Huff Post: Climate and Pension Activists Should Unite

Recently Bay Area climate activist Tom Steyer described the agonizingly slow pace of U.S. political action on global warming as the equivalent of driving a car at a hundred miles an hour towards a cliff.

He’s right. The longer we wait to address warming, the harder it gets to do so.

There’s another cliff towards which a second car is hurtling, this time threatening public education. In a number of states, obligations for retired teacher pensions are outstripping funds sent aside to meet those obligations. The longer governments wait to address the problem, the harder it gets.

Chicago just laid off 1,000 current teachers to meet retirement costs and a recent paper by California Common Sense reports that the California teachers’ pension trust fund, known as CalSTRS, has asked the California Legislature for an extra $240 billion over the next 30 years to meet pension promises to teachers. Failure to provide that money means nothing less than the defunding of public K-12 education in California.

In just the past year, while the California Legislature dithered over CalSTRS’s request, the problem got $6 billion bigger and according to CACS, now grows an average of $50 million per day.

The CalSTRS trust fund operates like a moat that protects school funding from being diverted to pension payments. But retirement liabilities are fast outstripping CalSTRS’s assets with the result that the moat will be depleted within the next thirty years. According to CACS, at that point the amounts required to meet pensions will exceed $600 billion.

Climate activists rightfully demonize certain oil and coal companies blocking action on climate change. In this case, the demons are state legislators who don’t act on CalSTRS’s request because they know the cliff won’t be reached during their terms in office. Even more cynically, this year California’s legislators patted themselves on the back for a budget they claimed had a surplus but only because they ignored CalSTRS’s request.

As Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel has pointed out, pensions would not be crushing education today had politicians tackled the problem years ago. According to CACS, CalSTRS has needed more money for ten years, but the legislature has done nothing.

Without quality education in a highly competitive world, millions of California children would be condemned to poverty. Worse, because pension and health spending is also crowding out spending on social services such as welfare and causing higher taxes, life is already tougher for most families. Make no mistake about it: there will be social unrest in our streets from this problem even before there’s water in the streets from climate change. To add insult to injury, money will also be diverted from climate change mitigation.

When it comes to my generation’s failure to tackle the climate and pension cliffs, young people should take up Howard Beale’s advice from the movie “Network” and get mad as hell and refuse to take it anymore. And then they should unite to replace dithering legislators with activists.

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