Trillion-dollar pension fund TIAA faces climate-washing complaint brought by hundreds of professors and scientists

New York, NY — Nearly 300 clients of the $1.2 trillion retirement giant TIAA filed a formal complaint today with the UN-sponsored Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) initiative, alleging TIAA’s substantial investments in fossil fuels and deforestation violate TIAA’s climate pledges and commitment to the six Principles for Responsible Investment.

TIAA participants, including the academics Bill McKibben, Michael Mann, Dipesh Chakrabaty, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Judith Butler, are filing the complaint to highlight TIAA’s investments in the drivers of climate change, including at least $78 billion in fossil fuels, $9.1 billion of which are coal industry bonds. Such investments escalate the climate emergency while violating the commitments TIAA made to PRI through its subsidiary and asset manager, Nuveen. TIAA also invests heavily in timber and industrial agriculture linked to deforestation and illegality. Deforestation is second to fossil fuels as a driver of climate change. The complainants call on the PRI to investigate and address TIAA’s “irresponsible investments and systematic greenwashing practices.”

Bill McKibben, author, climate expert, Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, and TIAA client, commented: “Most of the people that this giant fund serves are teachers, members of a profession that takes intellectual honesty — and the future — seriously. Time for TIAA to do the same.”

The complainants argue that TIAA’s refusal to consider fossil fuel divestment violates its fiduciary duty because burning fossil fuels ignores the interests of its clients and harms their long-term financial well-being.

TIAA is one of the world’s largest holders of bonds across the coal value chain — ranking 4th globally — including holding over $91 million in bonds of the conglomerate Adani that owns the controversial Carmichael coal mine in Australia. TIAA/Nuveen also invests in fossil fuel companies, including Chevron, Exxon, Enbridge, TotalEnergies (building the contested East African Crude Oil Pipeline).

“When TIAA invests teachers’ money in catastrophic fossil fuels and land grabs, they fundamentally undermine the work we do to prepare students for rich, fulfilling lives,” commented Caroline Levine, Cornell University professor, and TIAA-Divest! team member.

The complainants, with the support of TIAA-Divest!, call on TIAA to establish a moratorium on new fossil fuel investments, including both shares and bonds; to divest its existing fossil fuel investments by 2025 in line with a 1.5°C pathway; and to stop land grabs leading to deforestation and human rights harms, in order to make good on the specific commitments it has made as a PRI signatory.

If TIAA/Nuveen refuses to come into compliance, the complainants are asking PRI to expel Nuveen from the PRI initiative.

Read the complaint.

Read more about the complaint, complainants, and PRI.

Additional Voices of Support

Amy Gray, Senior Climate Finance Strategist at and coordinator of the Climate Safe Pensions Network

“Our planet cannot afford any more stalling tactics from TIAA. Divestment from fossil fuel companies is an investment in our future. Frontline communities won’t wait for big banks, investors, and asset managers to appease fossil fuel corporations while our homes burn and flood, while our bodies are polluted, and while our children’s futures are destroyed for profit. TIAA/Nuveen must heed the writing on the wall, set the standard for the industry, and stop fossil fuel financing now.”

Hana Heineken, Senior Attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law

“TIAA and the responsible investment community risk undermining their credibility if they fail to rapidly transition their investments away from fossil fuels and other high-emitting sectors. There is no more time for greenwashing, and they have a fiduciary duty to act with urgency.”

Coedie McAvoy — Wangan and Jagalingou Cultural Custodian

“We, as Wangan and Jagalingou Cultural Custodians, condemn TIAA for investing in Adani while Adani builds its Carmichael coal mine on our ancestral lands without our consent. TIAA’s funding of Adani makes it complicit in Adani’s ongoing violation of our human rights.”

Maria Luisa Mendonça, Network for Social Justice and Human Rights

“TIAA’s role in financial speculation on farmland promotes land grabbing and human rights violations against Indigenous people and small farmers. TIAA promotes the expansion of commodity plantations by agribusiness, which increases deforestation in the Brazilian Cerrado — the most biodiverse savanna in the world. TIAA’s clients and the general public need to denounce this destructive agribusiness system. We need to support land rights of local communities and ecological food production to deal with the global climate crisis.”

David M. Hughes, a Rutgers University professor and member of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Climate Justice Task Force

“In July, the 1.7-million-member American Federation of Teachers voted – with an overwhelming majority – to urge TIAA to divest from fossil fuels. We represent 300,000 TIAA clients: higher ed teachers, scholars, and academic professionals. We intend to leave a livable planet for our students, our children, and our grandchildren. If it is to do good in the world, TIAA must take our money – it is OUR money – out of Big Oil permanently.”

Eric Godoy, Ethics Professor, Illinois State University

“We know that fossil fuels are driving climate change, yet TIAA invests our money in these industries. This means our financial security is being generated at the expense of a livable climate. That’s not right.”

Dr. Pouné Saberi, MD, MPH, Distinguished Occupational and Environmental Medicine Physician, Physicians for Social Responsibility — Pennsylvania

“My medical career and retirement account with TIAA began at the same time. While as doctors, we have been trying to protect the health of people, TIAA has continued its health-harming practices in the form of investments in fossil fuels. It is time for TIAA to align its mission of financial security for health professionals with the promotion of a clean and safe energy future for us. It is time for TIAA to divest from fossil fuels.”

Notes to the Editor

  • The Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) is the preeminent gathering of responsible investors, with over 5,000 signatories (as of October 9, 2022). It is responsible for $150 trillion in assets under management (as of 2021). TIAA, through its asset manager Nuveen, is a signatory of the PRI. See the PRI website for more details.
  • TIAA provides benefits for over 5 million active and retired employees at nearly 15,000 higher education, research, medical, cultural, and nonprofit institutions. To date, over 1,550 institutions representing more than $40 trillion in assets have committed to some level of fossil fuel divestment.
  • Coedie is a Wangan and Jagalingou man who has been maintaining a presence on Adani’s mining lease for over 400 days. He and his family have been conducting an ongoing cultural ceremony a short distance from Adani’s mine site called Waddananngu (the talking) in defiance of Adani’s occupation of their homelands and in defense of their land, water, and culture.