Courtesy of Allyson Katz

Students from Climate Justice Cornell protest at Ho Plaza on April 28 to improve people's awareness of TIAA's investment in fossil fuels.

May 8, 2023

Students, Faculty Protest TIAA Fossil Fuel Investment

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This article has been updated to include a comment from TIAA.

Climate Justice Cornell held a campus rally on April 28, protesting the fossil fuel investments of the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America — one of two main investment companies with which Cornell’s retirement plan works.

TIAA — the leading provider of retirement plans for American university faculty members — has faced criticism for its investments in the fossil fuel industry. According to a report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis last year, TIAA is the fourth-largest holder of coal bonds globally and has invested at least $78 billion in fossil fuels. TIAA denies this figure and claims that it is a “gross exaggeration of our fossil fuel holdings,” according to a spokesperson.

Under the TIAA Divest campaign, students and academics across the country have been demanding change. A student-run climate justice club at Cornell, CJC, has joined this nationwide movement.

The rally featured speeches from three Cornell faculty members actively involved in climate and energy research — Prof. Caroline Levine, English, Prof. Aaron Sachs, history and Prof. Robert Howarth, ecology and environmental biology.

Howarth emphasized the pressing need to divest from fossil fuels, referring to the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an intergovernmental body of the United Nations which works to progress scientific knowledge about anthropogenic climate change.

“The IPCC issued their most recent synthesis report [in March]. It’s the first update since 2014,” Howarth said in his speech. “And they tell us what we all know — that we have less than a decade to really turn the tide.”

As an Earth systems scientist dedicated to researching global change, Howarth voiced deep concern that his retirement funds are being used to support the industries that he has spent his life fighting against. Howarth also expressed frustration that, as a staff member, he does not have the ability to divest his retirement from fossil fuels, despite his strong desire to do so.

“It is tremendously disturbing to me that TIAA funds are being used to finance fossil fuels,” Howarth said. “My retirement is 100 percent [going to] TIAA. … So those are my funds and there’s very little I can do to move it away from fossil gas — which is terrible.”

In an email statement to The Sun, Howarth explained that when he started his first job in academia, TIAA was the sole option for retirement planning at that institution. Consequently, most of his retirement funds were already invested in TIAA when he moved to Cornell. While Cornell offers its staff a choice between two providers — TIAA and Fidelity — Howarth emphasized that he would incur penalties if he attempted to transfer his existing TIAA funds before retiring.

Howarth also stated that he sees no reason to switch to Fidelity for his future funds, as he believes that Fidelity is also environmentally harmful. Howarth expressed disappointment and concern that neither option is committed to sustainable and environmentally responsible investment practices.

In response to months of protests from students and faculty in May 2020, the Cornell University Board of Trustees voted the same month to divest from fossil fuels and increase investments in renewable energy. 

Despite this decision, Sachi Srivastava ’25, a CJC organizer, raised concerns about the extent to which Cornell has truly divested from fossil fuels, citing a lack of transparency from the University.

“Although Cornell no longer chooses individual fossil fuel companies to invest in, its 4.2 percent of long-term investments remained in fossil fuels at the time of so-called divestment,” Srivastava said. “Cornell also remains invested in large stock market indexes, such as the S&P 500, which retain significant investments in fossil fuels.”

According to Srivastava, the primary goal of the rally was to encourage TIAA to divest from fossil fuels, rather than putting pressure on Cornell to do the same. However, Srivastava emphasized that the University still has an important role to play in supporting ethical funds and sustainable investment practices.

“Though our campaign today is aimed at TIAA divestment rather than University divestment, I’d like to acknowledge the link between [the two] and the work that needs to be done beyond moratoriums and socially responsible funds,” Srivastava said. “Where we put our money, and especially where we allow other people to put our money, is crucial to creating a world in which the equitable sharing of environmental harm is even a remote possibility.”

According to a TIAA spokesperson, sustainability is integral it the company’s investment process and aligns with its corporate commitment to reduce the impact of climate change.

“TIAA takes responsible investing seriously. We believe it is possible to achieve competitive investment returns and positively influence the environment, society and the wider economy over the long term,” a TIAA spokesperson wrote.

Metztli Maldonado ’25, chair of internal reform for the CJC, argued that educational institutions and their affiliates are indirectly perpetuating the climate crisis through their TIAA-managed investments in fossil fuels. Maldonado added that educators — many of whom they said they believe are dedicated to shaping a brighter future for the next generation — often find themselves investing in funds that directly oppose their values and threaten that very future.

“If you have a family member or friend who works for an educational institution, it is likely that they too have a stake in fossil fuels and the degradation of our planet,” Maldonado said. “The irony of our educators’… [investment] in the direct threatening of our future is telling of Cornell’s priorities as an institution entrenched in capitalism.”

Asli Cihangir is a Sun contributor and can be reached at [email protected].