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Leon Kaye headshot

NYC’s Decision Opens the Door to More Fossil Fuel Divestment Worldwide

By Leon Kaye

It is easy for smaller cities like Eugene, OR; Santa Cruz, CA; Ann Arbor, MI; or Madison, WI to have conversations about, or even follow through on, fossil fuel divestment.

Those cities and towns are home to major universities with students and faculty that are vocal about where they stand on energy policy and climate action; and the local population is in general is in alignment on this issue as well.

But for a city home to over 8.5 million people of all backgrounds, not to mention a municipal workforce adamant about defending their pension plans, divestment is a risky proposition to pursue.

Nevertheless, for New York City’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, the time to wean his city away from fossil fuels is now. “We understand that climate change is an existential threat, but we do not accept that it is inevitable,” he wrote last week in an op-ed on the Washington Post. “We know many of our national leaders are in denial, but we will not wait for their help.”

The strategy on which de Blasio’s administration is embarking has two moving parts. First, the city is suing major oil companies for alleged damages linked to climate change. Whether this strategy will work is a dubious prospect. Energy companies have deep pockets, and will fight this litigation tooth and nail. Furthermore, few cities have nearly the same level of resources or will as New York City or some U.S. states that are also embroiled in lawsuits with the energy sector. It could take years before either a legal decision or settlement are reached. Far more practical is the Big Apple’s plan to spend $20 billion on a resiliency plan so that homes and businesses are buttressed against rising seas and more vicious storms in the near future.

What could actually work, and could turn more heads in energy company boardrooms across the country, is for more retirement funds to walk away from fossil fuel investments. Managers of the city’s five pension funds have been tasked to sell the securities of the estimated 190 fossil fuel companies included in the city’s investment portfolios. That sum totals about $5 billion out of the city’s total funds, which at first sounds like a stratospheric amount.

But with the city’s pension plans currently sitting atop a pot of $189 billion, New York City’s divestment strategy should not impose too many risks, if any, on the city’s long-term pension performance. And given the fact that more companies across several sectors are investing in renewables and are cleaning up their supply chains, fund managers should not have too many problems finding more palatable investments.

Other massive pension funds are also on track to divest from fossil fuels, including New York’s Common Fund, which manages over $200 billion in assets.

Divestment has its detractors. Common arguments against this tactic is that those equities are simply sold to another investor. In addition, whether that transaction hurts the company – or the selling fund – on the ledger sheet is open to debate. Some experts suggest that organizations hold onto those shares and use them as leverage to pressure companies to change their business practices.

Yet despite some shifts, such as shareholders of ExxonMobil approving a resolution to report climate change risks earlier this year, the evidence suggests energy companies are not listening, and are continuing to carry on with business as usual.

But if more funds like that of New York City’s pension plans shed their fossil fuel investments, other organizations may follow this lead – and also make it clear that investing in these types of securities carries a stigma.

Image credit: Christopher Burns/Unsplash

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye