Warren Buffett’s ability to pick investments that pay off over the long term has transformed him into a billionaire and made him the world’s most famous investor. But as the planet heats up, his positions on the climate look increasingly short-sighted.
What’s happening: At Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meeting over the weekend, Buffett defended the company’s decision not to release reports on how it’s addressing the risks of climate change. He claimed that Berkshire (BRKA) has a good track record for investing in renewable energy through its utility businesses, and said it would be “asinine” to make all of the group’s numerous companies become more transparent.
But pressure is growing. At the meeting, one investor asked him about Berkshire’s decision to own a big stake in oil giant Chevron (CVX) given concerns about the climate crisis.
Buffett said he has “no compunction” about owning Chevron, and that he would hate to have all hydrocarbons banned quickly — though he noted that the world is quickly moving away from them.
“If we owned the entire business, I would not feel uncomfortable about being in that business,” Buffett said.
Step back: The company’s shareholders are siding with the 90-year-old CEO. A proposal asking Berkshire Hathaway to address climate change more directly — as well as a measure calling for more disclosure on diversity and inclusion — failed to pass.
Yet it’s not difficult to see which way the winds are blowing. Countries such as the United States and United Kingdom are announcing increasingly ambitious targets for reducing emissions, while hundreds of major corporations have issued net zero commitments and are pouring money into sustainable businesses.
The wider investment community is also rushing in, as clients push fund managers to create sustainability-focused portfolios, while spectacular growth for companies like Tesla is stoking enthusiasm among everyday investors.
Global assets in sustainable funds hit a record high of nearly $2 trillion in the first three months of 2021, up 18% from the previous quarter, according to new data from Morningstar.
Berkshire’s Vice Chairman Greg Abel, who has been tapped as Buffett’s likely successor, said during the meeting that “there’s been a clear commitment to decarbonizing our businesses.” He added that the company will retire all of its coal units by 2050.
Still, that may not be enough to convince skeptics that Buffett, who earned the nickname “Oracle of Omaha,” is properly assessing the risks at the play.
While Chevron has indicated it could rethink parts of its business model in light of climate fears, it remains a $200 billion fossil fuels empire synonymous with the oil-and-gas industry. As efforts to increase reliance on cleaner energy accelerate, its business will face major headwinds. That could be a threat to Berkshire Hathaway, and Buffett’s reputation, too.