The bushfires that devastated huge swaths of Australia over the past six months have left the engagement policies at the center of the superannuation industry's efforts to address climate change risks under growing scrutiny.
The country's recent environmental disaster "put climate concerns front and center in people's minds," and one result has been greater pressure on super funds to explain why they choose to engage with portfolio companies seen as contributing to global warming rather than divest them, said Helga Birgden, Mercer's Melbourne-based global business leader, responsible investment.
The biggest fundamental change since the bushfires is the number of beneficiaries taking an active interest now in how their super funds are managing climate change risk and which fossil-fuel companies they have exposure to, agreed Simon O'Connor, Melbourne-based CEO of the Responsible Investment Association Australasia.
One example: web traffic in RIAA's online tools that help "consumers connect with funds that match their interests" doubled in January from December, an increase of thousands, Mr. O'Connor said.
Over the past month, two big Melbourne-based funds, UniSuper, a A$80 billion ($53 billion) industry fund serving the higher education and research sectors, and HESTA, a A$56 billion fund focused on health-care employees, have come under pressure from segments of their membership to expunge fossil-fuel companies from their portfolios.
Spokesmen for UniSuper and HESTA declined to comment.
Both campaigns were backed by Market Forces, a Melbourne-based affiliate of environmental activist group Friends of the Earth Australia launched in January 2013.
Julien Vincent, executive director of Market Forces, said his organization has been calling on super funds to divest pure-play fossil-fuel companies for five years now but the "heightened sense of awareness" spawned by Australia's recent cataclysmic weather events is resulting in more activism this year, with climate researchers and health-care workers at funds like UniSuper and HESTA leading the way.