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Retirement Board ought to heed late mayor’s call, vote to divest from fossil fuels

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Mayor Ed Lee exits the chamber room to applause after presenting his proposed budget for the 2016-17 fiscal year at City Hall on May 31, 2016. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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The unexpected loss of Mayor Ed Lee still hangs over our city. Many remember his corny jokes, his love of sports and his ability to bring people together. I remember a leader who fought President Donald Trump’s shortsighted and destructive environmental policies with fearless common sense.

“It’s kind of hard not to feel like San Francisco and our values are always under attack,” Lee said at his last Earth Day breakfast. “We’re going to remain a city that takes aggressive and ambitious climate action no matter who is in the White House.”

Lee delivered on this promise. As Trump tried to revive coal, San Francisco expanded its renewable energy and electric vehicle infrastructure. After Trump rejected the Paris Accord, Lee signaled The City’s commitment to the global pact by signing the Chicago Climate Charter. While The City’s population and economy grew, we reduced our greenhouse gas emissions.

“Mayor Lee’s commitment to environmental policy set a powerful example for how mayors can — and must — play a leadership role in combating climate change,” former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy told me.

Lee fought until the end. Mere hours before he passed away, the mayor urged the San Francisco Employees’ Retirement Board to cut ties with the pension’s riskiest and dirtiest coal and oil holdings.

His call for divestment wasn’t a political ploy. Lee was taking a necessary stand to protect San Franciscans’ future and uphold our principles. The pension’s fossil fuel holdings are bad for both lives and livelihoods. They reflect the values of Trump, not San Francisco. The entire Retirement Board should heed our late mayor’s call and vote to divest on Jan. 24.

While it’s hard for anyone to deny climate science, the brutal reality of our changing world has slapped us in the face this year. Our normally mild city sweated through multiple days of more than 100-degree weather. December is dry. Wildfires scorched Napa and Sonoma counties, and continue to burn throughout the state.

The harm companies like Chevron and Exxon cause should be enough to divest from fossil fuels. But many of these investments also cost retirees. From March 31 to June 30 of this year, the total market value of the pension’s fossil fuel equities dropped by $120 million. Even Retirement Board staff admitted “energy has dramatically underperformed the S&P 500 for the past 3.5 years.”

“Fossil fuels are already looking like a very bad investment, and the outlook for fossil fuels looks even worse given the rapid improvements in cleaner technologies, as well as the strengthening of climate solution policies,” Ian Monroe, co-founder of Etho Capital and a finance teacher at Stanford University, told me.

These strong moral and financial reasons haven’t persuaded the Retirement Board to divest though. Despite pleas from retirees, city employees, the Board of Supervisors, activists and Native Americans, meaningful action keeps getting delayed. Mayor Lee’s intervention put pressure on the Retirement Board to listen to their beneficiaries and do what’s right.

Of course, the Retirement Board could ignore Lee’s request and deny divestment. But keeping risky investments could also put their positions at risk.

Last Tuesday, Supervisor Aaron Peskin, a long-time champion for divestment, introduced an amendment to the City Charter that could place the issue in the hands of San Francisco voters, if the Retirement Board fails to act in January. Peskin and billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer had planned to introduce the amendment before Lee passed.

“The voters will decide whether the current composition of the Board accurately reflects their priorities relative to climate change and the enormous costs associated for sea level rise,” Peskin and Steyer warned in a letter to the Retirement Board dated earlier this month.

But Lee’s intervention may be enough to persuade the last holdouts on the Retirement Board to act. Yes, the mayor fought Trump’s environmentally destructive policies aggressively. But Lee’s priority was San Franciscans. That’s why his support for divestment is meaningful. He saw an end to coal and oil companies’ destruction and greed and didn’t want retirees’ future tied to a dying industry.

If the Retirement Board honors Mayor Lee’s legacy by cutting ties with losing investments, San Francisco will become the first major city in the nation to divest from fossil fuels. It will send a powerful message as other leaders look for ways to take aggressive action on climate change.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.

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