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As California Burns, Teacher Pension Postpones Divestment

By Marcy Winograd - Common Dreams, September 7, 2021

As the climate crisis sent thousands fleeing wildfires in Northern California, CalSTRS, the nation's second largest public pension fund, postponed full divestment from fossil fuels for nearly 30 years.

Over objections from CTADivest, organizers within the powerhouse California Teachers Association, the retirement fund's investment committee voted unanimously September 1, 2021,to support a staff recommendation to adopt a net-zero Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHG) portfolio by 2050 or sooner. This translates into continued "engagement" or investment in Big Oil until the date the Paris Agreement set for countries to reach net-zero carbon emissions.

What is net-zero anyway? It's the point at which GHG's released by humans are "counterbalanced," in CalSTRS' words, by removing GHG's from the atmosphere, though no one is clear on how to remove these earth-warming gases through carbon capture and storage (CCS) or if it's even possible to inject them back into the ground without burning more fuels, poisoning drinking water or triggering earthquakes.

The CalSTRS vote came two months ahead of the next UN climate conference in Scotland, where the COP26 Coalition, made up of, CODEPNK and others, is expected to turn out thousands of protesters to demand the world's nations run, not walk, toward divestment from fossil fuels, as well as militarism, a key driver of the climate crisis.

The CalSTRS Board vote to continue investing in fossil fuels also came days after the California Democratic Party reaffirmed a 2015 resolution calling on the state's pension funds to divest from fossil fuels.

So as Hurricane Ida barreled across Louisiana, knocking out power to a million people sweltering in 100 degree heat, floods engulfed New York City streets and tornadoes tore through the NorthEast, a pension fund with a $310 billion portfolio, an estimated $6 billion in a decade-long underperforming oil sector and another $16 billion in fossil fuel delivery systems, rejected the call for full and swift divestment from a deadly industry causing havoc across the globe.

Outrage over the slow-walk to 2050 was voiced by retired teachers, such as this writer, who belong to CTADivest and are asking their union colleagues, other CTA members, to sign a petition urging the California Teachers Association to support divestment. Pro-divestment teachers stressed not only social justice arguments but fiscal as well, pointing out that Exxon lost $22 billion in 2020, sending its stock tumbling 13%.

CTA Divest was launched by three CTA middle school teachers. Mark Norberg of Burbank Unified, Shelly Ehrke of Santa Monica-Malibu Unified and Park Guthrie of the Harmony Union School District in Sonoma County were inspired to organize a broader dialogue on CalSTRS fossil fuel divestment to address unfounded fears divestment would devalue retirement pensions.

The goal of CTA Divest is to pass a new business item (NBI) at an upcoming meeting of the nearly 800-member CTA governing body, CTA State Council, "compelling CalSTRS to implement a thoughtful and phased withdrawal from fossil fuels."

Years ago, CTA State Council voted down a divestment NBI.

Ehrke, a 26 year teacher and elected member of the CTA State Council, is hopeful teachers will come around. "When we present CTA members with data and studies showing divestment has not negatively affected portfolios and could, in fact, strengthen our fund, they are more likely to want CalSTRS to divest. The risk that the fossil fuel industry could quickly become untenable and leave our fund with stranded assets has also opened a lot of eyes."

Before CTADivest was formally launched, momentum for divestment was already building among local CTA chapters and state council caucuses. The Badass Teachers Caucus voted to host a divestment forum as part of a CTA State Council weekend; a move that led to the formation of CTA Divest. CTA locals, such as United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), the Oakland Education Association (OEA), and the Santa Monica-Malibu CTA (SMMCTA) all passed resolutions calling on CalSTRS to divest. SMMCTA may not be as big and influential as the others, but it is the local chapter of CalSTRS Board Chair Harry Keiley, an advocate of continued investment in fossil fuels.

To describe CTA as a cousin to CalSTRS would be to underplay a near marital relationship between the world's largest teacher pension fund and a teachers' union with 1300 chapters stretching from Ukiah to Coronado. CTA, the engine behind the establishment and protection of public education in California, plays an instrumental role in electing members to the CalSTRS Board, which can hire or fire Chief Investment Officer Chris Ailman, a staunch divestment foe who for years has pushed the "engagement" approach.

In a 2020 interview with CNBC, Ailman admitted shareholder engagement with Big Oil has been a failure, but still insisted a seat at the table can change the extractive business model of oil companies complicit in climate change denial. "Why not just sell your stock?" asks the news anchor. Ailman responds, "The problem is that just turns our back on the problem. They use other people's money and keep on going."

