A week after a brutal snowstorm froze New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio delivered a one-two punch Wednesday in the name of climate change, announcing he will seek billions in damages from five major oil-and-gas companies while moving to divest from fossil fuels.
“It’s time for them to start paying for the damage they have done,” Mr. de Blasio said at a press conference at the Manhattan Youth Center. “It’s time for Big Oil to take responsibility for the devastation they have wrought.”
The two-front attack was promptly pilloried by industry groups as a cynical political stunt, even as it put New York City at the forefront of the environmental movement’s campaign to recruit local governments as allies in the climate change fight.
Flanked by municipal leaders and top climate activists, the Democratic mayor said his goal is to divest the $189 billion public-pension funds from fossil fuels by 2022, which he said would make New York the first major U.S. city to do so.
Mr. de Blasio also announced that the city has filed a lawsuit against five top energy producers, blaming the companies for greenhouse-gas emissions that he said have produced disasters such as Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
“I remember those days after Sandy in the Lower East Side. I remember how desperate it was. I remember how much fear and confusion there was,” said Mr. de Blasio. “And this was a tragedy that was wrought by the actions of the fossil-fuel companies. Let’s be clear: That’s where it came from.”
The lawsuit seeks unspecified billions from five companies — BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell — to fund a proposed $20 billion infrastructure project that would “build resilience against rising seas, more powerful storms, and hotter temperatures.”
“The City of New York is taking on these five giants because they are the central actors, they are the first ones responsible for this crisis, and they should not get away with it anymore,” said Mr. de Blasio.
Pushing back were oil-and-gas and industry representatives, who accused the mayor of doing more to curry favor with environmentalists than address human-caused global warming.
“This lawsuit is factually and legally meritless, and will do nothing to address the serious issue of climate change,” said Chevron spokesman Braden Reddall. “Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a global issue that requires global engagement. Should this litigation proceed, it will only serve special interests at the expense of broader policy, regulatory and economic priorities.”
The legal action comes on the heels of lawsuits filed in the last six months by seven California localities, including Oakland and San Francisco, demanding billions from oil companies in order to build higher seawalls and other climate-driven infrastructure projects.
“Similar to recent lawsuits in California, this headline-seeking stunt is an absurd attempt to politicize natural disasters, rather than a good-faith effort at securing meaningful change,” said Linda Kelly, senior vice president and general counsel of the National Association of Manufacturers.
“De Blasio is showing where his priorities really are by choosing to make his announcement flanked by controversial environmental activists,” she said. “Ironically, this attack on energy manufacturers comes at a time that New Yorkers have depended on natural gas and heating oil to carry them through the recent extreme cold.”
Those backing the mayor at the press conference included climate activist Naomi Klein, Greenpeace’s Naomi Ages and 350.org’s Bill McKibben, who called the event “one of the most important moments” in the 30-year-old climate-change movement.
“New York City got very, very real today,” said Mr. McKibben. “Today, the mightiest city on our planet takes on its most powerful industry, its richest and most powerful and most irresponsible industry.”
Companies countered that the courts are the wrong venue to decide public policy issues like climate change.
“Climate change is a complex societal challenge that should be addressed through sound government policy and cultural change to drive low-carbon choices for businesses and consumers, not by the courts,” said Shell spokeswoman Natalie Gunnell.
ExxonMobil spokesman Scott Silvestri said the firm “welcomes any well-meaning and good faith attempt to address the risks of climate change,” but that lawsuits “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.”
The theory championed by Mr. de Blasio — that climate change makes storms and other weather events worse — has been hotly contested in academic circles.
University of Colorado professor Roger A. Pielke Jr. released a chart Monday showing that global weather-related losses as a proportion of GDP actually declined from 1990 to 2017.
“The most important caveat: don’t use disasters to argue about trends in climate. Use climate data. Duh,” Mr. Pielke said in his post on Climate Fix.
What’s more, no hurricane made U.S. landfall from 2005-2016 during the so-called “hurricane drought,” the longest on record. Hurricane Sandy degraded to a post-tropical storm before hitting the eastern seaboard.
Debate over divestment
The fossil-fuel divestment campaign has faltered in recent years amid decisions by universities to retain their investments in the name of fiduciary responsibility, but New York City has a recent history of using its pension funds to make political statements.
In 2016, the city’s employee pension fund announced it would sell its holdings in three sporting-goods retailers that sell firearms.
New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer said the city would submit a resolution Thursday on divestment and insisted that it could be accomplished without jeopardizing the pensions of police, teachers, firefighters and other public employees.
Divesting from fossil fuels would pull roughly $5 billion from the city’s five public pension funds, and would represent the largest municipal divestment in U.S. history, according to the mayor’s office.
“We’re going to crunch the numbers and make a plan so that we get New York City’s pension funds in the business of making our planet cleaner and greener with our investments, and we’re going to do it while maintaining our fiduciary responsibilities,” Mr. Stringer said.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed last month pulling fossil-fuel investments from the state’s retirement fund, prompting state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli to reiterate that “there are no immediate plans to divest our energy holdings.”
Matt Dempsey, spokesman with the pro-industry group Divestment Facts described Wednesday’s announcement as a “prime example of ‘ready, fire, aim.’”
He said the process of divesting from co-mingled funds necessitates “extensive transaction fees and ongoing management fees,” which have the power to “rob endowment funds of as much as 12 percent of a fund’s total value of a 20-year time frame.”
“When pressed on the details of divestment, both officials ran into real trouble: In addition to being a costly and ineffective effort, divestment is also not something that happens overnight but a long and costly process resulting in little more than a feel-good headline,” said Mr. Dempsey.