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Transcript: Mayor de Blasio Delivers Remarks at the Opening Plenary of the World Economic Forum's Sustainable Development Impact Summit

September 24, 2019

Mayor Bill de Blasio: Well, I want to give a warm welcome to you. Welcome to New York City, everybody. Thank you, Dominic, and, of course, thank you, Klaus – and everyone at the World Economic Forum for all you do. Thank you for gathering us this – again – at this occasion for such an important discussion. So, I know you’re here to think about the issues of the entire world, and we need you to, but I hope you get a chance to spend some time in New York City, around New York City, and with real New Yorkers. I hope you enjoy the life of this city. Now, let me tell you, I represent 8.6 million people, and I like to say I represent 8.6 million highly opinionated people.

[Laughter]

I have literally never met a New Yorker who said to me, you know, ‘I can go either way on that, I don’t have a strong view.’

[Laughter]

I have never, ever had that experience. So, if you engage New Yorkers, you will get an earful and you will get the truth, and I think we like it that way. And this is a very good place for people to come together not just because of the presence of the United Nations but because we, in New York, literally, we have all the peoples of the Earth represented here, living here, every nationality, every ethnicity, every faith – and we find a way to do that with a kind of practical harmony. I am not here to tell you it’s perfect. I’m not here to tell you it always works but there is an interesting equilibrium that has been created. People find a way to work it out and that gives me hope every day. It gives me hope for our Earth, it gives me hope in terms of addressing the challenge that we face here.

But since I am a New Yorker, it is my obligation to also speak to you bluntly about that challenge. And I will be brief, but to the point. I think even though it’s early in the day, we are all here to start thinking about the big issues and the big challenges. So, I would say it – this simply, the question for us, two questions really to my mind. One – is modern capitalism capable in this moment of addressing global warming? And I think it is possible but so far it is not happening. So, the answer at this moment, sadly from my point of view, has been no, to-date.

The other question – is modern democracy, modern government capable of addressing global warming? To that, I can only give you a definite maybe. And I say that because there are some great examples out there – and I’ll speak briefly about what we’re doing in this city – but I also think we can all admit that the debate and the discussion in democracies around the world is still wanting. It’s still far from where it needs to be if we’re actually going to address this topic. There are still too many things that take our attention away from the existential threat. There are too many smaller matters or parochial matters that are clouding us and our judgement from being able to focus on the thing that we all have in common and we all need to address.

So, the blunt truth is, we are not there in any way, and as we gather here today – I’m not saying that as a hopeless statement. I don’t think anyone in this room is here because you don’t have hope but I do think we’re at a point of greater honesty than we were perhaps in previous years. I think that some of the realities of this country – I’ll say it politely but firmly – our own national government’s failure to address climate change right here has awoken a more honest conversation all over America and that is ultimately to the good. I cannot, for a moment, forgive the mistakes made in Washington. But the fact that the people are listening and watching and responding in a very different way, that is cause for some hope.

But it’s going to be incumbent on all of us to change the dialogues not just in our nations but where we live. And I think what we’re seeing at this moment is that people around the world no longer believe that national governments will be the source of a solution. We would like to believe that. We could aspire to that. We should all try and work for that. But more and more the demand, rightfully so, is that local governments and regional governments carry the weight more and more. And obviously we want to see the private sector, the nonprofit sector, and NGOs all respond in kind.

Here in this city, if you go back even eight, nine years ago I think there were plenty of people not focused on climate change, plenty of people who were not so sure how real it was, and then came Hurricane Sandy which brought extraordinary devastation to this city – the worst natural disaster is our history. And it’s a painful truth that after that event there were very few climate change deniers left in New York City. And I have to tell you, I’ve traveled this nation over these last months in my previous work as a presidential candidate and heard – that was Friday. That was a long time ago –

[Laughter]

Things move fast nowadays –

[Laughter]

But I heard the voices of people all over America and that dialogue was very different than what you see on cable news or what you see online or what you hear from the well-known commentators. There was tremendous urgency and a tremendous spirit of do-it-yourself and bluntly because there was not faith that corporations would save us, or a national government could save us. It was a sense, a deep sense that it had to become a matter of personal responsibility right down to the local level.

