Proxy season: Insurers and their largest shareholders flatly ignore net zero motions
Questions about insurers' plans to address net zero challenges dominate AGMs, but large shareholders vote down all climate-related resolutions
There is no denying: Some of the biggest insurance firms in the world, together with their largest shareholders, have failed this proxy season’s climate test.
At the sector giants' annual general meetings this year, concerned investors filed multiple resolutions to address net zero-related risks associated with insurers’ underwriting, but none received majority support.
Resolutions reflected investors’ concerns that mirror the growing scrutiny on insurers from elected officials, Indigenous communities, environmental, health, and human rights advocates, and insurance professionals who have urged insurers to address their contribution and vulnerabilities to climate change.
In fact, the business-as-usual approach by insurers and their biggest shareholders were in direct contrast to recent warnings about the planet’s warming from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the UN World Meteorological Organization.
While the global property and casualty sectors seem to be moving away from fossil fuels, insurers continue to lag behind their peers.
To date, only 15 insurers worldwide have adopted restrictions on underwriting new oil and gas projects.
Firms flee the Net Zero Insurance Alliance
In addition to AGMs, there seems to be a coordinated effort within the sector to withdraw from an industry-wide, UN-backed net zero initiative.
The so-called Net Zero Insurance Alliance (NZIA) is facing an existential crisis as three more prominent insurance firms have excited the group.
At the end of last week, AXA confirmed it will no longer participate in the UN-backed initiative. The Paris-based insurer explained it was leaving to "continue its individual sustainability journey."
In addition, German insurance giant Allianz and French reinsurer SCOR also walked away at the end of last week.
As a result, seven key members of the NZIA, which was launched in 2021, have now abandoned the alliance, which includes five of the eight original founding companies.
AXA's departure is particularly painful, since its chief risk officer, Renaud Guidée, chaired the alliance.
The NZIA is part of an alliance of bodies associated with The Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ), a group that formed during the COP26 climate conference as a coalition of financial institutions committed to net zero.
Also associated with GFANZ is the Net Zero Asset Managers initiative, which saw Vanguard depart late in 2022.
In the U.S., the world's largest market, Travelers and The Hartford, in contrast, have made no such commitment. And while Chubb is the first U.S. insurer to adopt some restrictions on oil and gas underwriting, its policy is far from aligning with science and keeping global warming within 1.5°C.
At all three meetings, questions about the companies’ plans to address climate and human rights risks dominated the question and answer sessions.
At Chubb’s shareholder meeting, advocates asked whether Chubb planned to expand their current oil and gas restrictions, which CEO Evan Greenberg acknowledged was the plan but for which he declined to give a timeline.
"The short-term thinking by insurers and their biggest shareholders like BlackRock and Vanguard ignores significant long-term climate risks and is an affront to communities facing worsening climate impacts," said a visibly disappointed Mary Sweeters, a spokesperson for Insure Our Future.
"Insurers are abandoning communities in the aftermath of extreme weather events that threaten their bottom line, but continue insuring the expansion of fossil fuels that is causing climate change," Sweeters stressed.
Outside of Travelers’ general meeting in downtown Hartford, Connecticut, last Wednesday, dozens of local residents were joined by leaders from the Gwich’in Nation, who travelled from Alaska to speak to the company and urge management not to insure oil and gas development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the ancestral homelands of the Gwich’in people.
Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich'in Steering Committee, spoke at the rally, highlighting the longstanding efforts of the Gwich'in people in urging Travelers to commit to not insuring proposed oil and gas projects in the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
To the Gwich'in, this region is known as Iizhik Gwats'an Gwandaii Goodlit – the Sacred Place Where Life Begins – “a beautiful and majestic place that has been their spiritual and cultural connection for thousands of years," said Demientieff.
“Insurers' opposition to climate related proposals will cost shareholders and policyholders dearly. They are underestimating their risk exposure while fuelling future catastrophes through their underwriting and investment policies," said Tom Swan, Executive Director of Connecticut Citizen Action Group (CCAG).
"The most egregious example of this is the way Travelers spent more time on opportunities from climate change than what they were doing to prevent it in their proxy statement,” he noted.