Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Winds of Political Change

On the evening before the now infamous and furious fire broke out across my community in Santa Rosa,  I was drafting a letter of thanks to the many thousands of voters who supported my recent candidacy to help direct one of the worldʻs largest public pension funds. By 3 am my partner and I would take thirty minutes to select a few cherished items before fleeing the fires appearing on the ridge lines.

As the LA Times Editorial Board would write about the fires that began that evening, "It may well be the stateʻs worst catastrophe in recorded history by any measure...The superstorms that scientists warned would result from climate change? They are here. The day of reckoning isnʻt in the future. It is now." ("The Climate Change Fire Alarm from Northern California," LA Times, 10/12/17).

The connection between my writing on the politics of climate change is one that I have made for many years in the California Legislature as well as in public life: the various disasters we are witnessing often share a common linkage to the rise of fossil-fueled crises around the globe. For those who think of our changing climates as a remote threat, the events in Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico and California are a wake-up call. 

The cause of harrowing fossil-fueled disasters will continue to be debated as well they should. One cannot immediately conclude that the specific fire still enveloping my community can be easily assigned to the burning of fossil fuels. As we recognize, the construction of scientific proofs donʻt move as swiftly as the fires continuing to threaten my neighbors. What climate scientists and others have made clear is that we will increasingly be subjected to these kinds of destructive events by ignoring the over-sized role of specific sources, including the burning of fossil fuels. Yet, this parsing of causal factors overlooks the larger destructive role of fossil fuels in the national economy.

A central theme in my candidacy to become a board member with the California Public Employeesʻ Retirement System was designed to call attention to the linkage between how this pension fund manages public investments, especially those investments supporting the fossil fuel industries. As a participant in many political struggles, I have argued for many years that treating a variety of large-scale threats as isolated events - from pesticide poisonings of farmworkers and consumers to the pollution of rivers, lakes and oceans to the contamination of entire air basins to the proliferation of a multitude of toxic products - disguises the common trait for so many of these damaging events to an economy based on fossil fuels.

Despite the efforts of powerful industries seeking to reinforce a climate of denial and delayed actions, millions of Californians comprehend that the converging evidence gathered by scientists across the globe means that we must expeditiously exit fossil fuels. Not according to a time table designed to convenience corporations, but to foster a robust economy built on achieving a healthy economy for workers, communities, and those who too often are subjected to the damaging effects of a poisoned economy. It is at this juncture that public investments must engage in more decisive actions.

To date, the efforts to draw on public investments as a vehicle for supporting a healthy economy have been feeble. Efforts to divest, impose strict controls on damaging corporate decisions, redirect investments toward alternative energy, jobs and communities have been dismal. Worse still, CalPERS decision-making has been characterized by secrecy, curtailing public participation, and quieting the voices of those calling for actions to place California on a stronger path to an economy where the benefits are shared by all, not simply the stratospheric interests of the most wealthy.

The purpose of public investment decisions must surely include an assessment of whether certain industries now pose too great a risk to society at large. The evidence of risk associated with fossil fueled industries is becoming increasingly evident; whatever the short-term dividends that might accrue to CalPERS beneficiaries, the damaging effects are already far too expensive for the larger society.  The disasters of 2017 undermine the arguments of so-called financial benefits to pension funds which pale in comparison to the astronomical costs required to address the negative consequences of rising seas, worsening fires, and super storms.

Indeed, the arguments advanced by environmentalists decades ago are now being supplemented by the energy and financial analysts arguing that fossil fuels have outlived their usefulness. The alternatives to coal, the internal combustion engine, toxic products and associated industries are largely at hand. When joined with the consensus statements by scientists calling for an immediate economic transition as essential to avoid worsening disasters, the table has been set for everyone to join in the herculean effort to transform our economy.

While CalPERS represents a tiny cog in this effort, like other elements for one of the worldʻs largest economies, its potential influence is considerable. In order to hasten our economic transition, the members of CalPERS Board of Administration need to devise a much more aggressive agenda....

(stay tuned for more on this story)