Fighting Against Climate Change When the Federal Government Isn’t

It’s safe to say that the current federal administration has taken little to no interest in what may be the most serious looming threat to national security: rising temperatures and changing ecosystems across the US and around the planet. The scientific community agrees that climate change is having an impact in the present—not just the future—and while strong evidence backs this assertion, neither scientists nor policy makers clearly understand what to do about it.

But one thing seems to be happening at the federal level: nothing. Or rather, a combination of denial and disinterest that may be shored up by campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry, partisan rifts, ignorance of the underlying science, or any number of contributing factors. Regardless of the reasons, climate change and related issues are being actively ignored and written out of the administration’s agenda, and as the clock runs out on the all-important two-degree temperature increase that signals an effective point of no return, action at this level is not forthcoming.

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But the federal government doesn’t hold an all-controlling grip on the kinds of human activity to contribute to increasing temperatures, and as it happens, workarounds are being pursued by policy-makers at state and local levels, with some promising results. The Guardian recently discussed some of these efforts here.

New York City, for example, holds significant clout in the overall US effort to slow environmental damage caused by commerce and human activity. Under pressure from its citizens and still reeling from the impact of hurricane Sandy in 2012—and the infrastructure weaknesses revealed by the storm—the city is taking action without waiting for federal leadership. Over the course of the next five years, the city hopes to divest its 189 billion dollar pension funds from investments in the fossil fuel industry.

In addition, Mayor Bill De Blasio intends to take five major oil producers to federal court, citing their contributions to climate change and the resulting impact on the city, including flooding, erosion, and future threats. According to the city’s court filing, only 100 companies are responsible for two thirds of CO2 emissions over the past 150 years, with these five contributing the most (BP, Exxon, Conoco Phillips, and Chevron, and Shell).

Will the divestment and the accompanying lawsuit make a measurable difference? We have five years to find out.