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Youth climate activists call on NY to sell its fossil fuel stocks 

Youth climate activists from Rochester and other communities across New York are calling on managers of the state’s two major retirement funds to pull their investments out of fossil fuel company stocks.

“The fact that New York State continues to have money invested in this industry is appalling and immoral,” said Hridesh Singh, a Brighton High School student and executive director of New York Youth Climate Leaders, a state-wide group.

Students plan to reinforce their call with a demonstration on Friday at 4 p.m. outside the office of Assembly member Harry Bronson. The demonstration will be one of several that the group has organized across the state for participants to call on state legislators to take several actions, among them passing the Fossil Fuel Divestment Act.

The legislation would direct the state Comptroller’s Office to pull New York State Common Retirement Fund investments out of coal producer stocks within two years and oil and gas producer stocks within five years. It would also prohibit the office from making new investments in coal, oil, and gas company stocks.

The state’s $210.5 billion Common Retirement Fund is the third largest pension fund in the nation. The fund had $12.9 billion worth of fossil fuel investments in March 2018, according to the Divest NY coalition. The state comptroller is its sole trustee.

The youth climate activists are also urging the same of trustees of the New York State Teachers Retirement System, which is not overseen by the comptroller. Although smaller than the Common Retirement Fund, the teachers retirement system is one of the 10 largest public pension funds in the country, with $122.5 billion in assets at the end of the fiscal year ending in June 2019.

An analysis of the fund by the climate activism organization 350.org found the teachers retirement system had at least $4.5 billion invested in fossil fuel companies, said Richard Brooks, a campaign coordinator for the group.

State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli and state pension fund staff have resisted calls to divest from fossil fuel companies. The Common Retirement Fund’s Chief Investment Officer Anastasia Titarchuk outlined the office’s opposition to the Fossil Fuel Divestment Act during a state Senate hearing last April.

“Comptroller DiNapoli believes climate change presents enormous risks to the fund’s investments and the economy as a whole,” but that climate change also “presents enormous opportunities for investments in the low-carbon economy,” read her submitted remarks.

By way of example, Titarchuk said that the fund has targeted $6 billion toward investments in LEED certified buildings, green bonds, and sustainability-focused private equity investments.

She also highlighted DiNapoli’s emphasis on shareholder engagement. The common retirement fund has filed over 140 of its own shareholder resolutions directing corporations to analyze their climate-related risks, to set goals for greenhouse gas emissions reductions, and to increase energy efficiency and the use of renewables.

But divestment advocates have said those measures aren’t aggressive enough given the growing climate crisis.

Advocates for divestment contend fossil fuel investments are becoming riskier from a financial standpoint, as more countries move to limit climate-disrupting greenhouse gas emissions and banks stop investing in new fossil fuel extraction and pipeline projects.

Fossil fuel divestment wouldn’t be without precedent. New York City has begun a process to divest its major pension funds of fossil fuel holdings. The funds, worth a combined $200 billion, hold about $5 billion in fossil fuel assets, the Natural Resources Defense Council reported last March.

In 2013, New York City’s then-$46.6 billion teacher retirement fund sold $13.5 million in firearm manufacturer stocks, fully divesting from gun companies. The fund made the move following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

On the whole, Friday’s strikes are meant to pressure lawmakers into supporting a Green New Deal for New York, of which the divestment legislation is one part.

Activists also want legislators to include $1 billion in the state budget “to address the climate crisis,” cease new fossil fuel infrastructure, and pass legislation — the Climate and Community Investment Act — meant to accelerate the state’s transition off of fossil fuels.

Jeremy Moule is CITY’s news editor. He can be reached at jmoule@rochester-citynews.com.

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