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New Yorkers are leaders and trendsetters. The fossil fuel divestment movement offers a rare opportunity to show true leadership in the transformation of our energy system. While small actions are important, there is something that feels right about a bold system shift in response to the terrifying changes happening around us. Locally and globally, we are witnessing the dried soil of droughts and wet, cold, muddy, destructive flood waters associated with extreme weather events.

Our city government and residents are already doing a lot for a sustainable future. With so much effort being invested in new energy sources and innovative ways to conserve, it makes sense that we would not want to contradict our own efforts by investing in fossil fuels.

Of course, it’s no secret that replacing fossil fuels as the main energy source is not an easy matter. The world economy is almost entirely powered by fossil fuels. As a result, the fossil fuel industry has enormous political influence, which has over time deeply permeated our cultural norms and power structures.

This is where the campaigns for fossil fuel divestment come in. A relatively new movement, first driven by the spirit of college students and in conjunction with a broader shift towards responsible investment.

Last week, I attended a “Fossil Free NYC Divestment Open House,” in Manhattan. The panel discussion included students and leaders of groups such as 350 NYC, Responsible Endowments Coalition and Green Faith. These groups are calling for college endowment funds and public pension funds to divest from the top 200 publicly traded fossil fuel companies.

The speakers did a great job clarifying how fossil fuel divestment works, and why the idea is gaining momentum. Sophie Lasoff of NYU Divest and Lauren Ressler of the Responsible Endowments Coalition let us know that many students are campaigning for their colleges to move endowment investments from fossil fuels to renewable energy and other community building initiatives. Alumni, donors and faculty are taking a greater role in influencing schools to make investment decisions in line with the mission of the institution. There are currently at least 400 student groups active in pressuring their schools to divest. We also heard from Steve Knight of GreenFaith, about the intersection of religion and climate justice, such as a resolution to divest by United Church of Christ.

I was very interested in the New York City specific effort to divest the pensions of city employees. The Fossil Free NYC campaign is being led by 350 NYC and supported by many other grassroots climate justice groups. In order to divest the money in city pensions (which include firemen, NYPD, teachers among other city employees), we need to convince five separate pension boards.

A counter argument to divestment has come from proponents of shareholder activism. Nathan Schumer, a panelist from 350 NYC explained, fossil fuel companies are not the type of companies where pressure from shareholders would be effective. He compared a company like Apple to one such as ExxonMobil. If the economy were to switch to clean energy, Apple could still create their products. For a company like ExxonMobil, the fossil fuel is the product itself. Their entire business model is based on fossil fuel extraction.

There are three primary reasons that I love the idea of New York City taking a lead on fossil fuel divestment.

First, we know here what climate change is already doing to our urban systems. We saw our own streets flooded and banded together after Sandy to help sick and elderly neighbors. That storm was fueled by water 5 degrees warmer than average and our city leaders are already operating under the assumption that storms like this are becoming more frequent.

Second, New York City has its symbolic place at the heart of the financial industry. As the keepers of Wall Street, New York can help facilitate key steps in the transformation to a responsible investment framework and a new economic paradigm. Several of the speakers at the open house talked about the needed shift in corporate accountability. They should consider the triple bottom line of people, profits and planet. No doubt, this would be a dramatic change in the way businesses, institutions and governments consider their investment decisions. A move like this requires unprecedented courage of our leadership.

The third reason I love the idea of fossil fuel divestment for NYC is that, in this unique political moment for our city, I think divestment could actually succeed. It is possible that our new progressive mayor, public advocate, comptroller and many progressive council members see this moment of transition in our city as an opportunity for a lasting transformation. If they do, they will be standing with their constituents who have been rebuilding after Sandy and those who have been holding back the tide of natural gas fracking from New York State.  And if they chose to support divestment, they will make a clear choice to stand by their progressive values.

Last fall, the people of New York voted overwhelmingly for leaders that broke taboos on the campaign trail by envisioning a city of economic equality, fairness, and inclusivity. Climate and energy policy are part of those promises. The ways that a fossil fuel energy economy destroys our climate is the most damaging to poor and marginalized groups. This is already strikingly apparent globally and in many cases locally as well. Perhaps Mayor de Blasio was also thinking of his commitment to social and economic justice when he put on his campaign website: “New York City is uniquely positioned to become the most sustainable big city in the world.”  

Divestment does not mean sacrificing the economic concerns of those who rely on these pensions.  It is actually the fossil fuel investments that are a financial risk. According to 350.org, burning the fossil fuel that corporations now have in their reserves would result in emitting 2,795 gigatons of carbon dioxide – five times the amount to stay below 2°C of warming needed to avoid catastrophe. Major players such as these 17 Foundations describe the decision to divest as aligning with not only moral but economic interests.

If you want to contribute to this effort please take the step of starting to change the conversation by bringing up the idea of fossil fuel divestment to someone you know and tell them why it matters to you. But first, please take a quick minute to sign this petition to New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer.

If you want to do more, please check out gofossilfree.org,  350 NYC,  Responsible Endowments Coalition,  Green Faith,  NYU Divest,  Barnard Columbia Divest for Climate Justice or CUNY Divest.

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