Pensions in Peril: Are State Officials Risking Public Employee Retirement Benefits by Playing Global Warming Politics? by Steven J. Milloy, MHS, JD, LLM and Thomas Borelli, Ph.D.

I. Executive Summary

Global warming has emerged as an important issue for investors, including state and local pension funds. Although global warming regulation appears likely to cause significant adverse impacts to the broad economy and stock market, a substantial minority of state and local pension funds are nonetheless actively promoting global warming regulation, while the majority of state and local pension funds have yet to promote or oppose such regulation. Compounding this problem is the fact that many of these pension fund systems are dangerously underfunded and are relying on predicted investment returns that are unlikely to occur.

We conclude that state and local pension fund administrators who promote or ignore global warming regulation may be contributing to undesirable economic conditions that will adversely impact the portfolios they manage. Moreover, pension administrators who are promoting global warming regulation appear to be doing so for partisan political purposes. This could be considered a breach of their fiduciary responsibility. We recommend that, unless global warming regulation can be justified as a significant benefit to the broad economy and stock market, state and local pension fund administrators actively oppose it.

II. Introduction

Pension funds for public employees are increasingly playing an important role in debates over public policy.  This is particularly true for pensions funds located in states carried by Senator John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election.  In the words of California State Treasurer Phil Angelides, a director of the largest and third-largest state pension funds with combined values of nearly $300 billion, “We’ve had no choice but to step up.  [The Bush] administration has turned its back on ordinary investors, or on issues of substantial concern to our economy.”1

On its face, Angelides’ statement is correct in that state pension fund administrators have a fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of the beneficiaries of the funds they manage.  To the extent that economic growth and investment performance depend on public policy decisions, it is quite reasonable that pension fund administrators participate in public policy debates, especially when the outcomes may impact the value of the investments they manage and, hence, interests of pension fund beneficiaries.

This report analyzes for the first time the participation of state pension funds in the ongoing debate over global warming policy. While most state pension funds have not participated so far in the debates or have tried to influence public policy on global warming, a substantial minority of funds are taking an active part and trying to achieve a particular policy outcome. The central question to be considered is whether the various state pension funds are fulfilling their fiduciary obligations to beneficiaries in their decisions to participate or to not participate in the public debates over global warming.

III. Is Global Warming a Significant Economic Issue?

Though there is much debate over global warming and energy policies, there is little debate that greenhouse gas regulations are likely to adversely impact U.S. economic growth.

    • High gas prices and rising unemployment were key factors in the failure of the Senate to pass the Lieberman-Warner global warming bill in June 2008.2
    • A May 2008 study by the American Council on Capital Formation reported that the Lieberman-Warner global warming bill would by 2030 reduce: GDP by up to 2.7%; employment by up to 4 million jobs; and family income by more than $6,750 per year.3
    • A March 2008 study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported that the Lieberman-Warner global warming bill would shrink the size of the U.S. economy, as measured by GDP, as much as $2.9 trillion (6.9%) by the year 2050.4
    • CRA International testified before the U.S. Senate on November 8, 2007 that the Lieberman-Warner global warming bill would cost $4-6 trillion dollars in welfare costs over 40 years and up to one trillion per year by 2050.5
    • A September 2007 study led by renowned economist Arthur Laffer determined that a cap on greenhouse gas emissions would act like a cap on energy production and lead to an energy supply shock.  During the previous energy supply shocks of 1974-75, 1979-81 and 1990-91, the economy declined, unemployment rose and the stock market declined in value.  Based on the energy efficiency responses to the energy supply shocks of the 1970s, if cap-and-trade regulations are imposed, the U.S. economy could be 5.2 percent smaller in 2020 compared to what would otherwise be expected.  This equates to a potential income loss of about $10,800 for a family of four for the initial Kyoto GHG reduction target.6
    • A 2000 study by the Congressional Budget Office reported that cap-and-trade was a regressive economic policy – that is, lower-income individuals faced a larger burden from the cap-and-trade regulations than higher income individuals.7
    • A 1998 study by the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) estimated that overall economic growth could decline by up to 4.2 percent if a cap-and-trade system were implemented to reduce Kyoto Protocol-like greenhouse gas emissions targets (7% below 1990 levels by 2008-2012).8

