20 January, 2022

The Humanitarian Collective

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Student activists from New York Youth Climate Leaders protest their teachers' fossil fuel driven pension fund.

OPINION: My Teachers’ Pension Fund is Destroying my Future

We are living on the edge of a climate catastrophe. In the past month, the world has witnessed monstrous flooding steal hundreds of lives in central China and Europe, record temperatures and wildfires scorch the US Pacific Northwest and Canada, and flames envelop the Siberian tundra. As a 16-year-old, I have never been more scared for my future. A major report from the UN IPCC now estimates that the world will likely hit 1.5 degrees of warming by the time I turn 30. By the time that I die, we will have most certainly passed 2 degrees of warming, launching the world into a series of natural disasters unlike anything we have ever seen.

Yet, in the midst of these cascading crises of fire, floods, and fear, money continues to be siphoned into the fossil fuel industry faster than oil can flow. The most surprising of these siphoners? The pension fund—a fund contributed to throughout an employee’s career which provides them with income upon retirement—of those entrusted to protect our future: teachers. 

Across the United States, pension funds are being brought under attack by climate activists appalled at the billions that continue to be invested into oil, coal, and natural gas. In May of this year, the Jersey City city council passed a resolution in support of fossil fuel divestment and, less than a month later, Maine became the first state to pass direct legislation to divest its pension fund. New York State’s Common Retirement Fund (CRF) is set to end its fossil fuel investments by 2040, but its teacher retirement fund remains buried in coal and oil—over $4 billion worth of it. 

The New York State Teachers Retirement System (NYSTRS) is the main pension fund for teachers in New York State and serves all New York educators except for those in New York City. In total, the fund provides pensions for over 400,000 individuals, with 264,000 of those being active members and 169,000 of them retirees and beneficiaries. NYSTRS has an estimated $4.5 billion invested in the fossil fuel industry—the very industry that threatens the future of the children its pensioners dedicate their lives to protecting. As the tenth largest public pension fund in the US and the country’s third largest teachers retirement fund, NYSTRS must take its money out of fossil fuels.

The fund’s investments in coal, oil, and other fossil fuels allow for the industry as a whole to continue to finance exploration and expansion projects. To truly combat the climate crisis, we must not only immediately halt the growth of fossil fuels, but start to dismantle its existing structures. Divesting from that growth is an essential first step to disentangling the country from nonrenewable energy sources and protecting the future of students in New York State and around the globe.

Divestment is also favorable from a financial standpoint. Fossil fuels have been the worst performing financial sector of the past decade. The CRF, a fund about twice the size of NYSTRS, lost $22 billion over the past ten years by not divesting from fossil fuels. It is simply not fiscally responsible, nor is it morally responsible, for NYSTRS to continue to hold money in the fossil fuel industry.

Over the past six months, Divest NY Teachers, a coalition of teachers, students, and climate organizers, has put serious pressure on the NYSTRS board to move investments from the fossil fuel industry. The coalition’s tactics range from introducing divestment legislation in the NY State legislature, delivering nearly 2,000 petition signatures in favor of divestment, and releasing reports tracking NYSTRS’s investments in specific fossil fuel sectors, such as coal. Over a dozen local New York teachers unions have also passed resolutions in support of their pension’s divestment, but the NYSTRS board remains stagnant.

The amount of work that has gone into divesting a pension fund that should have no fossil fuel investments in the first place is ridiculous. Stopping our teacher’s pension plans from propping up oil and coal should be the easy step in combating the climate crisis, yet, so far, it has only acted as a reminder of how reluctant our systems are to change and how screwed we really are. However, that is in no way a reason to give up hope. Divest NY will continue to fight to ensure a livable future and it is far past time that NYSTRS joins them. We must demand that NYSTRS’s investments reflect their pensioners’ priorities before the climate crisis reaches a point of no return.

Go to divestnyteachers.org to learn more about Divest NY’s current actions to divest the board and get involved.