California Takes the First Step to Divest from Coal

There aren’t many tools in the arsenal of the powerless to to affect the actions of the powerful. One of them, of course, is the ballot box. Another is public protest. But when the power of money is so great that public outrage fails to get results and legislators are unable to create enough change quickly enough, one of the few recourses left is to hit the target where it hurts most: the pocketbook.

The most common way to case financial pain is through boycotts. But another way is through divestment. Perhaps the most famous divestment campaign was against South Africa under Apartheid: when public protest wasn’t adequate to shake the regime, literally starving it of capital was an effective tactic to create change.

Now, for the first time, a state legislature has taken the step of divesting from coal, the world’s most polluting energy source. The California Assembly has passed SB185, which removes coal from the portfolios of the state’s pension funds:

With a vote of 47 for and 29 against, the California State Assembly voted to divest the state’s public pension funds, CalPERS and CalSTRS, from thermal coal. Now that it’s passed both houses of the state legislature, S.B. 185 will head to the desk of Governor Jerry Brown for his signature or veto. If signed into law, S.B. 185 would make the two massive and influential institutions the first statewide public pension funds in the nation to divest from any fossil fuels.

Coal isn’t just a climate-change inducing horror show. Its stock market declines have also been a big drain on California’s pension funds, which for some reason haven’t seen fit to remove them from their portfolios. So SB185 isn’t just good environmental policy; it’s good economics as well.

The bill was the brain child of RL Miller, a good friend, fellow climate change activist and chair of the California Democratic Party’s Environmental Caucus. It began as a resolution that passed for the first time in the Ventura County Democratic Central Committee (of which I was chair at the time prior to my move to Santa Barbara late last year.) It then moved through the state party’s resolution process before winding up as a bill that eventually found its way through the legislature and onto the governor’s desk, which indications look good for signage.

The reason I mention this is that a decade ago RL Miller and I were just bloggers writing at Daily Kos with no ties whatsoever to the Democratic Party infrastructure, who met at YearlyKos (as Netroots Nation was then known) without knowing each other by anything more than our usernames. Then over time we hearkened to Howard Dean’s call to become engaged in our local Democratic infrastructures with a view toward endorsing and putting actual activist resources toward more progressive candidates and issues. I founded a Young Dems club in Ventura County before moving up to become chair of the central committee; I helped persuade RL Miller to also get involved in the party, and she took up the challenge with enthusiasm–moving from local club leadership to county party leadership to state environmental caucus leadership. She now runs Climate Hawks Vote, a climate-focused organization dedicated to actually marshaling field resources on behalf of climate champions.

Progressive politics is often perceived as divided between Democratic Party “insiders” on the one hand, contrasted with progressive NGO “change agents” doing comms work from the outside. But some of the best and most effective work in progressive politics doesn’t come from outsider NGOs, but from progressive activists working within the ranks to ensure that the Democratic Party stays true to its grassroots base. Politicians are often loathe to listen to agitators who don’t make a difference in their fundraising or field organizations come campaign time, but rather at best cause them a minor media headache. Democratic activists who influence actual endorsements and volunteer bases can have a much greater effect.

The success of SB185 is a testament to the efficacy of that theory of change. Howard Dean’s call to action influenced hundreds to become active in the machinery of the Democratic Party with a view toward greater progressive change. The ripple effect of that is still being felt today.

And the coal industry is feeling it particularly strongly right now.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.