Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Lessons of Harvey

Todayʻs post is relatively short in an effort to respond to a question posed to me by a group of CalPERS members; in fact, they are quite angry.

Whatʻs the source of their anger? They are convinced I am covertly engaged in what several of them refer to as "social engineering" - a reference that is a bit vague, but seems to imply that they simply want the CalPERS Board to grow their investments. They appear agitated that considerations beyond making money are nonsense and have no place in the management of their retirement monies.

To be fair, their argument has traditionally received the support among many conventional financial managers in previous times. But as I noted in a recent post, such thinking is becoming very quickly challenged by not just critics of ʻold schoolʻ financial management, but large numbers of informed citizens.  The shortcomings of the older simply "growing our money" is perhaps best illustrated by the most recent natural disaster - Hurricane Harvey.

I question the notion that Harvey is natural because of the mountain of scientific evidence offered by climate and other scientists around the world. For most of the scientists, Harveyʻs severity and damage is linked to a variety of human activities, but especially specific industries including the fossil fuel industries; it is why many of us have taken to calling such events fossil-fueled storms.

It is precisely the link between the burning of fossil fuels and the threats to civilization that causes an increasing number of people to raise questions about the consequences of their investments. Indeed, investment managers across the globe now wonder whether investments in fossil fuels are not simply too risky. The economic destruction in Houston, now estimated close to $200 billion is ironically linked to the complex of petrochemical plants that have fostered these fossil-fueled storms. For many residents in the region, monthly pension checks do not begin to compensate them for the destruction of their homes, neighborhoods, and livelihood.

The question for CalPERS members should not be limited to simply how fast their investments can grow, but whether the negative consequences of certain kinds of investments will overwhelm whatever financial benefit they believe they are going to receive in the future. For those who think that even asking the question is non-sense, I suggest you take the time to consider what just happened to Houston. Or what appears about to happen to Florida. Or what may be on the horizon for many communities across California.

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