Brett Arends's ROI

Aug. 23, 2021, 9:31 a.m. EDT

How can I use my 401(k) to save the planet?

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By Brett Arends

California is burning .

The West is baking .

Southern Europe, ditto .

China is flooded .

The last four decades have been the hottest since at least 1850, and each has been hotter than the one before, reports the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

In these circumstances it’s getting increasingly harder to pretend there isn’t a climate emergency. And to me it is impossible—literally, not possible—to argue rationally that there isn’t even a major risk .

So shouldn’t it be easier for me to use my retirement savings to help save the planet?

Read: ESG investors struggle to find the right balance in doing good — and solar panels show why

Instead, just 2.8% of 401(k) plans offer so-called “socially responsible” funds, according to a 2018 study . Morningstar, the mutual fund analysis company, reported recently that the amount invested in so-called “sustainable” mutual funds just topped $300 billion for the first time.

Good news, right? Well, sort of.

By contrast, the Investment Company Institute reports that the total amount of money we have invested in U.S. stock mutual funds is $9.5 trillion.

Look, I know this is a contentious political topic, so let me make a few things clear up front for the benefit of climate-change skeptics. ( Apparently that’s at least 20% of our fellow citizens.) Indeed, despite what you read in the media, apparently only about half of us are “alarmed” or even “concerned” about the climate.

When it comes to politics I’m not on Team Blue or Team Red (oh, and I get why each team dislikes the other). I understand why so many ordinary Americans today mistrust so-called “elites,” and especially the media. And I can respect a healthy skepticism about groupthink and “expert forecasts.” I’ve been reporting on both for 25 years. Healthy skepticism is generally a good thing.

Read: Here’s how you can add sustainable investments into your 401(k) holdings — even if your plan doesn’t include ESG funds

But surely the issue of “climate change”—which might better be called “global frying” — isn’t merely about certainties . It is, much more, about risks .

Those who have been saying for years that we don’t need to do anything because it might turn out OK have had the argument the wrong way round. It would be continuing to smoke because, after all, you might not get cancer. The same things that make me a skeptic of long-term expert forecasts also give me a healthy respect for risk. Especially risks of potential disaster.

It’s interesting that pollution has become a partisan issue. Presidents Nixon and Ford began the phase out of leaded gasoline, and Reagan CFCs. But I guess that was then, this is now.

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