It should be noted that the European Union’s implementation of the Kyoto Protocol has not been successful as emissions reduction goals for greenhouse gases essentially were abandoned in order to maintain economic growth.9

The certain costs of global warming regulation are underscored by the uncertainty of any benefits from such regulation. Consider the following recent scientific developments concerning the central hypothesis of manmade global warming:

    • The American Physical Society, the leading professional society for American physicists, announced in July 2008 on one of its websites that, “There is a considerable presence within the scientific community of people who do not agree with the IPCC conclusion that anthropogenic CO2 emissions are very probably likely to be primarily responsible for the global warming that has occurred since the Industrial Revolution.”10
    • In May 2008, the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine released a petition signed by more than 31,000 U.S. scientists stating, “There is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane or other greenhouse gases is causing, or will cause in the future, catastrophic heating of the Earth’s atmosphere and disruption of the Earth’s climate…”11
    • India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change issued in June 2008 states, “No firm link between the documented [climate] changes described below and warming due to anthropogenic climate change has yet been established.”12
    • Researchers belonging to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported in the science journal Nature (May 1) that, after adjusting their climate model to reflect actual sea surface temperatures of the last 50 years, “global surface temperature may not increase over the next decade,” since natural climate variation will drive global climate.13
    • Climate scientists reported in the December issue of the International Journal of Climatology, published by Britain’s Royal Meteorological Society, that observed temperature changes measured over the last 30 years don’t match well with temperatures predicted by the mathematical climate models relied on by the IPCC.14
    • A British judge ruled in October 2007 that Al Gore’s film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” contained so many factual errors that a disclaimer was required to be shown to students before they viewed the film.15
    • A panel of the National Academy of Sciences concluded in 2006 that the “hockey stick” graph is not proof that human activity is linked to global warming.16

IV. Is Global Warming a Significant Issue to Investors?

Global warming could impact investors in two ways: 1) climate change regulation could harm corporate earnings; and 2) climate change itself could cause economic disruption that, in turn, could adversely impact corporate earnings.

A. The Potential Impact of Climate Change Regulation

While some businesses stand to profit directly from the enactment of climate change regulation – e.g., the alternative energy industry and financial service firms that trade carbon credits – it is clear that the anticipated net effect of regulating greenhouse gases is higher energy prices leading to declines in economic growth.  To what extent, then, does economic growth impact investors?

We examined the relationship between economic growth (in terms of real GDP) and the performance of equity investments (in terms of the performance of the Standard & Poor’s (S&P) 500 index for the period 1950 to 2007.17  We found that the performance of the S&P 500 and GDP, on a next year basis,18 are highly correlated (Multiple R= 0.60, Adjusted R Square = .35).  So to the extent that climate change regulation reduces GDP, stock market performance will also be adversely impacted.

The likely impact of global warming regulation can also be anticipated from recent declines in corporate earnings due the recent spike in oil and gasoline prices. Higher energy costs have hurt the airline, auto manufacturing, chemical and consumer discretionary product sectors, for example.19

B. The Potential Impact of Climate Change

Some have asserted that manmade climate change may also adversely impact corporate earnings both directly, in terms of physical risks associated with climate change that are material to the company’s operations or financial condition,  and indirectly, in terms of legal proceedings relating to climate change.

1. Physical risks from climate change

While it is certainly true that unfavorable weather – e.g., a storm that damages Gulf coast refineries or a drought that impairs agricultural production – can harm corporate earnings, climate change is different than bad weather.  The term “climate” contemplates long-term changes in atmospheric conditions, as opposed to discrete weather events. Regardless of whether future climate change is “good” or “bad,” or whether it is manmade, bad weather can happen in any climate and cannot be tied to long-term changes in climate.20 So the claim that climate change can cause physical loss is dubious because specific weather events, which are proximately related to harm, cannot be attributed to climate change.

