Managing more than $46 trillion in assets worldwide, pension funds are the world’s largest asset owners and among the biggest investors in fossil fuels. By funneling billions of dollars into this polluting industry, pension funds risk both the climate and the hard-earned retirement savings of our public workers. Today, united in a common cause, youth climate activists are mobilizing with workers and retirees to demand that pension funds shift their investments away from risky fossil fuels and into climate solutions.
This Earth Day, we are launching a new Climate-Safe Pensions network that brings together youth and adult campaigners in the US and Canada. State pension funds in the US control more than $4 trillion, and the 10 largest Canadian public pension funds control more than $1 trillion. These funds’ stubborn refusal to divest from underperforming fossil fuel stocks has already cost pensioners in North America billions of dollars. A recent DailyKos petition asking state pension funds to divest from fossil fuels received more than 100,000 signatures.
Climate-Safe Pensions will be featured in the Earth Day Live national livestream, with a longer segment in the local livestream. Join us to learn about this growing network of climate advocates, whose campaigns use a range of tactics to ensure public pension plans protect workers’ retirement savings and invest in a safe and secure future. Pension fund divestment campaigns are active in states including Alaska, California, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Texas, Washington, as well as in Canada. Here’s a snapshot of some of the work underway.
In Alaska, 350 Juneau has been challenging the $66 billion Alaska Permanent Fund to divest for several years. The campaign has received extensive publicity locally and in Anchorage newspapers. Among its demands are that the Fund disclose all fossil fuel related holdings and engage in an open climate risk assessment process. Working in partnership with climate activists from around the state, the campaign uses a range of tactics, including direct actions and testimony at quarterly Board of Trustee meetings. Recent testimony highlights the climate emergency linked to stranded assets and fossil fuel investments. In September, 2019, coinciding with the annual meeting of the International Forum of Sovereign Wealth Funds in Juneau, 350 Juneau sponsored a talk by noted climate journalist, Daniel Grossman, followed the next day by a rally and march focused on divestment. In 2020, the campaign expanded to include the State of Alaska’s pensions funds, which manages more than $30 billion.
Fossil Free California’s primary divestment campaigns target California’s state pension funds CalPERS (public employees) and CalSTRS (teachers). The current petition asks the Boards of the California Employees Retirement System, the California State Teachers Retirement System, and other public investment funds in California to: (1) Stop investing in fossil fuel companies (all companies that own fossil fuel reserves), beginning immediately; (2) Divest from all current fossil fuel investments by 2022; (3) Report quarterly to the public about the progress of these divestments. Youth allies from groups such as Earth Guardians, Youth vs Apocalypse, and Sunrise Movement have added energy and passion to appearances at CalSTRS Investment Committee meetings, leading to more meetings with board members, staff, and consultants. As a result of the youths’ presence, State Treasurer Fiona Ma, who sits on both CalSTRS and CalPERS boards, publicly endorsed divestment in 2019.
In addition, in 2019:
In September, California Governor Gavin Newsom issued an Executive Order asking his Department of Finance to create a Climate Investment Framework for the state’s $700 billion pension funds (PERS, STRS, and the University of California), in coordination with his Office of Planning and Research and the Department of Human Resources.
In November, in coordination with 350.org and Fossil Free PERA in Colorado, we released the results of Corporate Knights’ studies on PERS, STRS, and PERA, showing that the three funds lost over $19 billion by not divesting from fossil fuels 10 years ago.
In December, CalSTRS and CalPERS issued their first-ever reports on the climate-related financial risk of their holdings, to comply with the 2018 bill we helped sponsor, SB 964. The PERS report received widespread publicity, including an op-ed from the SF Chronicle.
We kicked off 2020 with a march and die-in at CalSTRS that made front-page news, and a coordinated in-person and online campaign focusing on the powerful California Teachers’ Association. The COVID crisis has moved all of our organizing online, so we are now hosting monthly state-wide webinars and art parties to maintain public pressure on both funds’ trustees. We are also planning a Reinvestment Forum for 2021. Please follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn, and reach out if you’d like to get involved!
Shift Action for Pension Wealth and Planet Health is a new initiative that works to protect Canadian pensions and tackle the climate crisis. Shift is mobilizing Canadian workers and retirees to engage their pension funds, and demand they improve climate risk disclosure and shift their portfolios away from risky fossil fuels and into investments that fight climate change. Based in Toronto, Shift is focusing on Canada’s ten largest pension funds, which together manage over $1.5 trillion ($1 trillion USD) in assets.
Shift released its first report in June 2019, providing a high-level briefing for Canadian pension beneficiaries and an overview of how Canada’s ten largest pension funds are managing climate risk. In fall 2019, Shift launched an online action tool that allows Canadians to send a letter to key pension fund managers demanding improved climate risk disclosure and a shift in assets away from risky fossil fuels and into climate solutions. Shift is undertaking a range of activities that empower pension beneficiaries to engage their fund managers, including:
- Engagement toolkits that provide key information about Canadian pension funds’ approach to climate change and investments in fossil fuels and climate solutions;
- Workshops and webinars tailored for members of specific pension funds;
- Mobilizing beneficiaries to attend pension fund AGMs;
- Arranging direct meeting between beneficiaries and pension fund managers;
- Letters to pension fund managers from high-profile beneficiaries such as union leaders and city councillors.