Here in New York we have taken the actions that I hope cities and governments all over the world will take setting the goal of being carbon neutral by 2050, ensuing that we facilitate in every way the things that really make a difference. We have the toughest law on Earth now requiring the retrofitting of big buildings for energy efficiency and bluntly it works because it comes with serious penalties if the companies involved don’t do it, alright. I believe in good will but accountability is needed too. We’re retrofitting all of our public buildings to make them energy efficient. We’re making our vehicle fleet electric. We’re getting all of our electricity for the use of our city our city government from renewable sources over the next few years. We’re putting out electric charging stations all over the city for private vehicle users. These are only pieces of the solution, but we’re showing they can all be done at once in the biggest city in the country and we need to do that in every city and every town all over this world.

We’re also divesting from the fossil fuel industry and people in this room may have different viewpoints, but I’ll tell you that the divestment movement must grow for us to get out of this crisis because right now we all say we’re moving off of fossil fuels, but we’re simply not doing it fast enough, and the divestment movement is part of how we force the equation. I urge everyone in this room, if you represent a city, or a region, or a national government or a university or a foundation, anything that has a pension fund, divest from fossil fuels now to help us move forward. And one thing we have further taken the action of suing some of the fossil fuels companies because we will be – they knew exactly what was happening with global warming, and they aided and abetted it, and did not take actions to tell us the truth, all of us. They caused damage that must be compensated. Everyone here will have their own view of what’s the right way forward, but the one thing that should be a common understanding is the question of urgency. We are not even close to where we need to be and all of us have the opportunity to set that bar a lot higher and I hope this discussion today will do that.

The last thing I want to say to you is another reflection on my experience out and around this country and I will tell you that I came away from a deep examination of feelings, the views, the concerns of the American people over these last months. I came away much more optimistic, despite the challenges we face, much more optimistic, because of the question of ownership. I think it’s fair to say that in this country, I think we’ve seen it, in much of the industrialized world that the role of people as owners of their society, the personal responsibility that we’re taking for the changes needed, it was drifting, certainly here in the United States of America, drifted precipitously. Many people came to the conclusion that their voices didn’t matter, their votes didn’t matter, their involvement didn’t, there’s a danger in that to say the least. There’s even greater danger for younger people and I’ve heard the voices of teenagers, of college students, high school students, who talk about the dangers ahead when it comes to climate change and they talk about with a fear that there may not be much of a world left for them and some of them talk about how it’s easy to not want to participate or not want to be involved if you don’t think there’s a possibility of anything good up ahead.

But what’s inspiring is how many more I met, starting with the youngest people I could possibly imagine who would care and who would be involved like some of the climate marchers on Friday. There were so many 10-year-olds, and 11-year-old, and 12-year-olds who gave me very eloquent explanations of why they were marching and that gave me a lot of hope. But this point about ownership, to conclude, I saw all over this country people believing it’s actually their responsibility. In a funny way their decreasing faith in their national government and institutions was starting to turn into increasing faith in their own ability to make change. Somewhere in there is something very positive that could lead to longer term structural change for all of our societies. People actually believe that they are the stakeholders in the truest sense and it’s their obligation to make change.

I ask if everyone today, please do all you can to foster that belief, to support it, to listen to it, to show people who are starting to take ownership for their future that you commend them, you honor them, you bring them in, you support them, you facilitate them, because that’s the only hope. Our institutions have let us down. Our governments have let us down. Our corporations have let us down.  If we continue at this exact pace we will fail. I don’t think the people will let us down, I actually think the people are ready to show us something greater than we’ve ever seen before, but we have to listen, we have to embrace it. If we do, we can build, I think, that brighter future we all aspire to. 

Thank you so much.  

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