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How Harvard Can Help Solve TIAA’s Climate Problem

By William E. McKibben and Naomi Oreskes, Contributing Opinion Writers
Bill McKibben ’82, former Crimson President, is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar in Environmental Studies at Middlebury College and an environmentalist. Naomi Oreskes is the Henry Charles Lea professor of the History of Science and the co-author of Merchants of Doubt. ​​​​​​​

When each of us joined in the decade-long battle to divest Harvard from coal, oil, and gas, we understood that it was a key part of the fight to slow down climate change by reining in an industry that had gone rogue. We backed up the students leading the fight in every way we could think of, helping organize everything from faculty resolutions to alumni office sit-ins.

We were overjoyed in 2021 when Massachusetts Hall finally acknowledged what students had been saying all long: As The Crimson editorialized at the time, “Our investments matter. They showcase our ideals and our moral character… Harvard’s decision to free itself from fossil fuel investments shows our commitment to reducing the extent and impact of climate change.”

But the story isn’t over yet. Harvard’s faculty and staff, and many other college instructors and workers across the country, are still — though most of them don't know it — profiting from climate change through their vast retirement plans, invested by the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association.

TIAA’s portfolio — $1.2 trillion with a T — makes even Harvard’s endowment seem puny, and it is heavily invested in climate destruction. TIAA, through its in-house asset manager Nuveen, is the world’s fourth-largest holder of coal bonds. It has sunk huge sums in tar sands companies like Enbridge, which paid local police departments to crack down on Indigenous protesters trying to stop its Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota, and in corporations like Exxon, which use the money to open up still more new oil fields, long past the time when it was obvious that needed to stop. TIAA even created shell corporations to grab land illegally in the Brazilian Cerrado, a biodiverse savanna that borders the Amazon — funding deforestation that has become a mortal threat to the people who’ve long lived there and to the planet’s biology.

We could make a long and strong financial argument against these investments. The fossil fuel industry has for a decade underperformed the market, and dramatically. It appears to have gained a temporary bounce last year when longtime industry friend Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, but fortunately, war profiteering has a short half-life. Hydrocarbon prices have already resumed their decline — a decline likely to continue as renewable energy grows ever cheaper.

TIAA claims it has a “fiduciary duty” to act in its clients’ interest. But as Tom Sanzillo, who once oversaw New York state’s massive pension fund, has put it: Not divesting runs counter to that fiduciary obligation, because funds without fossil fuels do better in the long run, avoiding volatility, stranded assets, and coming crashes.

But there’s an even more important argument to be made. Of all the investors in the world, TIAA may be the most hypocritical, because the people it purports to represent are precisely those most revolted by the ugliness of their policy.

TIAA handles pensions mainly for university educators and staff, doctors, nurses, and medical researchers. That is, its money comes from the natural scientists who first diagnosed the climate crisis, the social scientists who have worked out its economic, political, and psychological dimensions, and the clinicians who treat the casualties it creates (recent evidence: one human death in five comes from breathing the byproducts of fossil fuel combustion).

We don’t want our life savings invested in things that shorten the lives of our fellow human beings or make the planet unfit for everyone’s retirement. All of us are educators — we’ve given our lives to the cause of preparing young people for the future. Why would we want to foreclose that future?

It would be one thing if we had no alternatives. But these same universities have helped work the clean energy miracle over the last few decades. From our labs have come the innovations that have helped to make pointing a sheet of glass at the sun the cheapest way to generate power on planet earth. Of course it’s worth investing in solar power, wind power, and the batteries to store the energy they produce!

This is why so many academics have demanded that TIAA change. From the State University of New York system, to the public universities in oil and gas states like Colorado and Montana, to Ivy Leagues like Cornell, more than 1.7 million educators have gotten behind the TIAA-Divest! drive to reform the giant fund.

Harvard needs to join in this fight. It’s time for a faculty resolution calling on TIAA to put an immediate moratorium on any new fossil fuel investments and to get out of the land grab business. We don’t need ‘cleaner options’ to let some people tidy up their portfolios and their consciences; we need comprehensive action now, on a scale commensurate with the crisis we face.

Since we’re both teachers, let us add one more thing. In different ways, our work has explored one of the central and now indisputable facts of the climate crisis: The big fossil fuel companies knew about global warming decades ago, and they lied about it. Exxon, for instance, was warned about the greenhouse effect by its own scientists and later started building its drilling rigs higher to compensate for the rise in sea level they knew was coming.

But they didn’t tell the rest of us: Instead, the industry invested in a vast campaign of denial and disinformation. This kind of intellectual dishonesty would get students bounced from our classes and professors from our faculties. If our profession’s commitment to, um, Veritas means anything, it should certainly get these investments bounced from our portfolios.

Bill McKibben ’82, former Crimson President, is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar in Environmental Studies at Middlebury College and an environmentalist. Naomi Oreskes is the Henry Charles Lea professor of the History of Science and the co-author of Merchants of Doubt.

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