TIAA-Divest: Teachers Call for Climate Consciousness

Photo courtesy of Gabby Gagliano.

“TIAA LISTEN UP: PLANETS BURNING, TIME IS UP! TIAA LISTEN UP: PLANETS BURNING, TIME IS UP!”

If you were walking around the weekly market on Thursday, April 14, then you may have heard these rallying cries of Iris Marie Bloom and her fellow TIAA-Divest! protesters. 

Coupled with bullhorns, informational posters and knowledgeable guest speakers was a gut-wrenching demonstration by Bloom’s team that included a woman wearing a jerry can on her head and spewing oil all over a model-size version of our New Paltz campus. For those of us that even remotely care about our environment, this was hard to watch. However, it wasn’t supposed to be easy. The Climate Crisis is upon us and has been bubbling just beneath the Earth’s crust for decades, and now Bloom and her team are going to make it impossible for us to ignore it any longer. 

For context, the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America-College Retirement Equities Fund (TIAA) is one of the main companies that the SUNY school system, as well as hundreds of other universities around the country, uses to invest their teachers’ pensions in. TIAA then takes that money and uses it to invest in other companies, so hopefully the allotted pension amount will grow due to that second invested-business’ success. 

The idea sounds great in theory; the SUNY board wants to set their employees up with the best possible retirement plan that they can. The issue is this: TIAA invests in companies that partake in fracking, mass deforestation and oil drilling, which are the main contributing factors to the global warming climate crisis. 

“TIAA, with nearly $1.4 trillion in assets, invests over $20 billion in fossil fuels, including the Russian oil and gas majors Gazprom, Lukoil and Rosneft, Chevron, Exxon, Total and more,” says Bloom. “SUNY is TIAA’s largest client. SUNY New Paltz passed a Faculty Senate and a UUP TIAA-Divest Resolution in December 2020; now there are 16 more such resolutions across the country, from SUNY statewide and Cornell to Colorado, Iowa and Montana universities.” 

New Paltz was amongst the first of the SUNYs to pass individual resolutions demanding that retirement savings not be used to finance the unethical and irresponsible practices of fracking and oil drilling. However, it is left up to each professor’s discretion as to where their retirement fund goes, and there are still some New Paltz professors that choose to invest their pensions in TIAA.

 For a school that prides itself on fighting injustice and being environmentally friendly, it is shocking to find out that some of its employees still choose to indirectly partake in the destruction of our natural habitat. Although, TIAA does a pretty good job of convincing its investors that they have everyone’s best interest in mind, including that of the environment. 

 “After TIAA-Divest! met with TIAA’s socially responsible investment decision makers last September, the only thing they did in response was issue a so-called Climate Plan, but it’s essentially greenwashing,” says Bloom. “They’re basically saying, ‘Hey, look, our buildings are becoming more and more green!’ But their buildings are a fraction, like .000 percent of their emissions portfolio. They talked about getting to net zero by 2050. Excuse me? 2025 is the new 2050. Yeah, we’re not talking about 2050 anymore. They don’t have any immediate goals. They had no goals for divestment. They did not acknowledge their fossil fuel portfolio pretty much at all. Nor did they respond to us confronting them about their investment in Russian oil companies when the Ukrainian war broke out.” 

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website, carbon dioxide emissions have increased about 90% since 1970, and fossil fuel drilling as well as other industrial processes are responsible for 65% of that increase. On top of that, the Hudson Valley has seen a 71% increase in precipitation since 1958 due to global warming and climate change, which can ruin crops and damage property. 

“The one other thing that I really want to get across is that TIAA’s investments are environmentally racist as are all fossil fuel ventures,” says Bloom. “TIAA has $750 million in Chevron, who dumped 16 million gallons of crude oil directly in the Ecuadorian Amazon that is killing indigenous people. They’re having miscarriages and cancers and skin diseases to this day, it hasn’t been cleaned up. That same region, they dumped 16 billion gallons of toxic wastewater, and that’s one example. The same thing is happening in St. James Parish, Louisiana, which is a predominantly black community. They have nicknamed it cancer alley, for Christ’s sake. There’s so many examples, too; Tanzania is where TIAA  is threatening the drinking water of 40 million Africans with their East African pipeline. It makes me want to vomit.” 

A lot of times, people may ignore the climate crisis because they feel helpless. They feel like them, as a singular individual, could never make enough of a difference in terms of fixing or reversing the problem. However, Bloom has a solution to this problem, especially for students. 

“There is yet to be a student-led group on the New Paltz campus that is entirely dedicated to this issue,” says Bloom. “We would love to see a very active, very strong and creative and determined, resilient, persistent student movement on the scale that we had in the 1980s with the divestment from South Africa, because when we did that, we had campuses symbolically on fire all over the country.” 

If you are looking to get involved or want to know more about TIAA-Divest!, check out their website tiaa-divest.org or their Instagram, @tiaadivest.