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Five years ago, Superstorm Sandy ripped through the most populous city in the United States, spreading destruction fueled by climate change. Today, New York City's mayor said it was time to "break the cycle" by suing the culprits — fossil fuel companies.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Wednesday that the city will be suing some of the world’s largest fossil fuel firms for “billions of dollars” in order to recover climate change costs. In doing so, he invoked the $19 billion in damage from Sandy, the severity of which has been linked to the planet's warming.
“I remember those days after Sandy...I remember how desperate it was. I remember how much fear and confusion there was,” said de Blasio in a Wednesday press conference, announcing the lawsuit.
“This was a tragedy that was wrought by the actions of the fossil fuel companies. Let’s be clear: That’s where it came from,” he said.
“We’re going after those who have profited — and what a horrible, disgusting way to profit — in a way that’s put so many people’s lives in danger. It’s time that they are held accountable.”
'Today was an incredible day'
In a press release, the mayor’s office said it would also be setting a goal to divest city funds from fossil fuel reserve owners within five years. The city plans to start examining ways to do so.
In the lawsuit, filed in U.S District Court late Tuesday, the city is “seeking damages” from BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil, and Royal Dutch Shell “for the billions of dollars the city will spend to protect New Yorkers from the effects of climate change," the release stated.
The lawsuit was seeking damages to pay for both “harm that we’ve already seen” and “harm we expect to happen over the course of this century," it continued.
“Today we talk about how we break the cycle,” said de Blasio. “How we as a city, how we as a people, how we — eight-and-a-half million strong — will no longer participate in a system that endangers our very own people."
The mayor’s office said it needs the money to fund climate change “resiliency” to protect city property, like sewer infrastructure, and residents through things like public health campaigns. The city is already spending over $20 billion on these resiliency programs.
There was more than $306 billion in cumulative damages caused south of the border by 16 major climate-related events in 2017, according to a new report released on Monday by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The five companies named in the New York City lawsuit were picked because they are the five largest investor-owned fossil fuel firms “as measured by their contributions to global warming,” the mayor’s office said.
The mayor’s office also hinted at recent disclosures about what the oil industry knew about climate change, and when.
Last year, Dutch online journalism platform The Correspondent and The Guardian newspaper reported on a 1991 Shell educational video called Climate of Concern, that warned “our energy-consuming way of life may be causing climatic changes.”
“Recently uncovered documents make it clear that the fossil fuel industry was well aware of the effects that burning fossil fuels would have on the planet’s atmosphere and the expected impacts of climate change as far back as at least the 1980s,” de Blasio’s office states.
“Nonetheless, they deliberately engaged in a campaign of deception and denial about global warming and its impacts, even while profiting from the sale of fossil fuels and protecting their own assets from the effects of rising seas and a changing climate.”
Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein, in New York for the announcement, said that the lawsuit and divestment were about bringing principles of justice to the centre of the climate change crisis.
“It means that the corporate interests that did the most to get us into this mess – with their pollution and with their campaigns of wilful misinformation – are going to have to pay their true share of the tremendous costs of climate disruption, and of delayed transition,” she said in a speech. “Because right now we have it upside down and backwards.”
Bill McKibben, co-founder of environmental group 350.org, also praised the move in a statement. "New York City today becomes a capital of the fight against climate change on this planet," McKibben is quoted as stating.
"It's not pretending that working with the fossil fuel companies will somehow save the day, but instead standing up to them, in the financial markets and in court.”
Chevron calls lawsuit 'factually and legally meritless'
All five firms have made moves toward trying to tackle climate change on their own terms. Shell, BP and ExxonMobil, for example, signed a document of "guiding principles" in November committing them to reduce pollution of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from their natural gas drilling. Chevron has "policy principles" for addressing climate change, while ConocoPhillips has a climate change "action plan."
Shell has described a path to “net zero emissions” in a strategy it hopes to use to promote a shift toward a lower-carbon future. The company also told investors in November that it will cut the net carbon footprint of its oil and gas products around the world roughly in half by 2050.
In a statement to National Observer, Shell spokesman Ray Fisher said "climate change is a complex societal challenge that should be addressed through sound government policy and cultural change to drive low-carbon choices for businesses and consumers, not by the courts."
Braden Reddall, senior external affairs advisor at Chevron, called the lawsuit "factually and legally meritless," saying it will do nothing to address climate change.
"Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a global issue that requires global engagement," said Reddall. "Should this litigation proceed, it will only serve special interests at the expense of broader policy, regulatory and economic priorities."
Meanwhile, the New York branch of the American Petroleum Institute, an industry group, called the divestment move "disgraceful."
“Today Mayor de Blasio turned his back on millions of first responders, police officers, firefighters and other public employees who depend on their pensions to provide for themselves and their families in retirement," executive director Karen Moreau is quoted as stating.
ConocoPhillips spokesman Daren Beaudo said the company doesn't comment on pending litigation.
Representatives for the other firms did not immediately respond to a request for comment by National Observer.
Editor's note: This story was updated on Jan. 11, 2018 at 9:45 a.m. EST to include additional comments.