Speakers urged the other two panelists, Vicki Fuller and Pete Grannis of the New York State Comptroller’s office, that as decision-makers of the $175 billion that the State’s pensions represent, they have an opportunity and massive responsibility to divest from fossil fuels and reinvest in a sustainable economy for New Yorkers.
While it was apparent that Vicki Fuller was listening intently to other panelists, including the poignant Elizabeth Yeampierre of UPROSE and Tom Sanzillo of the IEEFA, Pete Grannis of the NYS Comptrollers office ignorantly shook off the strategy of divestment. Instead, Grannis focused on the impact of individuals and consumer behavior on climate change, pointing to the antiquated “you just gotta change your lightbulbs” argument.
While I recognize the nature of his position, it truly boiled my blood. That argument represents the direct result of an intentional campaign of deception that fossil fuel executives at companies like Exxon orchestrated to sow doubt about climate change. Shaking off the accountability of coal, oil, and gas companies of their driving role in causing the climate crisis, and onto our communities that bear the brunt of the industry’s lies, is exactly what Exxon, Chevron, Shell, BP, and more, want us to believe. We’ve known for a long time that, while individuals should certainly consider their impact, it is fossil fuel companies that are accountable for the devastating climate impacts we are experiencing today.
Unfortunately, at last Friday’s roundtable, there was no time for a Q&A. So I wrote up this reflection of what I would’ve like to communicate to the panelists, particularly Pete Grannis and Vicki Fuller:
Good morning, my name is Lindsay Meiman. I am a born-and-bred New Yorker, and disclaimer: I work for 350.org, the organization that has played a role in establishing the fossil fuel divestment movement. The divestment campaign is now a global movement that is pushing our institutions to stop propping up the rogue fossil fuel industry that continues to perpetuate the climate crisis. To the panelists, thank you all so much for your work and for being here today, and particularly to the Senators for organizing this powerful event.
I’d like first to address that tomorrow will be the fourth anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, which was the second costliest storm in US history, just behind Hurricane Katrina. It is investments in fossil fuel companies that fund climate impacts like Sandy.
The case of Exxon is particularly egregious. My own organization is currently under fire for our role in holding the corporation accountable for its climate crimes. We have even been subpoenaed by Rep. Lamar Smith, a bought-and-paid-for Congressional ally of the fossil fuel industry. New York’s own attorney general is investigating what could be the worst case of corporate fraud in history, yet New York’s pension funds are still investing in fossil fuel companies to the tune of over $12 billion. Exxon is also now the world’s biggest fracker, a practice that New York banned in June 2015 after nearly a decade of community organizing around health and climate impacts. There is a glaring hypocrisy of New York investing in the likes of Exxon.
I’d like to primarily touch on what you claimed, Mr. Grannis, that it is up to the public and consumers to tackle climate change on an individual level. Well, that is what we are doing through challenging our institutions to divest. As you heard other speakers explain, this is a systemic issue; one of our reliance on the extractive fossil fuel economy that prioritizes profit at the expense of people and planet. Let’s be clear: climate change is not something to “believe in.” It is scientific fact. The only reason there has been a phony debate about climate change for an entire generation’s worth of time — for my entire life — is because companies like Exxon have poured resources into sowing doubt and blocking climate action, making the public believe that there is no alternative, when in fact there is. We have the solutions, today, to transition away from fossil fuels toward a just economy that works for all of us.
Moving away from the morality of it – of the existence of a livable planet – New York State’s Common Retirement Fund lost more than $5.3 billion in 3 years from its holdings in fossil fuel companies. Just this morning Exxon announced it will cut its reserves by nearly one-fifth, essentially admitting the company is overvalued. So, as you can see, this decline is happening.
I commend the resolution you brought to Exxon’s annual general meeting last Spring. I too was glad to see that 38% of shareholders supported it. But unfortunately, when it comes down to it, Exxon’s board unanimously recommended rejection of your non-binding resolution that called for basic climate impact reporting. Last Spring was indisputable proof that shareholder engagement does not work with companies like Exxon. It’s clear that Exxon will never change from its deceptive ways. While we know the just transition won’t happen overnight, how many Sandy-like storms and rejected climate resolutions must New Yorkers endure until we stop propping up the fossil fuel industry?