2. Legal risks from climate change

The hypothesis of manmade global warming is based on the notion that manmade emissions of carbon dioxide in the aggregate are the primary cause of climate change. Even if it was true that such human activity is causing or will cause adverse or catastrophic climate change, it would be impossible to assign liability for carbon dioxide emissions because no single identifiable entity is responsible for a significant portion of those emissions and none of the emissions is traceable to any entity. It would therefore be technically impossible to assign liability to any specific corporate entity or industry.

This is not to say that global warming lawsuits for physical damage will never be attempted. One has already been filed, in fact, by the Alaska native coastal village of Kivalina, which is being forced to relocate because of flooding caused by the changing Arctic climate.21  The villagers filed suit in February 2008 claiming that five oil companies, 14 electric utilities and the country’s largest coal company were responsible for the flooding.  Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine that they will be successful given the nature of the central hypothesis of global warming.

V. State Pension Fund Overview

About 90% of full-time state and local government employees participate in defined pension benefit plans, according to the U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO report).22 In 2006, state and local government pension plans systems had 18.4 million participating members and made payments totaling about $151.7 billion to 7.3 million beneficiaries.23

State and local pension funds are crucial to our economy. According to the National Association of State Retirement Administrators:24

Recent studies reveal that public pension benefits have positive effects on local and state economies. In 2006, state and local government retirement systems in the U.S. distributed over $100 billion more in benefits than they received in taxpayer-funded contributions, a figure that is growing each year. Personal income from state and local government pensions exceeds the personal income derived from the nation’s farming, fishing, logging, and hotel/lodging industries combined. Together with the economic multiplier effect, in these and other ways, the aggregate economic impact of public pensions is considerable and reaches every city and town of every state.

The basis of the state and local pension fund system is about $2.7 trillion worth of assets managed by state and local administrators, according to a recent survey sponsored by the NASRA and the National Council on Teacher Retirement.25 Of these assets, about $1.6 trillion (about 59.3%) are invested in equity instruments.

State and local pension funds, therefore, have considerable exposure to risk from the stock market.

Compounding their market exposure is the fact that these pension plans have actuarial liabilities that significantly exceed their actuarial assets by about $392 billion – that is, the pensions are only “funded” in the aggregate to a level of about 86% – according to the NASRA survey.  Although the GAO report notes that experts consider a funded ratio (actuarial value of assets divided by actuarial value of liabilities) of about 80 percent or better acceptable for government pensions, only 58% of 65 large pension plans were funded to that level in 2006, a decrease since 2000, when 90% of plans were so funded.26  Of the 125 pension plans surveyed by NASRA, 37% did not meet the 80%-funded standard.

A further problem is that levels of actuarial assets may be overestimated by state and local pension fund administrators. In the NASRA survey, state and local pension fund administrators assume that future investment returns will average 8% and that inflation will average 3.5%, for an assumed real rate of return of 4.5%.

But as recently reported in the Washington Post:27

A growing number of leading investors are warning that the return rates used by state and local governments are unreasonably optimistic. [Billionaire Warren Buffett], for one, has pointed out that over the 20th century – when the Dow Jones Industrial Average soared from 60 points to 13,000 – the stock market produced a 5.3 percent annual return for investors.  Over the next century, the Dow would have to explode to 2.4 million to produce a similar rate of return.

Given the nature of their liabilities and assumptions of how they will meet them, state and local pension funds are heavily dependent on the stock market performance.

VI. State Pension Funds and Global Warming

To date, state and local pension funds have taken one of two tracks on global warming ─ either they have participated in activities to promote global warming regulation or they have ignored or abstained from the debate altogether.

A. State and Local Pension Funds Promoting Global Warming Regulation

States and local governments that actively promote global warming regulation do so through a coalition known as Ceres, a self-described “…national network of investors, environmental organizations and other public interest groups working with companies and investors to address sustainability challenges such as global climate change.”28 Although Ceres describes its mission as “Integrating sustainability into capital markets for the health of the planet and its people,” it essentially boils down to promoting global warming regulation.

