NYC Announces $5 Billion Fossil Fuel Divestment and Lawsuit Against World’s Biggest Polluters

Betamia Coronel, Divest New York Lead Campaigner of 350.org discusses why this is a big environmental victory and what’s next on the divestment agenda

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Story Transcript

GREGORY WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert. New York City mayor, Bill de Blasio announced that the city’s five pension funds combined 191 billion dollars will divest 5 billion dollars in securities from over 100 fossil fuel reserve owners. Mayor de Blasio also announced that the city is launching a lawsuit against five major oil companies including Exxonmobil, Chevron, BP, Shell and Conocophillips for climate damages.

With us to discuss New York City’s new hard stance on fossil fuels, we’re joined by Betamia Coronel, who is a national campaigner with 350.org working on fossil fuel divestment. For the last year and a half, she’s worked exclusively on DivestNY campaign to end investments from fossil fuels from New York City and pension funds. She’s joining us from Jamaica, Queens. Thanks for being here today, Betamia.

BETAMIA CORONEL: Thanks for having me.

GREGORY WILPERT: So, first congratulations on what many are calling a huge environmental victory. When and how did the campaign begin to push New York City to divest from fossil fuel?

BETAMIA CORONEL: Sure. So, this campaign was started actually on the eve of one of the biggest super storms that ever hit the Northeast, Hurricane Sandy, a little over five years ago. And it was launched by the local group affiliates here in New York City, 315 New York and 350 Brooklyn, who really started this campaign off. So, it’s been a campaign with a few years on its back.

GREGORY WILPERT: So, break it down for us. How big a victory is it and could it translate into possible reductions in greenhouse gas emissions? And how soon does it go into effect?

BETAMIA CORONEL: Sure, absolutely. This victory is absolutely enormous, I think, for the climate movement, but specifically in really sending a signal to the world, everywhere, in all corners that the end of fossil fuels is fast approaching. And that cities like New York are very serious about not only beginning to transition to 100% renewable but putting our money where our mouth is. This is a victory for all cities across the world because it really, if New York City can do it with as big of a fund as we have, really what is stopping other places around the world to do the same?

Our announcement comes on the heels of other really big news, like the Norwegian Fund and the World Bank also pulling all their finances out. So, I think inevitably we are beginning to see that there are real financial crutches being put on the industry, an industry that’s on its last leg. And we hope that this moment causes more momentum for other institutions who have been on the fence, other cities, other states, other pension funds, not even just in the US but beyond, to really go the next step for what is needed for us to protect our planet and our communities.

GREGORY WILPERT: What would you say could it mean for people’s health on the ground, who live near large polluters?

BETAMIA CORONEL: Yeah. So, New York City is definitely one of the largest polluting cities. I think what it means for us is that our city is taking the first steps necessary in holding those who have been responsible for climate change accountable and realizing that the cost of those damages, whether it be in health impacts, in infrastructure to our own city, in future risks to rising waters, that financial responsibility shouldn’t fall on the backs of New Yorkers. It should fall on those who are responsible like the oil and gas industry. So, inevitably I hope that this causes that we win the larger fight on the litigation front and are able to fund the kind of projects that will protect our communities beyond what is already being done in the city.

GREGORY WILPERT: So, in addition to the multi billion dollar divestment that we already talked out, Mayor De Blasio’s also announced that the city’s launching a lawsuit against five major oil companies for climate change. What could the lawsuit mean in terms of damages? What effect do you think that will have?

BETAMIA CORONEL: Yeah, this is really similar. A lot of folks are comparing this moment to lawsuits against the tobacco industry, which I think is a very fair comparison. We’re hoping that what this lawsuit means is, like I just mentioned, those who have been most responsible for the current situation in the climate crisis will be the ones who pay for those damages. Billions of dollars in repairs happened post Hurricane Sandy, superstorm Sandy. And our city is still recovering from that through fixing of infrastructure, subways, people’s health, people’s homes. The impacts are long lasting and so those costs need to be met by those who are responsible. And I think this lawsuit is the first step in really modeling what that could look like when it comes to oil and gas corporations and climate change.

GREGORY WILPERT: But some people have been skeptical now about New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman’s will to follow through on prosecuting Exxonmobil for their products, which caused obviously serious, dangerous climate change. And they’ve willfully misled the public. Does this new lawsuit launched by Mayor de Blasio add fuel to Schneiderman’s investigation? Do you think it could push it further?

BETAMIA CORONEL: I’m not sure. I know that a lot of what the basis for what the mayor’s taken on comes out of a lot of the work that Eric Schneiderman is currently leading on in the investigation of Exxon’s fraudulent behavior. So, I definitely think that there’s synergy amongst them. I’m unaware of how they could strengthen each other, but for sure the work is aligned. So, hoping that it makes both sides of the case stronger and pushes Schneiderman to really consider what litigation on that front would look like.

GREGORY WILPERT: And finally, do you think that cities, states and counties can fill the void of climate change action that the Trump administration has created with their hyper pro fossil fuel agenda?

BETAMIA CORONEL: Absolutely. That’s what our hope is at 350.org. We’re a grassroots movement building organization and we truly do believe that it’s through people power in all corners of our country and beyond that change can happen. So, actually we’re in the middle of launching a new phase of that called Fossil Free Resolutions and I encourage people to chime into an event happening on January 31st in Washington DC.

And yea, I mean, the issue of climate change really does affect every single person on the face of the Earth. We’re talking about protecting the only home we have. Communities from the west coast to the east coast to the gulf are all seeing the impacts of climate. And now that we are in a regressive federal government, it’s time for our leaders locally, such as Mayor de Blasio and others who are leading really strongly to step up.

Like I said, if New York City can do it, what’s stopping our, everywhere in small cities all over the US to take on that challenge as well? Whether that be through divesting whatever their institutions have in oil and gas and/or blocking new pipeline projects or pursuing 100% renewable projects. So, I think all, everything is possible at the local level, especially now that we see very little, if anything, backwards movement from the federal government.

GREGORY WILPERT: Actually, there’s one other thing I might want to mention that we recently covered, which is also that in Oregon, a court ruled that it was not unconstitutional for local localities to inhibit the use of fossil fuels. And this had been a major case. I think that’s going to contribute to it. I don’t know if you followed that story but it might also contribute.

BETAMIA CORONEL: For sure. Our colleagues in Oregon have held down that fight and it’s definitely another reason why we see that, courts will be on our side. This is the right side of history to be on. So, for sure.

GREGORY WILPERT: Okay. Well, we’ll continue to follow this story. I was speaking to Betamia Coronel who is a national campaigner with 350.org. Thanks again, Betamia for having joined us today.

BETAMIA CORONEL: Thank you so much.

GREGORY WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.