Faculty say NYU enables BlackRock’s greenwashing

NYU’s sustainability goals are under scrutiny due to the university’s association with BlackRock CEO Larry Fink, a member of the NYU board of trustees whose company is accused of virtue signaling while profiting from billions in fossil fuel investments.

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Jake Capriotti

BlackRock’s corporate office located at 52nd and Madison Ave. NYU’s goal of sustainability continues to fall short due to its ties with the company. (Staff Photo by Jake Capriotti)

By Ruqaiyah Zarook, Staff Writer

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s August 2021 report warns that climate change is the main cause of the extreme weather events — such as droughts, superstorms, wildfires and floods — that have been taking place across the globe.

In light of these recent findings, NYU students and faculty assert that while the university is making progress on its sustainability goals, its close relationships with trustees such as BlackRock’s CEO Larry Fink are impeding its steps forward.

WSN reached out to NYU’s Office of Sustainability and to BlackRock for comment but has yet to receive a response. 

BlackRock is the world’s largest asset manager, with as much as $9 trillion invested in companies around the world. The corporation has gained a reputation over the years for its prominent stances on climate change and sustainability. 

NYU’s environmental initiatives and sustainability goals

According to NYU’s 2021 Climate Action Plan Update, the university is on track to achieve its ultimate goal of carbon neutrality by 2040. The report touts that the university is leading the way in demonstrating “what higher education institutions can accomplish on climate.”

The report declares that the university achieved a gold certification in the Sustainability Tracking Assessment & Rating System program in 2020. Run by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, the program measures the performance of colleges with regards to sustainability goals, such as decreasing greenhouse gas emissions.

“To the best of my knowledge, NYU has made substantial strides towards reducing carbon emissions, and larger aspirational commitments,” Christopher Schlottmann, director of NYU’s undergraduate Environmental Studies department, wrote to WSN in an email. “In addition to maintaining this momentum, it would be wonderful to see NYU respond to the dire climate situation more comprehensively and ambitiously.”

NYU’s climate plan update points out that its reduction in emissions from 2006 to 2012 is roughly equivalent to planting more than 65,000 acres of trees — an area of land larger than the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn combined.

NYU faculty accuse BlackRock of corporate virtue signaling

Peder Anker — a Gallatin professor with research interests in the history of science, ecology, environmentalism and environmental philosophy — believes NYU’s environmental initiatives are encouraging, but not sufficient. 

“The board does not take environmental problems and climatic change seriously,” Anker said. “And that includes our President [Andrew Hamilton].”

Amin Husain, a Gallatin faculty member known for his political activism with interests in financialization, globalization, political economy and social movements, believes that there is a paradox in having Fink on the NYU board of trustees — even as the university promotes itself as a higher education institution committed to sustainability and fighting climate change. 

“When we look at these initiatives that NYU is doing, you recognize that they’re cosmetic, they’re about brand and they’re about profit,” Husain said. 

Husain said that more accountability is required of NYU’s board of trustees, including its members’ relationships to politics, real estate and investment. He contended that students and faculty should be asking why people like Fink, as well as other board members, have chosen a place like NYU, and why NYU allows them on the board.

“These are the connections that NYU, at an administrative level and at the trustee level, will never want to acknowledge,” Husain said. “NYU is being run like a corporation. That’s why you’re not surprised when there’s a Larry Fink on the board.” 

Husain added that students and faculty should instead be in control of this campus and their education. BlackRock’s commitment to sustainability is not only insincere, he said, but that the firm is “greenwashing” — marketing itself as sustainable without substantially changing its practices.

“Not only do I not think BlackRock is sincere, but in fact, it’s this idea of profiting from the problem that they’re creating is then greenwashed,” Husain said. “BlackRock is investing in technologies and companies that invest in deforestation that is impacting the entire climate.”

In Fink’s annual letter to shareholders, published before the onset of the pandemic, he urged other companies to take action on climate change. He also said that BlackRock would scrutinize how its partners confronted environmental risks, as well as support proposals calling for disclosing annual plastic pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and lobby expenditures. 

“The pandemic has presented such an existential crisis — such a stark reminder of our fragility — that it has driven us to confront the global threat of climate change more forcefully and to consider how, like the pandemic, it will alter our lives,” Fink wrote.

After the letter was published, the corporation threw its weight behind 64% of the environmental proposals they received in 2021, while urging other companies to adopt “accountable and transparent capitalism.” 

However, climate activists remain unconvinced. They argue that BlackRock and other investors have funneled billions of dollars into fossil fuel companies that destroy the climate.

While BlackRock has been pressuring companies to plan for an economy with net-zero carbon emissions, the firm is still the world’s largest investor in fossil fuels, possessing around $85 billion in assets in companies that produce coal and a 6.37% stake in ExxonMobil at press time.

Jerome Whitington, an anthropologist of science and environment at Gallatin, said that the carbon transition index funds released by BlackRock earlier in the year have virtually zero investment in green energy while maintaining substantial exposure to fossil fuels.

“There is a long-term trend to insulate investors from climate risk, which is very different from a proactive use of financial mechanisms to deal with climate change,” Whitington said. “BlackRock’s position should be interpreted in this light: creating investment tools that keep portfolios safe, which seems to mean factoring out companies that are particularly exposed, but only within specific financial products, so that large investors like pension funds can select these products if they want to.”

Gallatin professor David Brooks added that BlackRock’s sustainability efforts are hypocritical because it is one of the world’s worst polluters and environmental offenders. 

“There is a long and clear history of this… it is an old but tired tactic that is still effective, unfortunately,” Brooks wrote. “The sentiments cannot be sincere as it would be impossible for [BlackRock] to match their actions with their words since their true commitment requires a certain scale of profitability and adherence to business as usual in this moment of late capitalism — which is at the very root of global environmental degradation.”

Contact Ruqaiyah Zarook at [email protected]