Shift is also working to increase public and media scrutiny of Canadian pension investments in companies and industries that are accelerating the climate crisis. For example in January, Shift published an op-ed calling out AIMCo, the pension fund manager for public sector workers in Alberta, for buying a 65 per cent stake in TC Energy’s Coastal GasLink project, a fracked gas pipeline that ignores Indigenous rights and massively increases carbon pollution. Shift also mobilized beneficiaries of the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System to go to Toronto City Hall and demand that their pensions stop being invested in fossil fuels. To learn more about Canadian pensions and climate risk, like Shift on Facebook and follow Shift on Twitter and LinkedIn.
In Colorado, the focus has been on calling on the Public Employees Retirement Association (PERA), Colorado’s state pension fund, to divest from fossil fuels. The campaign has been running for several years with organized meetings with PERA leadership, maintaining a presence at PERA Town Halls, Board Meetings, and conducting email and phone activism to PERA staff and board members. In 2018 the Fossil Free PERA Coalition was formed and a petition began circulating calling for divestment. The initial focus on PERA board, staff, director and CIO shifted in 2019 after PERA released a new divestment policy stating they would not divest unless told to do so by the Colorado General Assembly. Fossil Free PERA responded by introducing legislation in early 2019 calling on PERA to study climate-related financial risk, which unfortunately did not move out of committee. In summer, 2019 Fossil Free PERA contracted with Corporate Knights to conduct a study looking at fossil fuel investments’ performance over the last decade, finding that PERA lost $1.77B by not divesting from fossil fuels a decade ago.
The MassDivest Coalition has been leading a campaign to get the MA legislature to pass H3662/S636, the “Local Option Bill for Fossil Fuel Divestment,” and actively lobbied legislators on the committee and constituents in their districts to voice support. Other related bills include H2220 which would require the state pension to Divest from coal and H2836 which is a comprehensive 100% renewable energy bill with a clause requiring that the state pension consider climate related financial risk and report on it.
The Minnesota State Board of Investment (SBI) invests all the pension funds from three Minnesota retirement associations – Minnesota State Retirement System (MSRS), Professional Employees Retirement Association (PERA) and Teachers Retirement Association (TRA). The SBI is governed by a board of elected officials – the Governor, Secretary of State, Auditor and Attorney General. SBI staff must respond to directions from these Board members and from the Minnesota Legislature. Since 2016, Bills calling for an SBI study evaluating the risk of staying invested in fossil fuels have been introduced in the Legislature each session. Two bills finally received a hearing during the 2019 session, but they have not moved beyond that first hearing. Consequently, Divest-Invest MN and MN350 have joined a coalition of Minnesota organizations and elected officials to approach the SBI board with a set of actions to take.
MN350 has supported the divestment team’s efforts with two easy-to-use tools – one for writing a letter to the editor and the other to call the board members’ offices. The Minnesota Youth Climate Strike coalition featured divestment at several Friday strikes throughout the winter of 2019-2020 and visited SBI board members. University of Minnesota students are also targeting University endowment funds for divestment.
The SBI has posted a lot of information on its website, including a climate risk discussion paper and a whole section on Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) and Stewardship issues. Our coalition finds the materials inadequate for addressing the climate crisis and will present a response at the next board meeting.
The NJ pension fund is managed by the State Investment Council, where the campaign has been testifying regularly since September 2018 during the public comment period and have put the issue of fossil fuel divestment on its agenda, making a strong financial and fiduciary argument that fossil fuels are losing money for pension members. In addition, the campaign has been picketing at meetings, and handing out educational leaflets. Stakeholder engagement includes inroads with the state teacher’s union. In January, the campaign met with the money managers of the pension fund where it was acknowledged that a compelling argument had been presented regarding divestment, even though they do not feel that there is enough battery storage available yet to make a real transition, as well they believe that they can make money for the pension in emerging markets. In February the campaign met with the Governor’s staff and are continuing with stakeholder engagement to unions. Learn more at www.DivestNJ.org
The NY Fossil Fuel Divestment Act, which calls for the divestment of the state’s $200 billion Common Retirement Fund, has been revised to address concerns raised in hearings held last spring. The bill now has 33 Senate sponsors, a majority of sitting NY State Senators. The campaign is shifting its focus to the Assembly support, where we have 50 sponsors and growing. We are also trying to educate unions about the risk to the funds that continued investment in fossil fuels represents. And there is a new campaign directed at the NY Teachers Retirement Fund, which is separate from the NY State Common Pension Fund. Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, the sole trustee of the Common Retirement Fund, has begun a process that is likely to lead to divestment from some coal companies. Recent communication from him makes it clear that he is feeling the heat from our efforts.
Retirees and state employees have been attending Washington State Investment Board (WSIB) meetings for 5 years, asking them to divest from fossil fuels. The WSIB manages the investment of pension funds for public school teachers, policemen, firemen, state employees, and municipal employees in our state. It is the WSIB’s fiduciary duty to consider the financial and physical harm that climate change will cause to pensioners, especially younger employees who are just starting out with public service work who may be retiring between 2040 and 2050. Public pension fund managers are liable for the harm caused by their deliberate choice to invest in fossil fuel infrastructure. A letter was sent to Governor Jay Inslee in 2018, and re-sent it in 2019, asking him to intervene. Learn more at https://m.facebook.com/DivestWA/ .