For decades, environmentalists and non-governmental agencies have led the campaign to force the big polluters to change, without much success.

Now, it is spreadsheet analysing money managers, responsible for the savings of millions of people, who have become the front-line troops in the battle against climate change.

Big oil companies have for years been reluctant to take responsibility for their large contribution to climate warming and have spent millions of dollars on lobbying to counter efforts to cut emissions. Recently, Royal Dutch Shell announced an ambition to reduce its carbon footprint by 50% by 2050, including a reduction in pollution from cars burning its fuel products.

Last December, the company pledged to set firm short-term targets from 2020 that will be linked to executive pay.

This is a stunning turn around and Shell attributes it to ‘dialogue’ they have held with institutional investors.

Asset managers, pension groups and sovereign wealth managers are now using their power as major shareholders to force the biggest corporate polluters to tackle climate change by cutting carbon emissions, boosting disclosure on climate risk and holding managers accountable.

The asset management industry worldwide has about US$85 trillion under management. For years, it ignored environmentalists and instead accepted huge dividends on their investments. Now the primary reason to move on climate change is the realisation of the huge financial risks inherent in these investments.

Money managers have concluded the longer-term environmental disaster means an economic disaster as well. They worry the continuing push by governments to cut emissions may make a number of oil and gas projects uneconomic, diminishing the value of shareholders assets; agri-foods stocks would suffer if crops fail and costal infrastructure would see falling share prices.

Insurers are particularly concerned about an increase in pay-outs as rising emissions trap heat and trigger floods, droughts, forest fires and heatwaves as well as hitting their investment portfolios.

Many pension funds are pushing their asset managers to prioritise climate change in their discussions with companies. Some funds are going even further and putting pressure on the banks that provide financing to polluters. Changed times indeed.