Bill de Blasio sues oil giants over climate change, divests pension funds from fossil fuel industry

New York City announces a lawsuit Wednesday that blames the top five oil companies for contributing to global warming and says the city will sell off $5 billion in fossil fuel investments from its pension fund of $189 billion.’Safeguarding the retirement of our city’s police officers, teachers and firefighters is our top priority, and we believe that their financial future is linked to the sustainability of the planet,’ said NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer .

Mayor de Blasio said: ‘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.’ NYC alleges the fossil fuel industry was aware for decades that burning fuel was impacting climate change. The defendants in the city’s federal lawsuit are BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell.

But Exxon Mobil’s Scott Silvestri retorted that “reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a global issue and requires global participation and actions. 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.’ Petroleum sources are predictably downplaying the importance of this move.

Clara Vondrich of the DivestInvest campaign says the city joins a movement that started about six years ago. She says hundreds of institutional investors managing assets of over $5.5 trillion have taken their money out of fossil fuel investments. Last month, Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced plans to have the state pension funds also divest from fossil fuel investments. He and state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli are creating an advisory committee to examine the way to proceed with divestment.

Vondrich said other cities and entities selling off fossil fuel interests have included Berlin and Washington, D.C.; insurance companies Swiss Re, Axa and Allianz; and educational institutions such as the University of Oxford in Great Britain, Stanford University in California and Trinity College in Ireland. Philanthropies have included the Wallace Global Fund and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, notable because the late John D. Rockefeller grew his wealth as an oil baron.

Environmental activist Bill McKibben called the actions by the city one of a handful of the most important developments in the past 30 years. ‘The mightiest city on the planet has now sort of walked into a real fight with the richest and most irresponsible industry on the planet,’ he said.

This will take years to play out (as did the smoking class action suits against the tobacco companies), but the very fact of the legal risk to oil corporations as well as the fact that investors generally are beginning to divest from oil shares will create a self-reinforcing cycle which will drive the oil companies to make entirely new decisions for their future.