When I was a young man living in the city, back in the early 1980s, there were always small knots of three-card Monte players ripping people off in Midtown. But none of those mugs were New Yorkers, who would walk by shaking their heads; it was just tourists who fell for the patter. You can get away with calling New Yorkers many things, but “chump” is a real insult.
That’s what I thought of this morning, when word came that New York City had overnight vaulted into leadership in the world’s fight against climate change. Five years after Superstorm Sandy, Mayor de Blasio said that the city would follow through on earlier promises to divest its giant pension fund from coal, oil and gas companies — and that it would take the biggest of those corporations to court to sue for damages. In other words: Earth’s mightiest city is now in full-on battle with the planet’s richest, most irresponsible industry.
The city, said Controller Scott Stringer, is taking steps to protect the value of pensions (fossil-fuel stocks have underperformed the rest of the economy), but, as with most things the city does, it will also send a message that resonates far beyond the five boroughs. Above all, it says to other investors and other big cities: Grow up and stop pretending the fossil-fuel industry is anything but predatory.
Many pension fund administrators over the years have refused to divest, saying instead that they would “engage” with the industry to seek change. If they sold their stock, they rationalized, they would “lose a seat at the table.” But this never made sense; the fossil fuel industry isn’t going to make fundamental change, because they can’t change their basic business model. They dig stuff up, burn it and then go look for more.
The industry has agreed to token and cosmetic changes: tiny investments in renewable industry, new “climate risk disclosure statements,” and so on. But nothing actually shifted. In the last few weeks, they’ve used their political power to ram through Washington a new series of tax breaks, a permit to drill in a wildlife refuge in the Arctic, and the okay to set up drill rigs off virtually the entire American coastline, Long Island included (the Republican governor of Florida just got a convenient carveout).
Like those three-card-monte players, the oil industry has run a con, and too many public officials have fallen for it, probably because it made life easier for them. Divestment means rocking the boat, offending the powerful. Easier just to keep doing what you’re doing and make soothing noises.
It took great organizing from thousands of New Yorkers to get the city focused on this task, and leaders like public Advocate Tish James helped push and prod.
But now that New York is fully engaged (and in court), it will make a massive difference. Everyone knows that New York is the center of world finance, that this is literally where the smart money lives and works.
The signal is clear. The oil industry is not the future, it’s the past. And indeed it will be held responsible for what it’s done in the past: namely, push climate denial when it knew the truth. They should light up the Empire State Building in green tonight — for the money the city is going to save, and for the planet it will help protect in the process.