More and more we are seeing fringe environmental groups
refusing to take a pragmatic approach to combat climate change by disregarding
realistic opportunities that would help create a cleaner environment. These
groups are pushing public pensions to divest from fossil fuel projects, rather
than actual solutions that get to the root of the problem.
A frequent tactic involves politically bullying Pension boards to divest funds of their high-earning fossil fuel stocks. It’s an admitted political shot rather than a real environmentally minded approach. Instead of limiting the use of fossil fuels, divesting leaves the financial future of public servants uncertain. Rather than encouraging divestment, we should be advocating support for effective policies that will better the environment, rather than playing games with a pensioner’s ability to retire comfortably.
More often than not, pension funds are on the receiving end of bad policies rooted with good intentions. Legislation proposed by NY State Senator Liz Krueger places investment limitations on a public pension funds ability to invest in fossil fuels. The NY State Comptroller, Tom DiNapoli, who oversees the $192 billion state pension fund put it correctly – environmental activists must seek a spot at the table to be a part of the conversation. DiNapoli stated, “If we weren’t shareholders, we wouldn’t have the ability to move compan[ies] in the right direction.”
Over a million public employees – both active and retired – depend on pension plans, such as the New York state plan, for a secure retirement. It remains vital that we do not politicize those funds. Rather than focus energy on political scores, the emphasis should rely on advocating policies that reduce greenhouse emissions, boost renewable energy, and invest in pro-environment alternatives. Divesting from energy companies does not accomplish this goal, as any divested funds would be purchased by the next opportunistic investor.
The issue is not just prevalent in New York, but also in California and other states as well. When deciding if the San Francisco pension funds should divest from fossil fuels, the Chief Investment Officer, William Coaker, Jr., noted that while pension funds would suffer, there would be no actual benefit to the environment. In his memo to the board, Coaker stated, “[w]e recognized that SFERS divestments from fossil-fuel holdings will not reduce carbon emissions — it simply changes ownership of these securities. With divestment, SFERS will forfeit its standing as a shareholder to engage these fossil-fuel companies to transition their business plans to a low-carbon economy in line with the Paris agreement."
Pension boards are not the only ones seeing pressure from
these groups, but also many university institutions as well. A recent example
at Stanford University saw student environmental activists call on the
university to divest from fossil fuels. Rather than risk the school’s
endowment, university officials took a more principled approach to the issue. A
lengthy statement issued by the Board of Trustees addressed concerns from the
students and indicated ways they would make strides towards a better, cleaner,
greener environment. Efforts included adding a new greenhouse gas-reducing
energy system and set forth-important goals for the future such as, encouraging
the use of solar energy and other renewable sources to provide much of their
power. The approach taken by Stanford University is a model that educational
institutions, pension funds, and others should take to combat climate change.
Our elected leaders can help lead the charge against climate change, as well. Proposed policies should focus on reducing consumption, not stock holdings. Divestment will not make people more conscious when leaving the lights on, flying less and carpooling more, or trading in their gas-guzzler for a hybrid. However, it does mean that first responders, educators, and pensioners alike will have a less secure retirement plan.
Changes in lifestyle have lasting effects on the environment – not public investment policies. Local, state, and federal leaders should strive towards promoting clean alternatives to fossil fuels long-term rather than espouse divestment ideas that hurt pension funds and leave no impact on the environment.
Norris McDonald is the founder and president of the African American Environmentalist Association.