Big money managers clash on climate change

Dry cracked earth is visible near an almond orchard on April 24, 2015 in Firebaugh, California.
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Dry cracked earth is visible near an almond orchard on April 24, 2015 in Firebaugh, California.

Climate change can mean very different things out West than down South.

Managers of massive pension and endowment funds from California, Texas and North Carolina made clear their contrasting views on global warming and portfolios at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Los Angeles last week.

"We are a small government state. I am not employed to express my personal opinion about things like this with other people's money," said Britt Harris, chief investment officer of the approximately $133 billion Teacher Retirement System of Texas. "I am employed to maximize their return."

The comments came the same week that New York University's senate voted to divest the school's $3.5 billion endowment from fossil fuel-related stocks, and the Church of England said it would cut more than $18 million in thermal coal and oil sands holdings from its multibillion dollar pension portfolio.

Read MoreChurch of England blacklists these fuel investments

Janet Cowell, North Carolina's elected state treasurer, speaking alongside Harris at the Milken event, said she, too, had to stay out of the debate on climate change and sustainability.

"Britt was talking earlier that he wasn't elected to solve climate change and he's from Texas, so that's probably a good stance," Cowell said on the institutional investor-focused panel. "North Carolina [is] a conservative state, so don't start talking about sustainability or social impact."

Cowell is responsible for more than $80 billion in assets. She did note that the pension fund considers statewide economic empowerment from its investments, just not things related to the environment.

Read MoreStanford coal cut a 'tipping point'

Those views were in contrast to that of Jagdeep Singh Bachher, chief investment officer for the University of California.

"I don't think you can be a leader today in any one of our seats and ignore these issues," Bachher said following Cowell's comments on environmental, social and governance portfolio considerations. "We have a responsibility to be proactive."

"If you're investing in any type of asset, whether it's a real asset or other assets that are impacted by what we're talking about as fossil fuels or energy, ... I think these risks can manifest themselves in ways that can impact the financial values of your assets," he said.

Bachher noted that the student movement to divest university endowments from fossil fuels was "a very important question" and one that the school would respond to. The California university system managed $89.9 billion as of Sept. 30.

Read MoreStudents: UC should divest from...America?

The fossil fuel divestment movement has grown in recent years, with about 200 schools, towns and institutions making commitments, according to a tally by gofossilfree.org.

Still, many haven't changed their portfolios, citing skepticism of divesting's efficacy.

"While I share [student activists'] belief in the importance of addressing climate change, I do not believe, nor do my colleagues ... that university divestment from the fossil fuel industry is warranted or wise," Harvard University President Drew Faust wrote in October 2013 in explaining the school's decision not to act.