January 11, 2018
Meghna Chakrabarti: New York City is suing five major oil companies, claiming that those companies are responsible for damages related to climate change. At the same time, the City’s two biggest pension funds are moving to divest from fossil fuels. Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio made those announcements yesterday. He joins us now.
Mayor de Blasio – New York is suing BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobile, and Royal Dutch Shell. So, what exactly are you arguing?
Mayor Bill de Blasio: It’s really simple – they are some of the very biggest companies in the fossil fuel industry. That industry knowingly exacerbated climate change. They had all the evidence in the world of the damage that their products were causing and they continued nonetheless to poison the earth. And we’re saying simply that this city, which suffered so deeply after Hurricane Sandy, had literally experienced billions and billions of dollars as damage as a result of climate change – that these specific companies aided and abetted – and they should pay damaged for that very much the same way that tobacco companies were forced to pay damages for the horrible impact that they had knowingly on public health for so many years.
Chakrabarti: Now, you’re seeking damages, as you said, because of infrastructure costs that climate change has wrought on New York. I mean, what’s the dollar value of the damages you’re seeking.
Mayor: We don’t have a specific dollar figure we’re looking for at this point. Any outcome would have to be in the billions to be a serious one. What we know right now is, for example, to try to protect our city, going forward, from climate change – we’re in the middle of a $20 billion resiliency initiative right this minute. We know when that money is spent, we’ll need a lot more. And so the goal is to not repeat the mistakes of the past, to hold these companies accountable, and make them pay for the solutions, going forward. And so, unquestionably in the billions, but it’s a number that would have to be determined by a court.
Chakrabarti: So, Mayor de Blasio, to your point about some of the oil companies knowing about the effects of climate change – just to remind folks, there’s been a lot of coverage about the fact that Exxon Mobile, for example, some 40 years ago knew about fossil fuels and climate change. They had the research, they didn’t tell the public, and, in fact, they spent millions of dollars to promote some misinformation about that. There’s been good reporting about that. But on the other hand, I have to say, climate change is such a complicated phenomenon – why aren’t you also suing, I don’t know, China for its use of fossil fuels? India – why aren’t you suing the Trump administration for pulling out of the Paris Accord? Why aren’t you suing former members of the US government for its 50-plus years of pro-fossil fuel policies? For that matter, why aren’t you suing Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Niger – every country that gives us fossil fuels? You see my point?
Chakrabarti: A lot of people might see this as more of a political stunt than anything else.
Mayor: Meghna, there are many countries and companies that bear responsibility here, but here’s what we know – these are amongst the leading actors by any estimation. These multi-nation fossil fuel companies have lead the way. They often were the ones that dictated government policies around the world and allowed them to do what they were doing for their own profit. So, let’s be clear, I don’t think anyone who is looking for fundamental change on this issue would fail to note that the biggest international petroleum companies are the core of the problem. We are suing them because we believe we can successfully sue them. We believe that we can get real damages here that will help protect the people of New York City, going forward, and will also affect the behavior of these companies. If they are finally held accountable for what they’ve done, it will affect their bottom line and their choices going forward. And again, we have a perfect model in the tobacco lawsuits. At the outset, one could have argued there were many, many elements of government and society that were aiding and abetting tobacco use, but the core of the problem was the tobacco companies themselves who were really calling the tune. Those lawsuits ultimately prevailed and a huge amount of money went into addressing the public health impact of tobacco. We want to follow that same path, help to end climate change impacts by these companies by changing their behavior, and get money back for the people of this city.
Chakrabarti: Mr. Mayor, I’m going to talk with you about the pension funds in just a second, but I’ve got to ask – I mean, you’ve mentioned tobacco a couple of times – many people might see that, yes, as a relevant comparison, but we’re talking about the tobacco companies – you know, that they knowingly created an addictive product, whereas for the fossil fuel companies, they were selling a product that world economies couldn’t function without. I mean, is that a kind of addiction? I can’t imagine modern life without fossil fuels up until this date.
