Some partygoers may add nervous laughter to the midnight clink of champagne glasses and celebratory horn-tooting at tomorrow's New Year's Eve celebrations. The ancient Mayans predicted a doomsday scenario in 2012, and the intense disasters that marked the past year make it tempting to wonder if maybe those folks were onto something.
Earthquakes, floods, droughts, hurricanes, and tsunamis all made headline news in 2011. Now more than ever, investors must realize that such risks, which are growing in frequency, could have serious impacts on their portfolios, and adjust their thinking -- and holdings -- accordingly.
Billion-dollar events, brewing trouble
In November, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report called "Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation." The upshot is that many industries and companies have acknowledged the fact that climate change does affect business.
Right now, some of the most directly affected include insurance, real estate, and agriculture, but ripple effects pour down through economies. Such disasters hurt consumers' financial well-being in many ways, representing an even more precarious scenario. Fortunately, more and more companies are waking up.
Ceres, a coalition of investors and public interest groups addressing climate change, gathered a collection of concerned industry leaders to discuss the report. According to Ceres President Mindy Lubber: "2011 has been one of the most costly years on record for extreme weather events in the U.S., with more billion-dollar events than ever before ... The report affirms that climate change has gone from a mere mention of off balance sheet risks to fundamental balance sheet risks that impact every sector of our economy."
Mark Way, senior vice president and head of sustainability in the Americas at reinsurer Swiss Re, contributed the fact that over 30 or 40 years, weather-related losses in insurance have increased by a factor of five (although some of that jump is related to economic development and population growth).
Speaking of insurance, Allstate's
Do or doomsday
Whether or not investors particularly enjoy pondering dire scenarios, it's time to adjust portfolios. Let's look for companies that want to be part of the solution and avoid companies that insist on being part of the problem (or refuse to acknowledge there even is a problem).
Many publicly traded companies are making great, innovative strides in reducing waste, greenhouse gas emissions, energy usage, and other behaviors that ultimately prove costly to society as well as their own bottom lines. Here are a few examples.
Commercial real estate management firm Jones Lang LaSalle
Federal Realty Investment Trust
Carpet manufacturer Interface
Whole Foods Market
Massive multinational corporation Unilever
Fending off doomsday depression
Back to the Mayan prophecy: Well, prognosticating experts and fortune-tellers are quite often wrong. (Plus, cheer up: Some researchers claim the 2012 date may actually be off by as much as a century.)
More importantly, unless you believe in predestination, for every dire prediction, there's the promise of redemption: avoiding a negative outcome by changing one's behavior.
Regardless of the politicized arguments about whether climate change is "real" or "man-made" or what have you, there's no denying that expensive disasters can, do, and have been happening. The best investments focus on corporate managements that recognize those risks and have plans in place to deal with them -- or even better, goals to make the world better, not worse.
Don't fall prey to doomsday depression; let's think positive and direct our investing dollars into the companies that are determined to proactively implement positive changes to their business models. On the other hand, investors who ignore the building risks to companies that derive short-term profits from avoidance may find gloom and doom in their returns.
Check back at Fool.com every Wednesday and Friday for Alyce Lomax's columns on environmental, social, and governance issues.