Ceres lobbies and pressures corporations on global warming, holds investor “summits” on global warming, directs a coalition of institutional investors focused on global warming, publishes reports on global warming, and lobbies the government for global warming regulation.  Not only did Ceres lobby for the Lieberman-Warner global warming bill in May 2008,29 it recently gave credit to its pension fund members for successfully pressuring the Senate Appropriations Committee to approve legislative language calling for climate change disclosure by publicly-traded companies.30

Some state pension fund officials sit on Ceres’ board of directors including:

    • Howard Rifkin, Deputy Treasurer, State of Connecticut, representing Connecticut Treasurer Denise L. Nappier;
    • Anne Stausboll, Chief Operating Investment Officer, California Public Employee Retirement System; and
    • Ken Sylvester, Assistant Comptroller for Pension Policy, representing William J. Thompson, Jr., New York City Comptroller.

A recent petition by Ceres to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission requesting that companies disclose the risks of climate change (See Section IV.B, above) was signed by the state and local pension funds and officials from 10 jurisdictions:31

    • California Public Employees’ Retirement System;
    • John Chiang, California State Controller;
    • California State Teachers’ Retirement System;
    • Bill Lockyer, California State Treasurer;
    • Alex Sink, Chief Financial Officer, State of Florida;
    • Nancy K. Kopp, Maryland State Treasurer;
    • Orin Kramer, Chair, New Jersey State Investment Council;
    • William C. Thompson, Jr., New York City Comptroller;
    • Andrew M. Cuomo, Attorney General, State of New York;
    • Thomas P. DiNapoli, New York State Comptroller, New York State Common Retirement Fund;
    • Richard Moore, Treasurer, State of North Carolina;
    • Randall Edwards, Treasurer, State of Oregon;
    • Frank T. Caprio, General Treasurer, State of Rhode Island; and
    • Jeb Spaulding, Treasurer, State of Vermont.

The jurisdictions listed above were joined by following state pension fund officials in a May 2008 letter to senate leaders urging passage of the Lieberman-Warner global warming bill:32

    • Connecticut Retirement Plans and Trust;
    • Timothy P. Cahill, Massachusetts State Treasurer;
    • Robert L. Wiessman, Pennsylvania State Treasurer; and
    • Joseph A. Dear, Washington State Investment Board.

Ceres’ web site list also includes the following state and local government entities as members:33

    • Illinois State Board of Retirement; and the
    • Kentucky Treasurer’s Office.

At least three state and local pension fund systems – New York City, Connecticut and California State Teachers ­­– filed shareholder proposals in 2008 urging publicly-owned companies to take action on climate change.34

The 15 states and local governments involved with Ceres have actuarial assets of about $1.21 trillion (about 45% of all actuarial assets owner by state and local pension funds) and actuarial liabilities of about $146 billion (about 88% funded). Fourteen of the pension fund systems managed by these officials fail the 80%-funding test including:

    • Connecticut Teachers (63%);
    • Connecticut State Employees Retirement System (53%);
    • Illinois State Employee Retirement System (54.2%);
    • Kentucky Employees Retirement System (58.4%);
    • Kentucky County Employees Retirement System (80.1%);
    • Kentucky Teachers Retirement System (71.9%);
    • Massachusetts Teachers (69.6%);
    • New Jersey Police and Fire (77.6%);
    • New Jersey Teachers (74.7%);
    • New Jersey Public Employees (76.6%);
    • New York City Teachers (72.2%);
    • Rhode Island Employees (53.4%);
    • Washington PERS 1 (73.1%); and
    • Washington Teachers Plan 1 (79.9%).

B.  State and Local Pension Funds Not Promoting Global Warming Regulation

The vast majority of state and local employee pension fund systems (more than 80%) does not participate in the Ceres coalition and, therefore, does not seem to be actively involved in promoting global warming regulation.  There do not appear to be any state and local pension fund systems that are actively opposing global warming regulation.

VII.     Discussion

Although global warming regulation could cause significant adverse effects on state and local pension fund portfolios, many of which are already in a worrisome state due to underfunding, fund administrators either are actively lobbying for such regulation ­– i.e., the pension funds that belong to the Ceres coalition – or are ignoring the issue altogether.

