How a handful of community organizers got the biggest city in America to take on the one of the most powerful industries on Earth.
By Jeremy Deaton
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.