Some people start the new year by pledging to give up carbs or hit the gym. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio kicked off 2018 by declaring war on the oil industry.
In what author and activist Bill McKibben called one of the “most important moments” in the decades-long fight against climate change, the city has pledged to sell off around $5 billion in fossil fuel shares. It will also sue BP, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Shell for damages — namely, the gradually rising seas laying siege to New York — noting these companies deliberately misled the public about climate change.
But this isn’t a story about farsighted politicians drawing up battle plans in the basement of city hall. The call to arms didn’t come from the mayor’s office or from chambers of the City Council. It came from the streets, from the outer boroughs and from a modest network of community organizers spurred to action by one of the deadliest storms in New York history.
This is a story about people who had never had a voice sending a message that could be heard around the world.
It begins in 2012, when Hurricane Sandy delivered a harrowing sneak preview of New York’s future in a hotter, wetter, more turbulent world. A ferocious tide swept across the low-lying parts of the city, stealing lives and livelihoods. Michael Johnson watched the ocean crash into his Coney Island home. “I lost everything when Sandy’s floodwaters rose in my apartment,” he said.
Further inland, howling winds uprooted trees, while torrential rain hammered aging apartment buildings. Rachel Rivera watched the ceiling of her daughter’s bedroom collapse under the weight of hours of punishing rainfall. She rescued her child just moments before the roof gave in. “She cries to me every time it rains hard, asking me, ‘Mommy, is it going to happen again? Are we going to live? Are we going to die?’” Rivera said.
For many New Yorkers, Sandy was a turning point. The historic storm, made measurably worse by climate change, turned private citizens into public advocates. Johnson and Rivera both joined environmental justice group New York Communities for Change (NYCC). Together, along with other survivors, they made a forceful case for divestment. Their testimony was a powerful indictment of an industry that had long resisted change.
The divestment campaign began in earnest in the wake of Sandy. Initially, organizers took a gentle approach to political pressure — reasoning with people in power while rallying public support. It didn’t work. So last year, the gloves came off.
“We set a strategy of moving from mostly lobbying and intellectual arguments in support of divestment to a focused campaign urging the comptroller of the city, Scott Stringer, to lead action on divestment,” said Pete Sikora, senior advisor with NYCC. By refusing to divest, they argued, Stringer was turning his back on New Yorkers like Johnson and Rivera who had been victims of climate change.
“The truth is you have to put a face on a problem. You can’t just say the city has to divest. There has to be some elected official who feels the heat on this issue,” Sikora said. “In this case, it ended up being Comptroller Stringer, because he’s the most important elected official on this decision, and he was resisting divestment.”
NYCC was hardly alone in the effort. They worked with national advocacy groups like 350.org, Divest/Invest and the People’s Climate Movement, in addition to other New York-based environmental justice groups.
“Our membership is overwhelmingly from black and Latino communities, low- and moderate-income communities of color,” Sikora said. “We partnered with environmentalists who are overwhelmingly white progressives. That combination of organizations and political forces really helped shape this debate.”
Throughout 2017, organizers repeatedly targeted Stringer. “We did everything from large rallies and marches to small direct actions to catching Scott Stringer at events and protesting him,” Sikora said.
The campaign kicked off with a rally outside the mayor’s office, where Rivera called out Stringer by name. Next came a teach-in inside Trump Tower, where protestors excoriated Stringer for his complacency on divestment in the face of President Trump’s full-scale assault on federal climate protections.
In May, advocates invited Stringer to a town hall where he fielded a series of pointed questions about divestment. “That was very impactful,” Sikora said, recalling the evening. “How could the city be investing in the likes of Exxon Mobil, whose business model is destroying the city’s collective future? On its face, it’s insane. How can you finance your own destruction?”
In June, after Trump pulled out of the Paris Agreement, advocates held a rally decrying the decision while urging the city to divest. New York Public Advocate Letitia James, the city’s second-highest ranking elected official, spoke to those assembled. She publicly declared her support for divestment, turning up the pressure on Stringer.
As organizers applied political pressure, singling out Stringer in meetings and town halls, allies made the financial case for divestment. “On a campaign like this, it really does take a diversity of factors pushing for climate action,” said Denise Patel, coordinator at Divest/Invest. “The fossil-fuel sector is the worst-performing sector of the [Standard & Poor’s 500 index]. It’s completely lagging,” she said, arguing that continued investment in fossil fuels poses a risk to retired teachers, police officers, firefighters and other public-sector workers.
The campaign came to a head on the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, when thousands of New Yorkers marched across the Brooklyn Bridge, calling for divestment. Rivera spoke at the march.
“I’m here as a mother, fighting for this cause. I lost everything from photos to everything else an apartment has — memories. I almost lost my child,” Rivera said. “And I’m here being displaced to this day. Living a nightmare with my daughter to this day. And it’s hard, even five years later. We’re still struggling.”
Finally, at a public hearing in November, where Johnson spoke about losing his Coney Island home, the public advocate formally declared her support for divestment. The mayor and comptroller came around shortly thereafter. While New York City had pledged to divest from coal in 2015, it wasn’t until this year that it decided to sell off its oil and gas stocks as well.
It’s unclear precisely what combination of rallies, marches, teach-ins, leaflets and lobbying pushed Stringer to get behind divestment, but when the decision came, he credited organizers for their efforts. “Thank you to the advocates and activists who called me a few times in the last couple of years,” Stringer said, with a touch of sarcasm, at the press conference announcing divestment. “That’s how this works. Pushing government makes us better.”
De Blasio also gave a nod to activists. “There has been an incredible movement in New York City,” he said in an conversation with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. “I want to give them a lot of credit, because I have to tell you, when I first raised it to experts in my administration, they raised all sorts of problems, road blocks, challenges, but that movement kept pushing us and saying divestment would make a huge difference.”
Sikora credits Johnson, Rivera and other Sandy survivors for being “the moral force that we rallied around to make clear that the city had to act.” He said, “The activist story and how things happen behind the scenes is often not told. I think it’s really important, because people don’t realize how people power drives these decisions.”
Environmental justice groups are now on their way to scoring big victories outside the five boroughs. In December, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced his support for divesting the state’s pension funds from fossil fuels. Sikora is elated.
“Generally, when you’re an activist, a lot of the stuff feels really good,” Sikora said. “But it can be a grind — event after event after event, getting people to sign petitions. All of those kinds of things take a lot of work, and oftentimes it’s thankless work. But people should not get discouraged. Keep their eyes on the prize and make the argument loud and clear over and over again, and escalate it.”