Climate change and pension fund investments – facilitating a way forward

Not everyone noticed when I managed to trap my finger in the flipchart stand minutes before the workshop was due to start. I swallowed a yelp as the metal daddy-long-legs slid in slow-motion to the floor. Two participants came to my aid, a pension fund manager and a climate change activist, they struck up a conversation, so I took it as a good omen for the session.

In fact, as I looked around, most people hadn’t noticed because they were already talking. Climate change engages people, and urgently so, yet there had been a lot of anxiety about wide-ranging differences of opinion and talk of needing a (metaphorical) red card for aggressive behaviour.   

It was a credit to Oxfordshire County Council Pension Fund Committee, their officers and to Fossil-Free Oxfordshire that the session benefitted from scientists, finance and pension industry specialists, Councillors from different parties putting the election aside, representatives of the members pension fund, campaigners, trade unionists, young people and clergy; a magical mix of people who’d agreed to help set the direction for the funds’ new investment strategy.

Managing conflict is part of an independent facilitator’s role but in this session the stakes were really high with fiduciary duties, moral imperatives and planetary survival to make sense of. Add to that 14 speakers wanting to use slide-decks full of charts and statistics and a dizzying level of complexity in potential approaches and language.

3 things that helped the session

 – Cementing connections using a speed dating style warm-up that gave people the chance to share what was important to them. We also asked participants to share when they’d last changed their minds about something (anything) and their hopes. We continued to do this in different formats throughout the day to establish where the consensus was and avoid getting stuck on positions – such as a blanket divestment from fossil fuel companies or an engage and influence change approach.  

Using structured conversations in small groups and banning power-point (that was a tough one to enforce) made a massive difference. We expected the debate to jump from the why, to the how and the what and it did all the time. To make sense of this we kept flipchart updates of agreements and questions/disagreements visible at the front of the room, the detail was recorded on large worksheets.

Showing we were serious and committed to the topic in the session design. The big thing here is to give the subject the time it needs – a whole day. We had a tasty plant-based diet for everyone, speakers who dialled in from Oslo – specifically because they don’t want to fly. We circulated info before the session so that everyone was learning and sharing, we used recycled folders and cups. Small things matter, it set the intention.

What the session came out with was a set of high-level policies that were deliverable and would enable the pension fund committee members to make confident evidence-based decisions that took account of the risks of climate change moving forward. Participants worked through their differences in a spirit of openness and learning, there was no need for even a yellow card. I learned a lot; I think we all did


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