New York to divest $5bn from fossil fules

New York City is suing five big oil companies, including European firms BP and Shell, demanding that they shoulder the cost of making New York climate resilient. John Dyer reports from Boston.

New York City is demanding that big oil companies shoulder the cost of climate change. (Image credit: Andreas Komodromos via Flickr)

New York City is divesting $5 billion worth of pension funds from fossil fuels and filing a lawsuit against petrochemical companies for contributing to climate change.

The move represents perhaps the biggest strike against the greenhouse gas emitters on the local level in U.S. history.

Mayor blasts greed

“We’re bringing the fight against climate change straight to the fossil fuel companies that knew about its effects and intentionally misled the public to protect their profits,” said New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, at a press conference on Wednesday.

“As climate change continues to worsen, it’s up to the fossil fuel companies whose greed put us in this position to shoulder the cost of making New York safer and more resilient.”

The Big Apple has filed a complaint in federal court against BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil, and Royal Dutch Shell.

Exxon knew since 1977

In the lawsuit the city cites recent research by independent researcher Richard Heede, a Norwegian-born geographer based in San Francisco who claims that 90 energy and other companies are responsible for most climate change. More than half of their pollution has occurred since 1988.

The lawsuit also cites a recent investigation by InsideClimate News recent investigation alleging that Exxon Mobil knew its emissions were causing climate change as early as 1977 but covered up those findings.

Lastly, the lawsuit discusses how New York City is among a host of coastal metropolises that faces potentially destructive rising sea levels that could undercut the city’s status as financial centre of the world.

Climate change and hurricanes

Climate change has already hit New York hard. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy swamped subway lines and destroyed coastal waterfront neighbourhoods in New York City and its suburbs. Work on some of that damage is still underway.

The city is now spending $20 billion on a new resiliency programme, including coastal protections, upgraded sewer and water lines and other infrastructure to deal with rising seas, more powerful storms and heat waves.

“Sea levels have risen about one foot since 1900 with much of that rise due to climate change, the most powerful storms are becoming more frequent, and flooding is becoming more frequent and intense,” the city said in a statement.

Global issue, say oil firms

Chevron, Exxon Mobil and Shell released statements saying the courts were not the venue to address climate change.

“Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a global issue and requires global participation and actions,” said Exxon Mobil spokesman Scott Silvestri.

“Lawsuits of this kind — filed by trial attorneys against an industry that provides products we all rely upon to power the economy and enable our domestic life — simply do not do that.”

NYC in good company

New York City might be the biggest government to distance itself from fossil fuels, but it is not the first.

Governments as well as universities, foundations and other institutions around the world have pledged to pull $5.5 trillion out of fossil fuel investments, often over a period of years to avoid putting too much downward pressure on their value, according to DivestInvest, an international campaign.

Those entities include Berlin, Germany and Washington, DC; insurance companies Swiss Re, Axa and Allianz; Oxford University in Britain and Stanford University in California.

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, has also announced plans to divest from the petrochemical industry.

San Francisco and Oakland, California have also similarly launched lawsuits against fossil fuel companies to seek compensation for their spending to prepare for the effects of climate change.

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