not divesting has become a real financial risk. Now is the time to divest. Not in five years
Legal Liability: “Pros” and “Cons”
Issues of legal liability are important in various ways. They can entail massive legal costs as well as massive fines. Cities are beginning to sue fossil fuel companies for various damages from extreme weather events including damage to infrastructure. Lawsuits can also damage corporate reputations as was the case with the tobacco industry. Even unsuccessful lawsuits can damage reputation, as in the case of the New York City lawsuit accusing Exxon Mobile of defrauding shareholders, because of negative publicity. Misrepresentation cases are both a legal and financial liability since reputation is directly tied to investment.
High profile lawsuits should be a very loud alarm bell for individual investors and especially large, managed funds. If industry financials are misleading, investment consultants rely on industry financial statements, and fiduciaries rely on consultants, then pensioners are at risk. As the financial industry in general, fund managers in particular, and the general public becomes more and more aware that fossil fuel companies are misrepresenting their finances, the industry is likely to become less and less attractive to investors. This will obviously have negative impacts on their capital flows and potential profits.
Fiduciaries are generally considered responsible for giving their clients the best possible advice regardless of their own beliefs and personal interests. They are also responsible for giving all of their clients the best possible investment advice. While some fiduciaries may believe that investing in fossil fuels is best for their older clients who are retired or close to retirement, this may not be the best strategy for younger members of funds. Even though fund managers regularly change investment strategies, they simply cannot continue to invest in fossil fuels without losing out on alternative energy investment.
In the past, a balanced portfolio might have had both fossil-fuel and alternative energy investments for short-term and long-term gains. However, since there is now considerable evidence that portfolios without fossil fuel investments perform as well or better than portfolios with fossil fuel investments, there is no longer an incentive for continuing to invest in fossil fuels. It only deflects money that could be invested in alternative energy technology, that is likely to be much more profitable within the next ten to twenty years. There is simply no upside to continuing to invest in fossil fuels, while there is a downside in failing to invest in a burgeoning alternative energy sector.
Obama era legislation made it clear that everyone involved in investment advising is liable. Not only fiduciaries are liable; investment advisors are also liable as are trustees. The Trump administration overturned many of these regulations, reducing fiduciary liability in general while preventing advisors to take ESG (environmental, social, and governance) factors into consideration—a clear attack on the divestment movement. The Biden administration is delaying, suspending, or altering the Trump rules, but investors should be aware that fiduciaries may no longer be responsible to their clients in a manner that was previously assumed.
Regardless of government policies, there are still career risks to corporate and individual trustees, advisers, and fiduciaries who continue to ignore the real financial risks of investing in fossil fuels. Bad investment decisions may also reflect poorly on union leaders and political leaders. Most importantly, pension fund investors—hard working City employees and laborers—remain vulnerable, financially and legally. How can local environmental groups continue to push for divestment while protecting the financial interests of their neighbors? The best strategy may be to continue publicizing not only the financial risks of investing in fossil fuels, but also the corruption of the fossil fuel industry up to and including the likelihood that they are misrepresenting their financial statements. The fossil-fuel industry has created a media environment in which fiduciaries have plausible deniability in terms of fossil fuel investment; they can pretend not to know about the risks to their clients. The environmental movement must change this context for the sake of investors, the general public, and future generations.
Expose the Corruption
If the Chicago pension crisis is primarily the result of mismanagement and deception by a former mayor known for patronage, including directing pension funds to his friends and relatives, then the City and pension boards should be motivated to disassociate themselves from this corrupt history. Aligning themselves with the fossil fuel industry, however, achieves the opposite effect. Once the corruption of the fossil-fuel industry is widely known, the City and pension funds could appear guilty by association or, at very least, extremely incompetent.
Environmental organizations can make clear the complexity and level of corruption in which the fossil fuel industry is engaged. We should not only discredit the messaging but the integrity of the fossil fuel industry as a business enterprise. Such information, if it were widely disseminated, could give responsible parties an opportunity to pause and seriously review their investments. It would also put fiduciaries in a more vulnerable legal position, regardless of the federal government landscape. If the corruption of the fossil fuel industry continues to be exposed, and environmental regulations are not only reinstated but tightened (as is likely with the environment becoming an increasingly important political issue), pension fund managers, trustees, and investment managers who continue to invest in fossil fuels will find themselves on the wrong side of history and the wrong side of the ledger. It’s becoming a dangerous game.
The fossil fuel industry has spent tens of millions of dollars every year to spread disinformation about climate change and to discredit divestment campaigns. The industry also infiltrated the highest levels of government under the Trump administration and effectively dismantled both environmental protections and industry liability laws. Although there have been reversals of policy and regulations under the Biden administration, the fossil fuel industry will not stop its disinformation campaigns. And it is likely to focus on State and local politics where they can find government cooperation. With no moral boundaries and unlimited resources, the fossil fuel industry will remain a monstrous foe.
On one hand, this challenge is not unlike cleaning the Augean stables, an analogy often used to describe epic battles against long-standing corruption. On the other hand, it could be seen as a Gordian knot problem. Rather than trying to untie the knot by addressing every message—trying to match the resources expended by the industry—environmental organizations could focus on revealing the deep-seated and wide-spread corruption of the industry as a whole. In effect, slice through the knot. The longer the record of fossil-fuel industry corruption, and the broader the industry reach, the easier it is, ultimately, for environmental organizations to argue that the industry is inherently corrupt. Such a strategy would not only undermine current messaging but also preemptively discredit future messages.
Earlier this year CNBC commentator, Jim Cramer said that he could no longer support investing in the fossil fuel industry because “they’re Tobacco,” and because the divestment movement is gaining great strides. He also said the industry is in “the death-knell phase.” This is good news—we just have to spread the message far and wide, so no one can continue to plead ignorance.
Image Source (cropped): From The Guardian, Big oil and gas kept a dirty secret for decades.
“Strategic Communication,” https://world.350.org/chicago/2018/08/09/opposition-to-fossil-fuels-a-study-of-divestment-facts-com/
“Strategic Communication,” https://world.350.org/chicago/2018/08/09/opposition-to-fossil-fuels-a-study-of-divestment-facts-com/
 “Frictional Costs of Fossil Fuel Divestment” https://world.350.org/chicago/2018/08/09/opposition-to-fossil-fuels-a-study-of-divestment-facts-com/
 “A Carbon Bubble,” https://world.350.org/chicago/the-fiscal-case-for-fossil-fuel-divestment/
 “A Carbon Bubble,” https://world.350.org/chicago/the-fiscal-case-for-fossil-fuel-divestment/