CalPERS signed a United Nations pledge in Montreal last week to measure the “carbon footprint” of its $296 billion investment portfolio, with the goal of reporting the results before a UN climate change conference in Paris late next year.
CalSTRS announced in response to a UN climate summit in New York last week that its investments in “clean energy and technology,” now valued at $1.4 billion, will be increased to $3.7 billion over the next five years.
UC Regents voted on Sept. 17 to reject a student-led call for divesting fossil fuels from a $91 billion investment portfolio (three-quarters in retirement funds), but did not rule out using divestment later after developing a new investment framework.
Pension funds have used their investment clout for targeted social goals, notably divestments or stock boycotts of apartheid South Africa and tobacco. Curbing the use of carbon-emitting fossil fuels said to be disastrously warning the climate is a much larger global undertaking.
“We call on other investors to join us in assessing the climate risk in their investment portfolios and using that knowledge and insight in their investment decision,” Priya Mathur, the CalPERS board vice president, said in the carbon pledge news release.
President Obama called for more worldwide action to reduce climate change as he spoke at the UN climate summit in New York last week. “Nobody can sit on the sidelines on this issue,” he said.
Consultants announced last week that 180 institutions (pensions, religious, philanthropic, local governments and others) have pledged to divest fossil fuel holdings worth $50 billion, including the $860 million Rockefeller fund, founded on an oil fortune.
A coalition of groups announced that nearly 350 global institutional investors, managing $24 trillion, called on government leaders to phase out fossil fuel subsidies and provide “carbon pricing,” which would help redirect investments to clean energy.
Carbon pricing, charging a tax or fee for emitting a ton of carbon dioxide, is favored by many economists as a workable way to reduce global warming. The concept has the support of CalPERS and CalSTRS.
“If a meaningful price on carbon emissions is established, CalSTRS believes its clean energy and low-carbon investment could grow to almost $9.5 billion, nearly seven times the current level of investment,” Chris Ailman, CalSTRS chief investment officer, said in the climate summit news release.
California has a limited form of carbon pricing with a “cap-and-trade” program for oil refineries, power plants and large factories. As a cap on greenhouse gases tightens, industries must cut their emissions or buy an “allowance” from other firms or the state.
Calling for action on climate change, demonstrators marched through Manhattan last week at the climate summit, as many as 400,000 in some estimates. But there also are climate change skeptics. Summit news reports showed contrasting views of how the issue is viewed in the political arena.
National Public Radio reported that Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist for a committee putting money from billionaire Tom Steyer into a half-dozen close races, said, “In many of these campaigns, climate is being used as a wedge issue, focused on Republicans.”
Fox News reported that Dan Simmons of the Institute for Energy Research said a recent Gallup poll found 41 percent think the economy is America’s biggest problem, while only 1 percent cited the environment and pollution. “Limiting greenhouse gas is not something that the majority of Americans consider one of the most pressing issues of our time,” he said.
CalPERS and CalSTRS have moved away from divestment, troubled by the cost, no hard evidence of results and legislative meddling. They prefer to use their status as shareholders for “constructive engagement” with companies to push for change.
California Public Employees Retirement System consultants estimatedthat a 1987 law requiring divestment of South African-connected firms cost CalPERS $529 million, and not being able to invest that amount boosted the total to $1.86 billion by 2006.
South African divestment cost the California State Teachers Retirement System $600 million to $750 million, the consultants said. Similar costs resulted when CalPERS and CalSTRS voluntarily divested tobacco stock.
The two big pension funds clashed with the Legislature over a 2007 law requiring divestment of foreign companies doing defense or energy business in Iran. Labor-backed Proposition 162 in 1992 gives public pension systems sole control of their funds.
Now climate change is creating a new wave of pressure. Last July the mayors of Oakland, Berkeley and Richmond published an article in the Sacramento Bee urging CalPERS to join their cities and San Francisco and Santa Monica in fossil fuel divestment.
The mayors said that if global warming is to be limited to 2 degrees Celsius, believed to be the best chance of avoiding runaway climate disruption, no more than a third of proven fossil fuel reserves can be consumed prior to 2050.
If governments act to control climate change, the mayors said, the companies will have to leave most of their reserves in the ground, even though they continue to spend hundreds of billions exploring for new reserves.
“A growing ‘carbon bubble’ — overvalued companies, wasted capital and stranded assets — poses a huge risk to investments in fossil fuels,” the mayors said.
When the CalSTRS board was urged to divest fossil fuels last June, similar arguments were made by Deborah Silvey and Jane Vosburg, representing teachers and retirees with the 350 Bay Area Divestment Campaign.
The international grassroots campaign founded by author Bill McKibben takes its name from the view of some scientists that the current carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, 392 parts per million, must be reduced to 350 ppm to avoid a climate tipping point.
After a 10-campus student group, “Fossil Free UC,” urged divestment, UC Regents appointed a task force on sustainable investing. The regents adopted the task force recommendations during a well-attended meeting Sept. 17.
The goal is to develop a framework for sustainable UC investing by next July that includes ESG (environmental, social and governance) factors. An evaluation of ESG strategies is to include “whether to use divestment.”
Regent Bonnie Reiss said that making the case for divestment should be an “uphill battle” because of fiduciary obligations. Reiss and Regent Gavin Newsom suggested a look at coal holdings, which Stanford University plans to divest.
The University of California also will “allocate $1 billion over a period of five years to solutions-oriented investments such as renewable power and fuels, energy efficiency, and/or sustainable food and agriculture.”
Meanwhile, 350.org groups throughout California have been working to get the support of CalPERS and CalSTRS members and unions and may soon launch a formal divestment campaign, “Fossil Free California.”