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Time for San Francisco to divest from fossil fuels

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The San Francisco Retirement Board is expected to vote on Jan. 24 on divestment from fossil fuel holdings. (Courtesy SFERS)

The day before Mayor Ed Lee passed away last December, he published an article on Medium titled, “Divesting from Fossil Fuels for a Cleaner and Stronger Future.” In the piece, Lee wrote that he was looking forward to next week’s San Francisco Retirement Board meeting, when the board will be voting on a long-discussed measure to divest The City’s pension fund from the fossil fuel industry.

“By taking the bold step to divest from fossil fuel assets, we are once again taking a strong stand on the essential issue of the environment,” Lee wrote.

Lee didn’t live long enough to see the day that his city would cut ties with the fossil fuel industry, but on Thursday, the San Francisco Retirement Board has the opportunity to honor his legacy and protect the future of all San Francisco residents by finally making the divestment commitment the mayor, Board of Supervisors and thousands of San Francisco residents have called for.

The board will be voting with the winds of progress at their backs. Just last week, on the other side of the country, Mayor Bill de Blasio made the exciting announcement that New York City would not only be divesting from fossil fuel companies, but also suing Big Oil for the damages they’ve caused to the climate and our communities. “The time is long past due for Big Oil to pay the bill and take full responsibility for the devastation they have wrought,” de Blasio wrote in the Washington Post.

In California, we’ve seen that devastation in terrible detail over the past year. First, it was the terrifying wildfires in Northern California, exacerbated by years of climate-related drought. Then, more fires, this time in the hills around Los Angeles, where whole communities looked like they’d become the set of the next apocalyptic disaster movie. Now, we’re faced with the heartbreaking mudslides around Santa Barbara, a new disaster enacted on the shoulders of the previous tragedy.

We must break this cycle of climate devastation, and while it isn’t enough on its own, fossil fuel divestment is a powerful step in the right direction. That’s because the fossil fuel industry is the No. 1 barrier to real climate progress. We have all the technology we need today to move to 100 percent renewable energy for all, but time and again we’ve been hamstrung by the stranglehold fossil fuel corporations have over our political process. That’s just as true in Sacramento, where Big Oil continues to lobby against bold legislation like California’s 100 percent clean energy bill, as it is in Washington, D.C., where President Donald Trump and his cronies are busy fulfilling the industry’s every wish.

Divestment is a powerful way for our cities, states and public institutions to cut ties with this industry, take away their social license to operate and weaken their political power.

Along with being the only moral choice in an ever-warming world, divestment makes good financial sense, as well. As the world moves its energy systems away from fossil fuels, companies like ExxonMobil, who have refused to invest seriously in renewable energy, will be left without a business plan. We saw a sneak-preview of what will likely happen to the fossil fuel sector with the collapse of the coal industry, where company stocks have plummeted by up to 90 percent over the past decade.

Fossil fuel investments are even more at risk as more cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City sue Big Oil and hold them accountable for the damage caused by lying to us about the threat of climate change. If you thought the fines against Big Tobacco for damaging our lungs and lying about it were huge, imagine the charges for destroying our planet. By holding onto to fossil fuel stocks, the San Francisco Retirement Board endangers both its reputation and the investments of our city’s retirees.

Mayor Lee knew that San Francisco was a city that was defined in large part by an embrace of the future, rather than a clinging to the past. As of today, more than 800 institutions representing some $6 trillion in assets have made a fossil fuel divestment commitment. From cities like New York City to educational institutions like San Francisco State University, they’ve taken a bold step forward, protecting their investments and our communities from the devastation being wrecked by fossil fuel companies. It’s time for the San Francisco Retirement Board to join them in taking this step forward. In doing so, they’ll be honoring Lee, following the will of the people, and helping protect our climate and communities for generations to come.

May Boeve is executive director of 350.org. Michael Brune is executive director of the Sierra Club.

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