As members of the Public Employees Retirement System, we urge the Washington State Investment Board to phase out investments in the fossil fuel industry as soon as possible. State employees should not have their retirement savings tied to the “success” of an industry that can only profit by making the climate crisis worse.
State employees began petitioning the State Investment Board to divest from fossil fuels four years ago. Since then, fossil fuel investments have drained hundreds of millions of dollars from the pension fund. These industries are declining in value — and that’s a good thing, because it means we are finally turning the corner toward a clean energy future.
The climate crisis makes this clean energy transition an urgent priority. And the spectacular decline in the cost of clean energy technology makes it practical and affordable. 2015 was the first year in which clean energy investment outpaced fossil fuel investment globally, and the trend keeps accelerating. We can and must align our public and private investments toward a fair, rapid transition that provides affordable clean energy and economic opportunity for all.
There’s no time left to waste. Because we began this transition so late — decades after scientists confirmed the dangers of climate disruption — we need to accelerate it now. Devastating climate impacts have already begun, here and around the world. This past year has seen unprecedented damage from intense storms and fires. The pall of smoke that hung over Washington last summer caused widespread health impacts, and declining forest health signals more smoke on the horizon. The Quinault Nation is literally moving to higher ground as sea-level rise and storms inundate their village. The oceans are turning acidic, threatening shellfish, salmon, orcas, and the economies and cultures that depend on them. Scientists have clearly documented how carbon pollution from fossil fuels makes these catastrophes more frequent and destructive.
In 2015, the countries of the world agreed to climate goals in the Paris Agreement that would give us a fighting chance of addressing the crisis before it spins out of control. EVERY nation is now party to this agreement, though President Trump has threatened to withdraw. The science underlying the agreement is non-negotiable: to confront the climate crisis successfully, we need to leave at least three quarters of existing, proven fossil fuel reserves unburned.
For the companies that own this coal, oil, and gas, their stock value is pegged to their reserves. Their business model relies on the commercial value of fuels that cannot be burned. So, only one of these things can be true: either fossil fuel companies grow in value, or we successfully address the climate crisis before it’s too late. It’s literally them or us.
Based on recent performance and growing global commitment to climate action, we think it’s very likely that fossil fuel investments will continue to tank. Industry analysts warn of a “dangerous bubble in the fossil fuel economy.” Mark Carney, the head of the Bank of England, has compared the financial risks to the sub-prime mortgage crisis that pounded the global economy in 2007. New York state and New York City, centers of global finance, recently announced divestment plans, pushing the global total of divestment commitments over $6 trillion.
The only scenario in which fossil fuels might earn strong returns is a dismal future of unmanageable climate crisis and human suffering. In no circumstance should we be financing that future. Our state is a proud leader of the We Are Still In coalition — states, cities, and businesses committed to the Paris Agreement even if President Trump walks. Investing state pension funds in fossil fuels violates that commitment. It’s betting our retirements on the failure of the Paris Agreement and sacrificing our kids’ future on the crumbling altar of fossil fuel profits.
We are not financial experts. We are family and community members — a retired science teacher and a public health professional. We believe that ending investment in fossil fuels will help us achieve a more financially secure retirement. But we know for certain it’s the right thing to do.
Investing in fossil fuels is betting against our kids. That’s always a losing bet.
Don Steinke is a retired science and math teacher. Dennis Braddock served as Director of the Washington Department of Social and Health Services and as Representative in the Legislature. Advocacy group Climate Solutions drafted this column in consultation with the co-authors.