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Environmental activist Aly Johnson-Kurts testifies before the Vermont Senate Government Operations Committee in 2014.

Voices / Viewpoint

State Treasurer Pearce, do the right thing

Plenty of teachers want their retirement money to be invested well and to grow in value. But no one saw how the oil and coal investments would even make sense.

Dan DeWalt, one of the founders of this newspaper, writes, teaches, performs music, works with wood, and advocates tirelessly and passionately for the causes in which he believes.

Newfane

When Governor Peter Shumlin took up the divestment lance this year, it came as rather a surprise to unaware Vermont state pensioners to learn that some of their retirement funds were currently invested in the fossil-fuel industry.

I teach part time at Leland and Gray Union High School. I asked the teachers there about their reactions to the divestment controversy.

News flash — teachers have no time to keep track of where their retirement savings are being invested. They are working overtime just to keep up with all of the work that their jobs demand.

My colleagues were universally surprised to learn about their possible unwitting economic participation in the fossil-fuels industry. After the surprise passed, the most prevalent response to the investment question was, “I hope you’re kidding.”

Most couldn’t even take seriously the idea that we would invest Vermont dollars into something that belied Vermont values in such an egregious fashion. Plenty of these teachers want their retirement money to be invested well and to grow in value for them. But no one saw how the oil and coal investments would even make sense.

I drafted the following letter to Treasurer Beth Pearce and I presented it to my fellow teachers. After consideration — and without a single objection — they endorsed it and agreed to have it disseminated.

* * *

Dear Treasurer Pearce,

We are pleased that you and Governor Shumlin have reached a compromise that has stopped the legislature from interfering with your fiduciary decisions regarding pension investments. We agree that this is your bailiwick and not the legislature’s.

However, we are deeply disappointed with your decision to keep our pension money invested in fossil fuel stocks, which contribute directly to destroying our planet.

According to VTDigger, you opposed divestment “because it introduced factors other than fiduciary responsibility into the process of making investment decisions.” This seems to indicate that you believe that those of us invested in the Vermont state pension system place value on money only and want to maximize our gain no matter what the cost to society.

That is a rather large leap of faith on your part and you have shown no proof that this adequately reflects our values and wishes.

The Vermont NEA has a policy that all pension funds should be invested in a socially responsible manner. Destruction of the planet, as practiced by mining, fracking, and burning of fossil fuels, is the very definition of not being socially responsible. So your investment strategy flies in the face of the statewide teacher’s union that you are supposed to be representing with your investment decisions.

While there are those in America who may value profits over all else, that is not the case among Vermont’s professional educators. Our very choice of work shows that we value service to our children and their future far more than we value a fat paycheck for ourselves.

To learn that our retirement investments are directly countering the values that guide our teaching and our lives is an affront to our professionalism and to our character as citizens of the planet.

It’s not credible to create a commission to study the issue — to see if we can survive a possible loss of a few investment dollars in the short term — but don’t balance that possible loss against the certain costs to our economy and our environment which will be incurred if we continue to support the fossil-fuel industry.

Even if you recognize only monetary value, you surely must be cognizant that poisoned air, poisoned water, increases in carbon dioxide emissions, and the now-common severe weather events that are part and parcel of fossil-fuel-induced climate change are already exacting high monetary costs on our economy. Those costs will only increase with time.

Your concern for our short-term savings will be more than offset by the increased costs that we are already facing and will continue to face in our retirement as society suffers from our assault on the planet.

You have successfully defended your office and its right to make investment decisions. Now it’s time for you to do the right thing and divest completely and irrevocably from fossil-fuels industries.

You are the treasurer for Vermont. Please make us proud, not shamed by the tenets that underlie your investment strategies.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #351 (Wednesday, April 6, 2016). This story appeared on page D1.

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