This week, California became the first state in the US to pass a state-level divestment bill. This is huge news for the fossil fuel divestment movement — but it’s just the first step.

First, a little backstory. Senate Bill 185 (SB185), was authored by the Senate President, Kevin de León. Senator de León is the first Latino senate president in over 130 years, and focuses his work on the environment, the working poor, immigration, and gun violence. He spearheaded a package of climate bills for this legislative season and focused his promotion of the bills on climate justice and energy equity in California. SB185 was backed by the majority of climate and environmental justice organizations in California, but sat in the backseat while a much more controversial and progressive climate bill, named SB 350 (a tip of the hat), remained the focus — having both more opposition and more grassroots support.   

SB 185 requires the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) and California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) — which combined are responsible for $476 billion in assets and 2.4 million retirees — to remove all holdings in companies that get at least half of their revenue from coal mining.

As far as opposition to the bill, the Western States Petroleum Association weighed in early, but when they made it clear to the legislature that oil and gas are not coal and should not be included in the text of the bill, they ducked out of the scene to focus opposition on SB 350.

Here’s what we did to push for the bill: We partnered with Fossil Free CA, the network of 350 CA local groups, Environment California, and a handful of environmental organizations to implement a grassroots strategy for SB 185. The effort started with a drive to send letters to members of the Senate. Almost 5,000 letters were sent within the first 24 hours! We then organized in-district meetings. We arranged about 70 (out of 80 total) Assemblymember meetings where groups of 3 to 8 well-prepped volunteers visited the offices of their Assemblymembers to discuss the merits of divestment. Volunteers were also organized to call Assemblymembers and attend bill hearings in the state capitol, Sacramento. We built a broad coalition of environmental, labor, health and other organizations supporting the bill, which helped with achieving broader outreach and media objectives. These efforts were complemented by a social media stream, op eds and press releases, and lobbying. Check out the webpage here

Now that the bill has passed — and we anticipate that the Governor will sign it in the near future — what does this mean for the divestment movement? First of all, it’s incredibly important that this is the first fossil fuel divestment law in the U.S. to be passed by a state legislature. There are several state divestment bills pending in other places, including New York and Massachusetts, and this bill sets a strong precedent for others to follow.

Secondly, California’s state pension funds are two of the largest public institutional investors in the country. They are trendsetters and new-norm makers. When CalPERS and CalSTRS divest from coal, city and state pension boards across the country will start to asking themselves if they should get out too.

But coal is just the low hanging fruit. There are elementary schools in Kern County, California within a stone’s throw of fracked oil wells, and there are kids in those schools getting sick. Extreme energy extraction and refining in California is about oil. We all know, climate change and extreme energy are two sides of the same coin, and they’re both hitting Californians hard. Oil and gas divestment will be a much bigger undertaking, which will receive much greater opposition.  

And finally, it’s important to point to the nexus of the divestment movement and the political sphere. Back in 2013, a paper came out of the University of Oxford examining the relationship between divestment and legislation. The authors concluded, “In almost every divestment campaign we reviewed from adult services to Darfur, from tobacco to South Africa, divestment campaigns were successful in lobbying for restrictive legislation affecting stigmatised firms.” The popularity of SB185, and the political capital gained by supporting politicians, was a probe of the progressive CA legislature. They were looking for political space on industry pointed legislation around climate change… and we helped them find it.

Here’s to the first fossil fuel divestment law, the first step of divestment for the nation’s two largest public pension funds, and to the work ahead!