The Ted Scripps Fellowships have been bringing award-winning environmental journalists to CU Boulder for 26 years. Fellows embark on a year of courses, projects, field trips, seminars and more - taking advantage of everything university life has to offer. This series is a chance to get to know this year’s cohort of talented journalists beyond what a typical bio page will tell you.
Brenna Hughes Neghaiwi is a finance correspondent for Reuters, based in Zurich. During the fellowship she is exploring “stakeholder capitalism,” a form of capitalism where companies seek long term value for all of their stakeholders and society at large, and the intersection of wealth and finance with climate change. Recently, she has reported on an investor rebellion over climate action in one of Switzerland's largest banks, a money laundering trial against Credit Suisse, and Switzerland's first same-sex marriage. Hughes Neghaiwi was part of an international team that produced an investigative series about the nascent cryptocurrency industry; the story was a finalist for Reuters’ Story of The Year as well as the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing’s Best in Business Reporting awards.
Hughes Neghaiwi sat down with CEJ graduate assistant Devin Farmiloe to talk about her work and experience as a fellow.
You mostly write about finance, but you're interested in the relationship between wealth and climate change. Could you tell me more about that?
Having covered finance for the past seven years, I was very interested to unpack this transitional moment in which the financial system seeks to reconcile tensions between continuing to strive for maximum profits and the urgency of tackling climate change. The 2019-2020 period brought about a change in discourse surrounding corporate “purpose,” as sustainability shifted from a side or topical concern to something that needs to be addressed. There was a very unique confluence of external factors -- from climate protests and extreme weather events to scientific consensus, which really highlighted the urgency of addressing climate change, to social movements such as Black Lives Matter and growing public surrounding inequality -- that shifted that framing. The COVID-19 pandemic and its massive economic and social impacts also played a central role.
During that time, we saw huge public expenditure, just an incredible amount of fiscal stimulus, with some of that money going towards individuals in ways that it didn't previously. At the same time, the billionaire class saw their wealth skyrocket, while the very unequal burdens of the pandemic highlighted gaping disparities that had been growing for a very long time. That confluence it seems to me brought about genuine discomfort and soul searching that's been going on within these echelons of private-sector wealth.
I'm interested to explore that, because it seems like there's a lot of thinking out loud that's happening at the moment and questions that haven't been answered. How meaningful or realistic is it for investors and businesses to say they are reorienting towards a stakeholder model, aiming to take not only profits, but also environmental and social impact, into account? How much closer does that bring us to closing multi-trillion-dollar climate finance gaps, or achieving sustainable transition? The narrative surrounding a “win-win” solution -- whereby positive social and environmental change goes hand-in-hand with generating positive financial returns -- deserves deeper probing, I think. The timing is critical, given the unprecedented economic transformation required to meet emissions reductions targets and the trillions in annual financing which need to be redirected in order to do so.
What was the original thing that got you interested in this relationship? Was there one moment in your reporting?
Definitely. I would say two things. One was some reporting I did together with a colleague at Reuters, that was looking at this issue of wealth increases during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Speaking to wealthy individuals, but also to their advisors within private banking and other spheres, there was growing awareness of inequality as becoming, for the first time, a serious concern for the wealthy. And we saw very different responses to that, ranging from some number of wealthy individuals who said, “Well, yes, taxes (for the rich) should be higher” to others who were relocating at much higher rates to “favorable” jurisdictions or taking precautionary measures to shield themselves from tax hikes and other changes that might affect their wealth.
Another piece was more recent research on impact investment, which is this niche of investment where the aim isn't necessarily or exclusively to maximize profits, but to achieve a positive outcome in the world. Looking at the challenges and very different philosophies that exist within this very small niche of finance exposed some of the very real and underlying conflicts at the heart of this critical moment for capitalism: How feasible is the project of “making money and doing good” on a systemic scale? Is it even realistic to aim for both those things at once, or does a dual-objective approach sidestep much more fundamental tensions and the need for concession?
Changing gears a little bit more to your time in the fellowship, how has your time in Boulder been so far?
It's been amazing. Such an adjustment not to have deadlines on a daily basis or even on the basis–as it happens in journalism and covering breaking news, of a 30-second interval. It's been really incredible to be able to take a step back and to learn quite different things. I’m having so much fun taking classes in areas that are very new to me, going out on field trips, and also just being able to have conversations which are more an interrogation of ideas, as opposed to the Q&A format of an interview. So having opinions is a new thing. And that's been really, really fun and amazing.
What is your favorite class so far?
One is the Humans, Environment and Justice seminar in the Masters of the Environment program. It's taught by Fatuma Emmad, who is also active in the food sovereignty and urban farming space. It's been incredible to be able to participate in the dialogues led by Emmad within class, but also to get out and experience some of that work in practice. We did a farm visit to Sister Gardens, an urban farm in north Denver led by Emmad and others from the Frontline Farming organization, which was really amazing. It was very cool not only to experience, on a practical level, what doing the work of urban farming is like, but also to witness and learn about the many different negotiations that go into operating a community farming space in a changing urban environment.
I also have been auditing a business school seminar called Socially Responsible Enterprise, taught by Joshua Nunziato. The conversations within that class have been very thought-provoking. Having long interacted with people in the business and more specifically corporate sustainability space, I came into the class anticipating a more in-depth examination of arguments and considerations I’ve previously encountered in those conversations. But it’s been much more philosophical and thought-provoking, which I credit to Nunziato’s angle on the topic. And it's been so interesting to see how these business students, who are hoping to go out into the world and do this work, are working through these problems.
Last question: What do you like to do outside of journalism?
A really fun thing about this time here has been being able to spend time outdoors–hikes, some forays into camping. A really fun project has been trying to become a little bit more familiar with the plant and tree life around. We went on a field trip to the Mountain Research Station and it felt like a big achievement to be able to identify many of the trees by the end of our visit with the help of the director. I’ve been able to put some other skills to work on some hiking trips since then. I also love cooking and dinner parties, so I'm hoping to make that more of a thing during my time here as I continue to meet new people.