“Weather used to be the last thing on the news and now it’s the first”: Richard Curtis on climate change, pensions and his dream retirement
We spoke to Richard about his life away from fiction – about the impending reality of climate change and how our pensions could play the biggest role of all.
By Sayjal Mistry
Away from screenwriting box office hits such as ‘Love Actually’ and ‘Bridget Jones's Diary’, Richard is bringing another narrative to life – one that affects us all. But this isn’t a rom-com. Instead it’s the real-life story that “pensions might just be our most powerful weapon in the fight against social injustice and climate change.”
...pensions might just be our most powerful weapon in the fight against social injustice and climate change.
Your pension is more powerful than you might think
As co-founder of Make My Money Matter, Richard wants to use his platform to encourage people to find out where their pension’s being invested. Understanding what your money’s funding could be one of the greatest individual steps you take towards reducing your carbon footprint.
When it comes to our carbon footprint, Richard recognises that people understand the difference our consuming habits – energy, food and the like – can make. “The next move is to say ‘my saved money, what’s that achieving?’". This has been a fairly recent lesson for Richard. “I don’t think I realised two years ago that my pension was an invested thing. I thought it just went into a pot”, he says. It was only after hearing a Ted Talk from Bronwyn King – a cancer doctor who realised her pension was invested in cigarettes, killing more people every day than she was saving – that Richard realised just how big an impact our pensions could have.
The next move is to say ‘my saved money, what’s that achieving?
When speaking about his own pension journey, Richard says, "First I understood about divestment, but I’ve become increasingly keen on investment”. He once heard someone say, “Sustainability was the greatest investment opportunity since the industrial revolution”, which are words he lives by. So when people ask why he does it, “Instead of saying I don’t want to be funding arms, I say I want to be funding renewable energy, affordable housing, affordable health, the people who service windfarms.”
There’s no excuse
The film-writer understands the number one goal of your pension isn’t to save the planet – it’s to give you the best returns so you can retire comfortably. "Selfishness is completely legitimate with regards to your pension”, says Richard. “You’ve worked all your life, you’ve probably supported lots of charities and causes, but on your pension, you’re allowed to be selfish. But the moment it turns out investing sustainability doesn’t mean lower returns, that excuse disappears.”
People are making lifestyle changes – big and small – to tackle climate change, from driving electric cars to becoming vegan. “It’s not an epic step to say, ‘what’s the money that I’ve got in my pension doing?’” says Richard. He asks rather than investing in war, arms and climate change, why would you not prefer to invest in progressive companies?
A message to climate deniers – you’re dismissed
Climate deniers aren’t… 'interesting voices in the debate.'
To those who say climate change doesn’t exist, it’s a hoax and it’s not as bad as it seems, Richard has one message: "I completely dismiss them – they’re not interesting voices in the debate.” He says, "They’re being swept away by the physical realities of climate change inaction”. Richard repeated something that stuck with him: “Someone said something very clever to me the other day – the weather used to be the last thing on the news and now it’s the first. Fire, rain, floods – all those things”. It’s impossible to deny or ignore.
Hope for the future
When thinking about the individual actions we can take towards tackling climate change, Richard is ever the optimist. He says, "I’m optimistic that people will think of answers, changes and realise that they have agency, rather than feeling it’s just something that’s going to happen to the next generation”.
For Richard, one thing that fills him with hope is the generations to come. Although lockdown conversations with his children did, naturally, feature enthused debates about ‘Normal People’ and ‘Bridgerton’, he says, "Any conversation they have, they’re looking at it from the perspectives of climate, gender and race”.
Given the younger generation’s engagement with climate issues, Richard says “I can’t see young people saying ‘I can’t be bothered switching my pension’”. Aviva and Route2’s research with Make My Money Matter shows switching to a sustainable fund is more effective at reducing your carbon footprint than lifestyle changes like giving up flying and changing your energy provider. “If we get things like that into the ether, [young people] will now say ‘do what you like, but can it please be sustainable?’”, he says.
Another thing Richard’s hopeful about is engagement from businesses. He says, “I think business understands – we’ve seen this with the number of people joining [Make My Money Matter’s] green pension charter and Aviva setting quick targets like its 2040 ambition”.
Aviva’s ambition to be a net zero company by 2040 is certainly something Richard’s impressed by. “Most people are committed to 2050 and Aviva have brought that forward – they’re a leader in their field”. He hopes this will lead to a race to the top – with individuals looking for ever more sustainable pensions, and the industry responding with more ambitious commitments.
Most people are committed to 2050 and Aviva have brought that forward – they’re a leader in their field.
We’ve all got a part to play
Richard plays a big role both behind the cameras and in front of world leaders and policy makers. Although the glitz of screenwriting and grind of charity work seem worlds apart, Richard says, “you always end up focusing on the work and not the effect – be it a two-hour movie or a two-minute film for the UN”. But there’s points where the charitable work is incomparable: “The immense satisfaction of doing ‘Make poverty history’ and the huge debt cancellation that happened in 2005, that was worth more to me than £200milion at the box office”.
There’s one thing that Richard’s sure of – we all need to act: “Try to do things that will bend behaviour, particularly of businesses, in the direction of crucial climate change actions. It creates an environment for change”. He urges us not just to think about what you can do at home, but at work too: "People need to look at their place of work and say ‘what is my company doing?, Is it being hypocritical?, Is it being as proactive as it can be?’”
Try to do things that will bend behaviour, particularly of businesses, in the direction of crucial climate change actions.
The passive, ‘let them deal with it’ approach isn’t one Richard agrees with. “My answer in the face of difficulties has always been to make something happen, you actually have to try and take action”. This is the primary reason for Make My Money Matter’s campaign to encourage people to make their pensions green: ‘It’s a very specific action which will pour a great deal more money into the kind of businesses you want to support”.
Richard’s retirement plans – SDGs and the Suffolk coast
Speaking about how he sees his own retirement years, Richard says “I would hope that I’ll be retiring into a world moving increasingly quickly on the road to climate justice, as well as justice of race and gender.” In fact, if he could live in a world where things were different – a little like the alternate reality that exists in his film ‘Yesterday’, it would be a world that had achieved the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). “I’m haunted by issues of injustice, poverty and climate change… so I’m looking to time travel to 2030 and have achieved the SDGs”, says Richard.
Rather than focusing on plans of his own retirement, he wonders what it’ll be like for the next generation, for his children: "I can expect to be fine, but will I have the comfort of knowing that big changes are happening to make sure that my children are collecting their pensions in a world that’s safe and just?”. Aside from that, Richard says his own retirement is likely to be spent by the seaside in Suffolk – although he hopes its glorious waters won’t be warming up too much.