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An interview with Richard Curtis on pensions and climate
How we use our money to change the world
I spotted an interview with Richard Curtis the other day about his campaign to change how pensions funds invest. The campaign is called Make my money matter and asks institutional investors, pension funds and banks to ensure that they invest in a sustainable way.
How often do you think about your pension or 401(k) and how much it's contributing to climate change? Chances are not often, but a growing movement wants you to do just that.
Richard Curtis is the writer behind Love Actually, Mr. Bean, Blackadder and Four Weddings and a Funeral. His latest project is not a movie, but a campaign group called Make My Money Matter, which wants to make British banks and retirement plans greener by raising awareness about the trillions of dollars in pension money currently invested in fossil fuel companies.
In an interview with Akshat Rathi on the podcast Zero, Akshat asks Curtis about how he went from writing for the screen to making retirement money green, what can be done to stop greenwashing in the financial sector and whether he'll ever write a climate romcom.
Listen to the full episode below …
Here’s my abridged version of that interview:
Well, I worked on the Live 8 concerts in 2005, and the Make Poverty History campaign. So I was very interested in aid, trade, debt, the politics of fighting poverty, rather than just the charity of it … and a plan for the world which locks together climate, justice and development … which said, ‘we need to turn the billions into trillions.’ There's got to be more money going into changing the world in various different ways. And then I started to hear some of the statistics about banks investment, but particularly pensions. The world pension pot, which belongs to the world I suppose — you know yours and mine — is USD$51 trillion of invested money … and if that could be invested in things which are actually aiming to help on climate, help on equality, help on justice, what an amazing thing. There, the trillions were. So I thought Comic Relief has raised, you know, £1.5 billion in 35 years. And yet this campaign Make My Money Matter has helped to move £1.3 trillion in the course of two and a half years.
Comic Relief was a way of trying to communicate in a populist way. When we were talking about issues, instead of getting a news correspondent or a financial or social expert, we just got the normal comedians who are just normal human beings and don't know much to explain things and express all their passion. So we tried to do things in an entertaining and populist way. And in a way, Make My Money Matter has gone the same route. We've just made a little film, it's about the way the bank system invests in fossil fuel expansion, but it stars two stars of Game of Thrones. And they're doing a bit of acting, they're not talking deep economics. So I think what it is, is to try and make things accessible, passionate or humorous.
I went to see Mark Carney, who was the Governor of the Bank of England when we started thinking about this. And he said that being absolutely sure of the extent to which companies are doing the right thing, are abiding by these ESG rules, it's going to be a long journey. But it is definitely in the right direction, and there's been a great acceleration in terms of companies reporting on these things, and boards of companies saying these things are important. Our most important shareholder is, as it were, the world at large. Making sure that people don't dodge it, don't fudge it, don't do token versions of it. This is all happening now, quite fast. But it's definitely a good way of thinking about your business, rather than only thinking about the profit it's making, without any consideration of the harm that it might be doing … ‘what could you do?’ Could you apply all your intelligence, all your skills, all your financial acumen to actually fixing things for your children's generation, rather than saying, this is for someone else, this has got to be a politician's job, this has gotta be an activist’s job. It's not. It's the job of people in business to see whether or not they’ve got the hutzpah to actually make these changes work and make these changes work in a way that will go on delivering profits and money to all their investors. Because I've heard a lot of business people say, ‘sustainability is the greatest investment opportunity since the Industrial Revolution.’ There's a goldmine out there. Let's get there, rather than hanging on to the past and saying, ‘I'll put my money into coal mines’ …
I remember Paul Polman, who ran Unilever, saying to me that to pay for all the SDGs would be cheaper than to deal with one crisis in one of them. And we've seen that with COVID, with the incredible expense of not having proper pandemic prevention systems in place. So I think that the answer is that the risks to investment of climate change are so self-evidently huge, and dangerous, and leading to so many things, that the sensible execution of fiduciary duty is to be sustainable and to diversify, and to encourage businesses, which are actually helping the climate and making profits for the people who invest in them …
The people we want to convince next are the banks. And again, the money that you've got in your bank could easily be funding fossil fuel expansion. And they've got to say, ‘No, we're not gonna do it.’ And then, you know, the financial reality for those companies will change and alter. And with any luck, they will do it brilliantly and be part of the solution instead of a massive part of the problem … because when I first heard the word pensions, David and Tony, who I work with, said ‘that's where we could focus’.
I remember thinking ‘oh…’ I’d sort of prefer high street banks, because people are more aware of that. But there is an incredible, logical beauty to it, isn't there? That you're trying to make sure that you have a decent future. And if your future happens in a world of climate chaos and mass migration, everything is not going to be great. You're actually asking pensions to do two things at the moment: one, give you the money, and two, give you the money in a world that is functioning better, and is less hot. What we're particularly trying to say to young people, is when you go for that first pension, make sure that it's a sustainable one at the moment of first interaction, and be on the right side of the argument … we've got a lot of pension funds and businesses to sign up to net zero promise. And what we aren't doing is just saying, ‘great.’ What we're saying is we're going to do a report at the end of this year which says how you are doing, whether or not you've fulfilled that. So, you know, one of the things is to do our very best to make sure that people keep their promises …
One of the biggest campaigns we did was the Make Poverty History campaign. And the outcome of that was an increase in overseas development aid, and particularly debt cancellation, which was an absolutely remarkable recalibration of the financial system. So as it were, if Live 8 led to £40 billion more addressing these issues, that's a good bit of evidence for me. Obviously in the world of politics, things go backwards and forwards.