The ESG debate needs an apolitical arbiter. Here’s why the insurance industry gets it right

March 8, 2023, 12:46 PM UTC
Energy transition plans should set reasonable timelines and retrain oil and gas workers.
Matthew Busch—Bloomberg/Getty Images

The use of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) risk considerations in business decisions has been mired in a skirmish fueled by fear and uncertainty with dramatic dialogues and extreme politicization.

As it is, ESG analysis can appear to some, particularly those whose livelihoods and employment depend on fossil fuels, as a subjective, values-based investment thesis camouflaged with ratings schemes that hide the “true” intentions of dismantling the fossil fuel industry. It’s one thing to be worried about the demise of the planet at some indeterminate future date–and another thing to worry about putting food on tonight’s dinner table.

There is no easy answer to this reality. We must plan for the energy transition–setting reasonable timelines, changing policies, providing subsidies to finance the transition, and retraining oil and gas workers–while nurturing more civil conversations that do not distract us from what’s really at stake: economic security, social stability, and planetary habitability.

Turning to the insurance industry’s underwriting process as a model for how to approach ESG could help. To be sure, U.S. property and casualty (P&C) insurers could be far better advocates of sustainability in the discourse around climate risk, particularly given the materiality of climate change to their businesses. Greater investment in analytics would also encourage more informed policies. But the industry’s apolitical approach to ESG, which is to rely on its power as a risk management framework to identify and measure material financial risks beyond accounting disclosures, is a compelling case study nonetheless.

Underwriters know that, at its foundation, the ESG disclosure framework is just another tool in a risk management toolkit. The insurance industry’s existence and success depend on its ability to identify and price risk, including material ESG risks that do not appear in the standard Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) financials of insured companies.

Given the link between quantifying risks and achieving profitability, the insurance industry is uniquely positioned to help the U.S. break through the rhetorical and sensationalist clutter of ESG. It is also less vulnerable to ideological influence when carrying out core business functions.

For opponents of the ESG framework, here are three examples of how ESG data helps the insurance industry conduct its business–and why it might be useful beyond the underwriter’s office:

  • ESG disclosures help insurance companies quantify and price risk so they can design products and provide coverage to clients who need asset and wealth protection.
  • Insurance companies can invest their capital in ways that help mitigate risk from ESG-related social or environmental trends. For example, the American Council of Life Insurers is coordinating the industry’s work on lowering the risk of economically driven social instability by investing in lower-income communities through appropriate market rate opportunities like affordable housing and small businesses, which also help address the wealth gap.
  • ESG disclosures help insurance companies design asset resilience programs for insured clients to lessen the effects of climate change on their businesses. (For example, putting flood protection in place to protect against damage caused by rising sea levels to buildings near the coast.)

This is not to say that lessons from the insurance industry can dissolve the overarching ideological and fear-induced ESG debates altogether. After all, many of today’s accepted norms have undergone heated rhetorical debate. For example, in the early 1900s, pundits and self-interested actors attacked suggestions that companies should report financial information in a systematic and standardized way, a practice that might have avoided or lessened losses suffered during the great crash of 1929. They denounced such disclosure as an unnecessary intrusion and a costly administrative burden on companies. Another example: The idea of fiduciaries investing in the venture capital industry was once considered heresy. Can anyone imagine the U.S. without its venture capital industry?

Highlighting how risk management and profitability often underpin existing ESG screening may calm some of the vitriol against it–but people on both sides of the ESG disclosure debate can also help by balancing their passionate advocacy with active empathy for those with whom they disagree.  

The insurance industry demonstrates why consideration of ESG factors in business and investment processes can be a prudent–and apolitical–risk management strategy and long-term profit-protecting activity. Embracing this approach can help people, investment portfolios, and the planet. 

Roy Swan is the head of mission investments at the Ford Foundation.

The opinions expressed in commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

More must-read commentary published by Fortune:

Fortune‘s CFO Daily newsletter is the must-read analysis every finance professional needs to get ahead. Sign up today.

Read More

Great ResignationClimate ChangeLeadershipInflationUkraine Invasion