Week of 03/04/2007

Dear EarthTalk: Is there any theme for Earth Day this year, and what can I do to participate?

—Adele Davies, Seattle, WA

The non-profit Earth Day Network, which organizes and coordinates annual Earth Day celebrations around the U.S. and beyond, is partnering this year with Step It Up 2007, a nationwide campaign organized to demand bold federal action on climate change.

As part of the build-up to Earth Day itself (April 22), Step It Up 2007 has organized hundreds of rallies to take place a week earlier on April 14, including major events at or near "meaningful, iconic" places that are already reeling from the impacts of global warming. These include: New Orleans, where Hurricane Katrina wreaked destruction in 2005; Mt. Rainier in Washington state, where the volume of glaciers shrank by nearly 25 percent over the last century; and Key West, Florida, where increased ocean temperatures are causing the region"s living coral reefs to turn white (bleach) and die.

Step It Up rallies are already planned for nearly 800 U.S. locations, where thousands of concerned citizens will call on Congress to force industry to cut emissions of carbon dioxide, the leading culprit in the onset of unprecedented global warming. Earth Day Network representatives and volunteers will then spend the following week on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, lobbying Congress directly. Then on Earth Day itself, April 22, millions of Americans will participate in hundreds of celebrations co-sponsored by Earth Day Network coast-to-coast, seeking to raise public awareness about our climate crisis.

Says Earth Day Network, "We all possess the tools and know-how to reduce our own environmental impacts and carbon footprints, but lack a united voice to tell our leaders what to do. Earth Day 2007 will bring together millions of Americans concerned about global warming to call on our elected officials to take immediate and effective action to deal with global warming."

Those interested in joining the effort can do so by first participating in one of the Step It Up rallies taking place around the nation on April 14 (an event locator can be found at the group"s website)—or by organizing a local event. Participants are encouraged to "show their green colors" by foregoing car travel that day and "hiking, biking, climbing, walking, swimming, kayaking or canoeing" to a rally near them.

Following the April 14 rallies, individuals can join Earth Day Network"s week-long lobbying effort in Washington—or participate virtually over the Internet by first completing an online form at the group"s website. The Earth Day Network website also offers an Earth Day event locator for those wishing to attend an event.

Earth Day 2007 is the kick-off to a three-year "Climate Change Solutions Campaign" intended to educate and motivate all levels of the global community, including K-12 and college students, governments, corporations and religious institutions. Earth Day Network is making available an "Earth Day in a Box" kit, which includes an organizers guide for those seeking to plan an event, as well as tips, ideas and resources on various simple actions individuals can take that can make a difference for the environment.

CONTACTS: Step It Up 2007; Earth Day Network

Dear EarthTalk: Have "green" or "socially responsible" investments performed better or worse than the rest of the stock market in recent years?

—Ruby Romano, San Francisco, CA

It might be helpful to first define "socially responsible." KLD Research & Analytics, a leading research firm that helps investors and investment professionals integrate environmental and social factors into their investment decisions, established the Domini 400 Social Index in 1990. The Index is a roster of public companies deemed by KLD to have positive records on numerous counts: the environment, human rights, product performance and safety, community and employee relations, diversity and corporate governance.

Contrary to popular belief, socially responsible investment and mutual funds, known collectively in the industry as "SRI" funds, have historically generated similar if not slightly higher returns than traditional funds. This fact is borne out by the performance of the Domini Index, which has generated a 12.17 percent return since inception. By comparison, the Standard and Poor"s S&P 500, a roster of 500 large companies representing the market as a whole, generated an 11.49 percent return over the same period.

In fact, the investment research firm Morningstar awarded one in five SRI funds—twice as many as the overall fund universe—its coveted five-star rating for high returns over a three-year period during the late 1990s. However, from 2004 to 2006 the average SRI fund has lagged slightly behind the broader market, returning only 8.5 percent versus the S&P 500"s 10.4 percent.

But to say that SRI funds perform better or worse than others would be misleading, as they tend to perform about the same as the rest of the market. "Most serious academic studies I’ve seen show that socially responsible investing has been, broadly speaking and over the long term, at worst a neutral factor for portfolio performance," says Progressive Asset Management"s Phil Kirshman. "Some SRI funds have been wildly successful, performance-wise, while others have been perfectly miserable, but that"s the same situation as with non-socially responsible funds."

Of course, most people who seek out SRI funds do so largely for non-financial reasons, as a way to encourage good social and environmental practices. "Performance of any investment product will vary over time," says Erin Gray of Green Century Funds. "With environmentally and socially responsible funds, you enjoy the peace of mind that your results are obtained by investing in companies that meet standards for their environmental and social performance

Nonetheless, financial returns do still matter, even to SRI fund managers, and lower returns in recent years have led some to change strategy and focus less on screening out the bad and more on including the good. As such, these funds are putting clients" money into companies with forward-thinking policies regarding issues like climate change. "There"s a lot of evidence that companies that do these things well carry less risk," says Joe Keefe, CEO of Pax World Funds, a socially responsible mutual fund. "We"ve seen what happens to companies that don"t."

CONTACTS: Domini; Green Century; ProgressivePax World; Asset Management