Thu, May

Why Are California’s Public Pension Funds Still Gambling Workers’ Savings on Fossil Fuels?


CLIMATE - As world governments descended on New York City for Climate Week last month, California Attorney General Rob Bonta and Governor Gavin Newsom brought a momentous announcement: Following a year of record climate disasters, the state is suing the five biggest fossil fuel companies for climate damages and deception.

In this crucial move to hold the perpetrators of wildfires, floods, smoke, and deadly heat accountable for the destruction they are wreaking in our communities, the state of California joins dozens of municipalities with similar damages and deception lawsuits against major oil companies.

As far back as the 1970s, companies like Exxon, Chevron, and Shell knew all there was to know about the dangers of fossil fuel use causing global climate change—the very disasters we’re living through now. Instead of warning the rest of us, or pivoting their business models, the likes of Chevron doubled down on fossil fuels, all in the name of profit while the rest of us pay the cost.

There’s no room for coal, oil, and gas in any climate-safe investments.

So why are California’s public pension funds—CalPERS and CalSTRS, the two largest in the country—still gambling workers’ hard-earned savings on fossil fuels?

As revealed in a DeSmog exclusive, data pulled by Stand.earth and the Climate Safe Pensions Network from the Bloomberg Terminal reveals that CalPERS and CalSTRS collectively hold around $4.5 billion in Exxon Mobil, Shell, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and BP, the five oil and gas corporations named as defendants in the lawsuit.

CalPERS and CalSTRS—collectively representing $780 billion and 2.5 million members—must act on their fiduciary duty and responsibly phase out fossil fuel holdings. There’s no room for coal, oil, and gas in any climate-safe investments.

That’s exactly what SB 252—California’s pension fossil fuel divestment bill—would achieve. The widely supported Fossil Fuel Divestment Bill, which passed the Senate in 2023, will head straight to the state Assembly in 2024.

To date, nearly 1,600 institutions representing over $40 trillion in assets have committed to fossil fuel divestment. In 2023 alone, new commitments came from the Church of England, New York University, and many more, after years of futile attempts to “engage with fossil fuel companies” and “help fossil fuel clients transition” failed.

Following the announcement of the lawsuit, Governor Newsom officially signed SB 253 and SB 261 into law—two of the three bills in California’s Climate Accountability Package (the third being SB 252). SB 253, the Climate Corporate Data Accountability Act, will require U.S.-based corporations doing business in California that make over $1 billion annually to publicly disclose their carbon footprint. SB 261, the Climate-Related Financial Risk Act, will require corporations, financial institutions, and insurers to report on climate-related financial risk.

As Governor Newsom said himself: 

California taxpayers shouldn’t have to foot the bill for billions of dollars in damages—wildfires wiping out entire communities, toxic smoke clogging our air, deadly heat waves, record-breaking droughts parching our wells. With this lawsuit, California is taking action to hold big polluters accountable and deliver the justice our people deserve.

It’s time to bring the full Climate Accountability Package over the finish line, and pass SB 252 in 2024.

This is not only about divesting from fossil-fueled chaos, this is about correcting the course of California’s public pensions and aligning them with California’s climate-safe future: a future that includes renewable energy, Indigenous ecological leadership, affordable housing, and accessible healthcare and public transit for all. We have the opportunity to build a California where all of us can thrive.

(Shana DeClercq (she/her) leads communications, press, and digital strategies at Fossil Free California. She brings over ten years’ experience in communications and digital leadership. Shana’s narrative work is rooted in climate justice, racial justice, and disability justice, building toward a shared future that is abundant, sustainable, and joyful.) 

(Lindsay Meiman (she/her) is the climate finance media director with Stand.earth and the Climate Safe Pensions Network. Meiman has over a decade of experience leading strategic communications for climate justice campaigns and grassroots mobilizations, including helping launch the global fossil fuel divestment movement and the #ExxonKnew campaign.)

(This article was first published in CommonDreams.org.)