Ah, but what if institutional investors read the writing on the wall and refused to invest in energy stocks dropping in value?

What if no one came to the ecocide party?

In addition to starving the fossil fuel industry of funds for new oil drilling, CTADivest organizer Guthrie, a co-founder of Schools for Climate Action says, "Divestment aims to undermine the political power of the oil industry so that we can enact regulations to rapidly curb fossil fuel emissions."

In contrast, State Controller Betty Yee called CalSTRS' commitment to net-zero by 2050 "ambitious," prefacing her praise with concerns about precipitous divestment. "The world doesn't change tomorrow if CalSTRS divests."

Under the approved plan, CalSTRS staff will by September, 2022, report on the individual GHG emissions of both public and private companies in its portfolio "to establish a baseline for interim emissions reduction goals to 2050." No dates are spelled out for reductions or interim divestment and staff is only required to report back to the Board once a year for the next decades on progress toward the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.

Who's in a hurry to divest from fossil fuels? Not CalSTRS.

Determining the emissions of companies in its portfolio, however, could be an ambitious task, particularly if CalSTRS factors in the emissions of military contractors who profit off weapons sales to the Pentagon, the world's single biggest institutional emitter of GHG's. According to CalSTRS' stock report, the pension fund has $189 million in Raytheon, $176-million in Lockheed Martin and $123 million in Northrop Grumman, three of the top five military contractors.

Speaking at the September CalSTRS meeting as the public face of CalSTRS legal counsel, Tiffany Reeves of Rinehart Boerner Law, said of the slow walk to 2050, "The purpose of this is all about what's in the beneficiaries' interests."

Divestment would be in the beneficiaries' interest since the oil industry has been underperforming the stock market the last ten years, with an average annual rate of return of 2.8%, far below CalSTRS's expectation for a 7% return to meet its pension obligations, even further below the stock market's decade average rate of return of 13.6%.

Calling on CalSTRS to divest its $103 million in Enbridge stock, Oakland resident and CalSTRS beneficiary Joan Lohman implored the Board to meet with indigenous water protectors fighting the expansion of Enbridge's Line 3 pipeline, which threatens to contaminate indigenous land and water in northern Minnesota. Lohman said she was raising her voice on behalf of 800 water protectors arrested by Enbridge-paid police using torture tactics, such as a head lock that Loman said left one protester with a dislocated jaw and a diagnosis of Bell's palsy.

The Board vote essentially rejecting immediate calls for divestment from Enbridge and other fossil fuel-related companies could further motivate social justice teachers who want to see their students survive the next threatened extinction. Although CTA's institutional leaders commented in support of CalSTRS' 2050 net zero pledge, they also expressed a sense of urgency.

"We urge the Board and staff of CalSTRS to act swiftly and aspire to achieve these goals well in advance of the benchmark date of 2050 because our future and our environment require it," MaryKay Scheid, Vice Chair of the California Teachers Association (CTA) Retirement Committee, told the Board during public comments.

Dana Dillon, former CalSTRS Board president and now vice chair of the CTA Retirement Committee also asked the Board to transition to net-zero carbon emissions sooner rather than later.

For now, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Phillips 66, BP, Occidental Petroleum and other climate behemoths like Energy Transfer and Enbridge, both notorious for the Dakota Access and Line 3 pipelines threatening indigenous land, can rest easy knowing CalSTRS will not follow the lead of the $226 billion State of New York pension fund, which during the next five years will divest from its fossil fuel holdings—a decision reached after eight years of street heat from climate activists.

CalSTRS' opponents of divestment congratulate themselves on using their stock proxies to elect three dissidents to the 12-member Exxon board, but that board is still dominated by management, specifically Darren W. Woods, Exxon's chair and chief executive, who promotes carbon capture, a gamble at best, an industry public relations ploy at worst, to suck carbon out of the air and bury it underground somewhere so oil companies can continue to drill, drill, drill.

CalSTRS' shareholder engagement has yet to stop Exxon from embarking on its largest oil drilling project ever. Exxon's deep water drilling operation off the coast of Guyana threatens to turn a carbon sink into a "carbon bomb," producing 800,000 barrels of oil a day, equivalent to fifteen new coal plants, to pollute the rainforest and flare greenhouse gas emissions.

CTADivest organizer Norberg is optimistic California teachers can influence their pension fund to divest, an action he predicts will constrain Exxon. "If the second largest public pension fund in the U.S. votes to divest, joining the New York State Pension fund, the action will make international headlines and add untold energy to the fight to stop not just Exxon's plans in Guyana, but the drilling for fossil fuels around the world."

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