Next, state and local pension fund systems are taking action that could harm their largest equity holdings. ExxonMobil Corporation, for example, is the single largest equity position in the portfolios of the State Retirement and Pension System of Maryland (1.45 million shares valued at about $122 million as of June 30, 2007),35 the Florida Retirement System (12.4 million shares valued at $1.09 billion as of June 30, 200836 and the California Public Employee Retirement System (28.76 million shares of ExxonMobil valued at $2.4 billion).  Yet these systems, through the Ceres coalition, are helping to drive legislative and regulatory action will most likely harm the market value of ExxonMobil stock.

Additionally, by helping to inflate concerns about global warming, state and local pension funds are helping to foment legal liability for ExxonMobil and other energy companies with respect to global warming.  One analyst, who likened ExxonMobil to the tobacco industry, suggested that the company’s37 climate liability could exceed $100 billion.

State and local pension funds have become politicized.38 It appears that the promotion of global warming regulation, itself a highly-politicized issue, is yet another manifestation of state and local pension fund administrators “playing politics” rather than managing their portfolios in the best interests of their beneficiaries.

VIII.    Conclusions and Recommendation

The following conclusions can be drawn from the foregoing information:

1) Global warming regulation is a key portfolio risk for state and local pension funds.

2) A substantial minority of state and pension fund administrators (15 states and local governments managing about $1.21 in assets or 45% of all actuarial assets of state and local pension funds) are actively promoting regulation that is likely to adversely impact their portfolios and beneficiaries. These states and local governments include: California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York City, New York state, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.

3) While most state and local pension fund administrators are not actively promoting risky global warming regulation, they are not actively opposing it either.

4) State and local pension fund administrators may be breaching their fiduciary obligations to public employee-beneficiaries by promoting or failing to oppose global warming regulation that places portfolio assets at greater risk.

5) This breach of fiduciary duty is particularly serious for those pension fund systems that are underfunded and that depend on robust stock market performance to meet their future obligations. Fourteen pension fund systems among the 15 state and local governments that are promoting global warming regulation are insufficiently funded.

The following recommendations are offered:

1) State and local pension fund administrators should not promote global warming regulation unless they can demonstrate how such regulation will benefit their portfolios and public employee beneficiaries. Unless full and fair reviews of the relevant information indicate to the contrary, administrators should, instead, actively oppose such regulation.

2) Current and retired public employees who are beneficiaries of state and local pension fund systems should contact their state and local representatives and request that the system administrators explain why they are either lobbying for or not lobbying against global warming regulation.

3) State and local pension fund administrators should analyze and report to their beneficiaries the impacts of their activity (or lack thereof) with respect to global warming.

4) State and local political representatives should make inquiries with pension fund administrators on behalf of their public employee constituents about administrator activity on global warming.

Steve Milloy publishes and is a managing partner of Action Fund Management, LLC, an investment advisory firm. Tom Borelli is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research and is a managing partner of Action Fund Management, LLC. Milloy and Borelli are co-directors of the Free Enterprise Project of the National Center for Public Policy Research.


1  Jim Wasserman, “Blue state pension funds act to balance GOP control in Washington,” Associated Press, November 27, 2004.

2  See e.g., Bonner R. Cohen, “U.S. Senate Rejects Lieberman-Warner Cap-and-Trade Bill,” Environment and Climate News, August 1, 2008, available at as of September 2, 2008.

3  Margo Thorning, “The Economics of Climate Change Policy,” American Council on Capital Formation, May 2, 2008, Power Point presentation,,1,The Economics of Climate Change Policy.

4  U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “The United States Environmental Protection Agency’s Analysis of Senate Bill S. 2191 in the 110th Congress, the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act of 2008,” March 2008, available at as of September 2, 2008.

