By Jessica Jurcek
Volunteer for the Divest-Invest Minnesota Policy Action Team and an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities

It’s not often that Gen Z and Boomers are on the same team. Yet, Minnesota youth are joining pension holders to demand that the state divest its pension fund from fossil fuels.

Pension holders are asking the state to restructure investments in its pension fund, moving money out of the fossil fuel industry and reinvesting in areas like renewable energy. Recently young Minnesotans joined them, organizing strikes and reaching out to elected officials to demand divestment of the pension fund for the sake of their futures.

Pension fund divestment could take two paths. First, the State Board of Investment (SBI), the agency that manages the state’s retirement funds, could direct the pension fund managers to reinvest all their investments currently in fossil fuel companies. Or the Minnesota legislature could vote to force the SBI to divest.

MN350 is one of the most active groups pressuring the SBI to divest the pension fund. Our efforts took off in 2015 when pension holder Emily Moore and several others formed a policy team through MN350 called Divest Invest Minnesota. In 2018 they joined MN350 and other organizations and individuals in the Minnesota Divestment Coalition.

Divest Invest Minnesota and MN350 offer talking points on fossil fuel divestment for constituents to bring to their elected officials and organize ways for people to contact their representatives. The team also met with three of the four current SBI members in 2019 to pressure them to divest.

Moore is excited to see a huge increase in enthusiasm around fossil fuel divestment, especially from the youth. Minnesota Youth Climate Strike, a group of college and high school students from across the state, hosted a strike at the Capitol last December, filling the Capitol’s rotunda for a five-hour teach- and sit-in centered around pension fund divestment.

Smaller groups across the Twin Cities organized the same day in December with similar demands: University of Minnesota students rallied to support divestment at the state level and to ask the University to divest its endowment. I marched with other students in freezing temperatures from Coffman Memorial Union to the University president’s office in Morrill Hall, carrying signs and chanting, “No more coal, no more oil, keep that carbon in the soil!” We planned to sit outside of the president’s office, but campus police put Morrill Hall on lockdown before we arrived.

Although they don’t hold pensions, students and other youth see divestment as an effective way to counter the fossil fuel industry. Of the $90 billion invested in the state’s pension fund, $2.1 billion are directly invested in fossil fuel companies. Reinvesting this money sends a message to the fossil fuel industry that the public does not support its use of natural resources.

“It’s important to take away the funding and the means to continue to destroy our planet,” said Lilli Ambort, a U of M student at the campus rally.

Priya Dalal-Whelan, a youth climate organizer, said the Youth Climate Strike was strategic about choosing divestment. Since the SBI is made up of four democrats – Gov. Tim Walz, State Auditor Julie Blaha, Secretary of State Steve Simon, and Attorney General Keith Ellison – who say they want to fight climate change, targeting this group seemed like a smart place to start.

Despite its strategic appeal, pension fund divestment touches on generational tensions around climate issues. Many pension holders are part of a generation that largely ignored climate issues when scientists started raising them decades ago, contributing to the serious effects noticed worldwide today. However, Dalal-Whelan said, “it’s not ordinary people’s fault.” A lot of pension holders did try, she believes, to combat climate change, and youth climate strikers are happy to work with them now to divest the pension fund.

The SBI’s opposition to divestment is twofold. It cites concerns about the financial risks of divestment, arguing that it has a responsibility to pension holders to be cautious with the fund. MN350 and other divestment advocates challenge this perspective with data about growth in renewable energy stocks and the increasingly poor performance of fossil fuel investments.

SBI members also claim that divesting from the fossil fuel industry removes the state’s ability to influence fossil fuel companies to become better environmental stewards. Grant Stevenson, climate justice organizer at MN350, counters this argument by pointing out that the SBI has yet to exert any influence over the fossil fuel companies it’s invested in. Taking money out of these companies, Stevensen contends, is a more effective strategy. “I think [the companies] will shift when they see the writing on the wall,” he said.

Although the SBI has yet to commit, some lawmakers are siding with the pension holders and young people calling for divestment.

Sen. Sandra Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, has authored divestment bills since 2016, two of which were offered in 2019 along with Representative Jamie Long. Her plans to push them forward in the 2020 legislative session were derailed amid COVID-19.

“Some of those pension holders don’t want blood money,” said Pappas, who began working on fossil fuel divestment in response to pressure from MN350 and other groups.

Attention from the youth, however, is new to Pappas. While she is not officially connected with Minnesota Youth Climate Strike, she attended their December demonstration in St. Paul to show support.

As excited as Pappas is to see young people’s energy directed at pension fund divestment, she’s worried their strike wasn’t as effective as it could have been because it occurred outside of the legislative session when most lawmakers aren’t at the Capitol.

“I don’t know that anyone paid attention to it,” she said.

The youth climate strikers disagree. Dalal-Whelan said the December strike prompted SBI member Simon to promise them a meeting. They didn’t get a reaction from Walz but have plans to push for a meeting with him, too.

The next step toward divestment, according to Moore and other MN350 volunteers, is pressuring the SBI to study the performance of its fossil fuel investments. A similar study conducted in California by research company Corporate Knights found that without fossil fuel investments, the California State Teachers’ Retirement System could have made $5.5 billion more between 2009 and 2019.

This spring, the SBI resolved to divest its investments in thermal coal. While this is a step in the right direction, it’s not enough to secure a safe future for Minnesotans – financially or environmentally.

Until the SBI commits to divestment, members of Divest Invest Minnesota have plans to continue making a strong case for divestment of Minnesota’s pension fund. Those plans include a presentation to the SBI on Aug. 26, followed by a public streaming of that presentation.

Moore, one of the organizers behind the August event, becomes teary when she thinks about how important fossil fuel divestment is to younger generations. “It’s my grandkids,” she said. “What are we doing to [their] future?”

Jessica Jurcek is a volunteer for the Divest-Invest Minnesota Policy Action Team and an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.