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From ‘discobedience’ to disruption: climate campaigners make themselves heard at abrdn’s Annual General Meeting

On Wednesday, April 24, abrdn’s Annual General Meeting was far from ordinary. Amid the buzz of financial updates, a passionate plea for climate action took center stage, both inside and outside Edinburgh’s Assembly Rooms.

Activists were focused on exposing abrdn’s hefty $3.6 billion investment in bonds issued by fossil fuel expansionists – making them the 4th most exposed asset manager to toxic bonds. Particularly poignant was the recent decision by abrdn to avoid Adani’s latest bond issuance, post-Hindenburg’s fraud and corruption allegations. This move, while commendable, leaves abrdn at a critical crossroads:

Will abrdn follow its decision to deny debt to Adani with a comprehensive fossil fuel exclusion policy?

Outside the venue, the morning chill did little to dampen the spirits of over fifteen activists who danced a ‘discobedience’ to the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive.” Their movements were more than rhythm and flair; they were a defiant call to action. Banners unfurled, cheeky yet stark messages like “Stp Bllyng Th Plnt” and “Stp Invstng n fssl fls” waved in the breeze and flyers were handed to employees and shareholders as they entered the building. The flyers asked, “r u ok abrdn?” highlighting the company’s loss of vowels, investors, money, and staff due to its investment strategies.

Inside, as Sir Douglas Flint, Chair of abrdn’s board, attempted to deliver his opening remarks, over eight activists, who had purchased shares just to voice their protest, took the floor. These weren’t just interruptions; they were fundamental questions about the company’s future in an age of climate crisis. With every passionate speech about the dire need for abrdn to adopt a fossil fuel exclusion policy, the corporate agenda was forced to pause and reckon with the voices demanding change.

The formal Q&A session that followed was particularly telling, revealing a stark divide between the polished assurances of executives and the raw, unfiltered questions from concerned shareholders. This exposed a troubling gap between abrdn’s current practices and the urgent climate strategies needed. Despite asking direct questions about abrdn’s lack of a fossil fuel exclusion policy and their reliance on inaccurate climate models, the responses were lackluster, underscoring a disconnect with the growing environmental concerns.

Currently, abrdn’s limited approach to coal is centered around engagement rather than divestment or denying new debt to fossil fuel expanionists. This strategy has drawn significant criticism, as engagement with the world’s biggest emitters has proven ineffective at driving change. Activists and environmentally conscious investors are particularly skeptical of this approach, viewing it as insufficient – and lagging far behind other European asset managers – in the face of escalating climate crises.

Abrdn’s past missteps and current lack of a decisive fossil fuel policy not only risk further reputational and financial damage but also align poorly with the growing global mandate for environmental sustainability in investment practices. The company’s leadership, particularly CEO Stephen Bird, faces increasing pressure to realign investment strategies with the pressing demands of a warming planet.