5  Prepared Statement of Anne E. Smith, Ph.D. at the legislative hearing on America’s Climate Security Act of 2007, S.2191 of the Committee on Environment and Public Works United States Senate Washington, DC, November 8, 2007,

6  Arthur Laffer and Wayne Winegarden, “The Adverse Impacts of Cap-and-Trade Regulations,” Arduin, Laffer & Moore Econometrics, September 2007.

7  Dinan Terry and Lim Diane, “Who Gains and Who Pays Under Carbon-Allowance Trading?  The Distributional Effects of Alternative Policy Designs,” Congressional Budget Office, June 2000.

8  Energy Information Administration, “Impacts of the Kyoto Protocol on U.S. Energy Markets and Economic Activity,” SR/OIAF/98-03, October 1998.

9  See e.g., Sally McNamara and Ben Lieberman, “The EU’s Climate Change Package: Not a Model to Be Copied,” The Heritage Foundation, February 6, 2008, available at as of September 2, 2008.

10  “Editor’s Comments,” Forum on Physics and Society, American Physical Society, available at as of September 2, 2008.

11  See

12  Prime Minister’s Council on Climate Change, “National Action Plan on Climate Change,” Government of India, June 2008, available at as of September 2, 2008.

13  N. S. Keenlyside, M. Latif, J. Jungclaus, L. Kornblueh and E. Roeckner, “Advancing decadal-scale climate prediction in the North Atlantic sector,” Nature 453, 84-88 (May 1, 2008).

14  David H. Douglass, John R. Christy, Benjamin D. Pearson, S. Fred Singer, “A comparison of tropical temperature trends with model predictions,” International Journal of Climatology, December 5, 2007, abstract online at

15  See

16  National Research Council, “Surface Temperature Reconstructions for the Last 2000 Years,” National Academy Press: Washington, DC, 2006.

17  See Appendix for data and results.

18  The stock market is forward looking and anticipates corporate earnings and future economic conditions (like GDP).

19  See e.g., Laura Mandaro, “Corporate earnings on track for fourth straight quarterly drop,” Marketwatch, July 4, 2008 and Mike Ramsey, “GM, Ford and Toyota Sales Fell As Buyers Shun Trucks,” Bloomberg, August 1, 2008.

20  See e.g., Dimmock v. Secretary of State for Education & Skills (Case No: CO/3615/2007) in which a British High Court ruled that, “In scene 12 [of Al Gore’s movie, entitled “An Inconvenient Truth”] Hurricane Katrina and the consequent devastation in New Orleans is ascribed to global warming.  It is common ground that there is insufficient evidence to show that.”

21  See e.g., Felicity Barringer, “Flooded Village Files Suit, Citing Corporate Link to Climate Change,” New York Times, February 27, 2008, available at as of September 2, 2008.

22  Statement of Barbara D. Bovbjerg, Director Education, Workforce and Income Security, Testimony Before the Joint Economic Committee, “State and Local Government Pension Plans: Current Structure and Funded Status” (GAO-08-983T), July 10, 2008, p.7.

23  Id.

24  NASRA, The Economic Effects of Public Pensions, available at as of September 2, 2008.

25  See Public Fund Survey,  The Public Fund Survey included 85 percent of all state and local government pension assets.

26  GAO report, p.1.

27  David Cho, “Growing Deficits Threaten Public Pensions,” Washington Post, May 11, 2008.


29  See e.g., Letter from Investor Network on Climate Risk to Sen. Harry Reid and Sen. Mitch McConnell, May 30, 2008.

30  Elizabeth Pfeuti, “Pressure on Climate Change Pays Off,” Global Pensions, July 21, 2008, available at as of September 2, 2008.


32  See n. 28.


34  As you Sow, “Proxy Season Preview 2008,”

35  State Retirement and Pension System of Maryland, “Comprehensive Annual Financial Report For the Year Ended June 30, 2007,” available at as of September 2, 2008.

36  State Board of Administration of Florida Retirement System, SEC Form 13F-HR, filed July 30, 2008.

37  Mark Mansley, “Risking Shareholder Value?  Exxon Mobil and Climate Change,” Claros consulting, May 2002, available at as of September 2, 2008.

38  See n.1.

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.