Mayor: Look, at a certain point in our history, our economy got built on fossil fuels without an understanding of the impact on climate change. But over time, these companies did come to understand that they saw the science, there’s plenty of evidence that they knew about it, they discussed it internally, and they went to a great deal of trouble to cover up that information and deny it. That’s another strong parallel here. We know the very cynical actions of the tobacco companies 40, 50 years ago when they already knew that tobacco caused cancer and yet they covered up the information and spun it as a perfectly healthy form of entertainment. Here’s the parallel – once upon a time you may have argued the fossil fuel industries didn’t know, but once they did understand the horrible damage that was being cause they went out of their way to try to cover up that information and to try to present the notion that their work was not hurting the earth. It was systematic and they went out of their way to ensure that people kept using petroleum products in ever-growing numbers. They did not say, we need to get out of this horrible damaging work right away – we need to move to other endeavors. They continued and tried to justify their efforts. And look, the proof is in what happened in this city, and so many other coastal areas in this country that have devastating impacts from natural disasters caused by climate change. We don’t have a federal government that’s coming to our aid right now on any appreciable level. We’re trying to go right at the original authors of the problem who are these big, multi-national oil companies.
Chakrabarti: Mr. Mayor, I appreciate you engaging with me on this issue of the lawsuit, but I do want to also give you a chance to tell us about another action that the city is taking regarding oil companies, because New York’s two largest pension funds – the New York City Employees Retirement System and the Teachers Retirement System – have announced that they’re going to divest their funds of $5 billion in fossil fuel investments. Why do that now?
Mayor: Because we have to change the reality in our society. First of all, the power of the divestment movement is it says this is no longer going to be accepted as the normal course of things – to continue to invest in something that’s poisoning the earth, exacerbating natural disasters – and, by the way, is not even a smart investment for the future. You know, there are many estimates that say the vast majority of fossil fuel resources will never be taken out of the earth because it’s become to dangerous and too damaging to the environment. So, why invest in an industry whose fundamental assets will never be utilized. We think there are better, smarter investments, more forward-looking investments. I’m very proud to say New York City was in the forefront, ending investments in South Africa during the apartheid regime, ending investments in private prisons, ending investments in the coal industry. It’s quite clear that it is smart both fiscally and morally to stop investing in fossil fuel industries. And by taking $5 billion of investments away, it sends a very powerful message to those industries. It also shows if you can do that in the financial capital of the earth, other states, other cities can do it. No state, no city has ever taken such a definitive action. $5 billion will be taken out of those investments. We will end those investments once and for all over then next few years. This sends a signal that the whole investment reality of going to change for these companies and they need to change their business model accordingly.
Chakrabarti: Last question to you about this, because, as you obviously know, Governor Andrew Cuomo has pushed for the State to follow suit, but New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said last month that he doesn’t really want the State pension funds to do that because basically he says he thinks the best way to address climate change is for these pensions, which are really big, heavy hitters with these companies in terms of the numbers of shares they own, to be more active as shareholders. But, if you divest, you lose your seat at the table. What do you make of his argument?
Mayor: I understand the argument, but, unfortunately, I think it’s been disproven over time when it comes to this particular industry. We know that the fossil fuel industry has been resistant to change. And again, we know that they long ago understood the impact they were having on global warming and continued to do what they were doing. I don’t think shareholder activism changes multi-national corporations of the scale of Exxon Mobile, or Shell, or Chevron. I think they need to see that the fundamental economics are going to change and that more and more investors are going to walk away from them. I think you have to vote with your feet sometimes. It’s important for these companies to understand that they will not be able to pull together the kind of investment they used to because more and more governments certainly believe it is a mistaken investment and it’s not even smart fiscally, going forward.
Chakrabarti: Well, that’s New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. Mayor de Blasio, it’s always a pleasure. Thanks so very much.
Mayor: Thank you, be well.