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Divesting from fossil fuels will save pensioners — and everyone else

Fossil fuel divestment has been a political nonstarter. But four things have changed that may help it prevail.

An oil derrick and wind turbines stand above the plains north of Amarillo, Texas.
An oil derrick and wind turbines stand above the plains north of Amarillo, Texas.
REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

When 1,000 students lay on the floor of the Capitol rotunda on Sept. 20 in St. Paul, staging a “die-in” as part of a global strike against government inaction on climate change, the gesture expressed something more than alarm. Making room for each other and using friends or parents as pillows, the activists said that you can face anything if you’re not alone.

That message is something our elders need to hear.

Most baby boomers, contrary to stereotype, have not saved enough to survive in retirement. Most are still working, and many turn for help to grown children with young kids of their own.

Building solidarity with these Minnesotans may be important for climate strikers, who returned to the Capitol on Dec. 6 with a new demand: Divest state pensions from fossil fuel industries.

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Divestment has been proposed for years by environmental advocates and DFL legislators, who argue — soundly, based on the science — that continued fossil fuel combustion will end human life.

Morality is unassailable

The morality of this argument is unassailable. MN350 and the international 350 movement, which helped organize the climate strikes, take their names from the highest concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that can sustain life, according to leading climatologists: 350 parts per million (though some scientists put that number lower). In our 315,000year human existence, CO2 concentrations never exceeded 300 ppm — until 1910.

Grant Stevensen
Grant Stevensen
The change came with industrialization and increased coal burning in the 1700s, with observable effects from greenhouse gas emissions predicted since the 1800s. By the 1960s, oil companies knew. Last year, CO2 concentrations topped 407 ppm. The “350” is a reduction target, reachable through renewable energy and pulling CO2 out of the air.

Divesting pensions from the old fossil fuel engine has been a political nonstarter, even as Minnesotans see their basements flood, their summer skies grow hazy from wildfires, and their state bird, the loon, begin to disappear. Divestment bills introduced in the Legislature in March stalled in committee.

One problem is fiduciary: Our state assumes a high rate of return — 7.5 percent — on investments for funding pensions paid to 173,000 retirees. Dumping an estimated $2.1 billion in fossil fuel-related stocks cannot mess with that.

Another problem is political: While the generation gap on climate change is nonexistent among Democrats, it’s very real among Republicans, whose number born after 1980 are more likely to favor Teddy Roosevelt-style stewardship of the future — but aren’t in power yet. Some Minnesota GOP lawmakers have broken with the president’s denialism, but most haven’t, and Republicans control the state Senate.

However, four things have changed that may help fossil fuel divestment prevail.

What has changed

First, the science has grown more urgent. In October 2018, a report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change landed with the impact of a nuclear missile, indicating we have less time than previously thought to turn our earth-sized spaceship around.

Second, the midterm elections put DFLers back into every seat of the State Board of Investment, which oversees state pensions.

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Third, the climate movement has multiplied in size and momentum. Ten months after activists occupied Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s office to demand action, climate strikers led marches across 163 countries.

Doubts in the financial industry

Finally, pension fund managers themselves have started voicing doubts about an industry built on carbon that may never leave the ground. As University of California trustees announced recently, “Hanging on to fossil fuel assets is a financial risk.” A 2013 analysis by S&P Capital IQ concluded that endowments do better with divestment. In 2018, environmental advocates Corporate Knights found that divesting 10 years earlier would have saved the state of New York $22.2 billion. In November, the group found doing so would have saved California and Colorado a combined $19 billion.

Juwaria Jama
Juwaria Jama
Since World War II — the last time we mobilized for survival — Americans have left it to protesters to set the moral bar. In 1985, student anti-apartheid activists occupied Capitol buildings and universities across the country to demand that state governments and schools divest from companies doing business in South Africa.

The campaign worked. By 1990, 155 colleges and 26 states (including Minnesota) divested. Hundreds of companies followed.

To stop capital flight, the apartheid regime gave black citizens the vote. In 1994, Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first democratically elected president. His predecessor, F.W. de Klerk, later said, “When the divestment movement began, I knew that apartheid had to end.”

Today, financial backing for another evil is evaporating. But it may take activists, young and old, occupying the rotunda for our leaders to notice.

Juwaria Jama of Spring Lake Park High School is the state lead of MN Youth Climate Strikes. Grant Stevensen of St. Paul is a policy organizer for MN350 Action, an affiliate of 350 Action and partner of Divest-Invest.

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