For U.S. citizens who care about the environment, the past few years have not been easy. Trump’s entrance into office in November 2016 heralded a new dark age for environmental policy in the United States, with major cuts to environmental programs, approval of numerous fossil fuel pipelines, and an announcement to withdraw from the Paris agreement all seemingly following each other so quickly that nobody had time to adjust to yesterday’s crisis before today’s was announced.
But there has also been an amazing response from states and municipalities, where local groups and political leaders have stepped up to announce that they, for their part, stilly fully intend to honor their responsibilities toward the rest of the world and our planet.
Divestment is the act of “getting rid of stocks, bonds, or investment funds that are unethical or morally ambiguous”. At the level of an institution or state, investment takes place on massive scales, totaling millions or billions of dollars in a single portfolio.
Divestment does not originate from the anti-fossil fuel movement– the largest divestment campaign in history took place over South African Apartheid, when 155 campuses, 90 cities, 22 counties, and 26 state governments came together in the mid-1980s to collectively sanction all companies doing business with South Africa, effectively crippling the oppressive regime and ending the South African genocide.
Divesting from fossil fuels makes a lot of sense. The fossil fuel industry is a massive machine with a single purpose: to generate as much profit as possible (ranging in the trillions). Meanwhile, the costs of their operations are offloaded onto the communities situated near extraction sites and oil pipelines, who suffer from having their lands and waters contaminated, and onto all of us whose futures depend on a stable climate for food, water, and security. The projected impacts of climate change are numerous and severe, but the most dangerous of these can still be averted. However, the climate clock is ticking– we need to act fast in order to safeguard our future. It’s go big, or go get yourself a nice boat to live on because your city will probably be underwater within 60 years.
Is there any place in the world more inclined to go big than New York? The State’s divestment campaign (#DivestNY) began a little over five years ago, when Superstorm Sandy tore up the coast and wrought devastation and flooding on New York City, with sixteen lives lost and billions in damages. There was ample scientific evidence that the storm could not have gotten so strong in the absence of unusually warm ocean temperatures associated with climate change; nor would the storm surge have travelled so far inland without the global rises in sea level already being observed. Since then, residents and organizations have been pushing their politicians to take a stance against fossil fuels, and on October 28 2017 a demonstration took place to observe the five-year anniversary of the storm and to call for New York’s Mayor de Blasio, Governor Cuomo, and Senator Schumer to put an end to it all. The billions of pension dollars currently invested in fossil fuel companies; the pollution caused by dirty industries; the endless delays in getting Sandy survivors back into their homes; everything must go.
The people of New York have spoken, and the politicians have answered. A pivotal tipping point in the climate movement occurred on January 10th, 2018, when Bill de Blasio, Mayor of New York, announced their intention to divest all $5 billion of pension funds currently invested in fossil fuel assets and to explore ways to reinvest them in renewable energy. They also announced their decision to sue five companies (BP, ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Shell) for knowingly putting our collective safety at risk for the sake of their bottom line.
“New York City is standing up for future generations by becoming the first major US city to divest our pension funds from fossil fuels,” said de Blasio. “At the same time, 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. 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.”
This type of decarbonization of the economy will be very important in altering the climate crash course we currently find ourselves on, and signaling to companies that it is time to move away from fossil fuels and towards energy security that lasts.
Way to go, New York!
Imagine your city, organization, or academic institution had a billion dollars to re-invest in something other than fossil fuel assets and you had a chance to help decide. What would you ask them to invest in and why?