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Less than a week after taking office, Mayor Michelle Wu on Monday signed her first law — a landmark regulation that will bar city funds from being invested in fossil fuel industries.
The new rule, passed by the City Council last week, bars the city’s Treasury Department from using public money to invest in companies that earn more than 15 percent of their revenues from selling tobacco products and fossil fuels, or from jail and prison facilities.
In all, that’s $65 million the City of Boston must fully divest by the end of 2025.
Monday marked the end of a legislative push for Wu that spanned nearly her entire career in elected office: She had previously fought for city action on this front since 2014 alongside fellow city councilors Matt O’Malley and Lydia Edwards.
Shortly before Wu put her pen to paper, the trio and other elected officials, along with environmental advocates, praised the new law as a revolutionary mechanism for local governments to spur action on climate change.
“I couldn’t be more excited or honored to be here with this incredible group for what we are about to do today, which is make history for the city of Boston and really set the tone for the rest of the country,” Wu said during a press conference.
Several others agreed that given Boston’s stature, the law has the potential to encourage a similar wave of change in city halls across the country as the impact of the climate crisis is expected to hit close to home for many Americans.
“This is deeply personal for many of us and urgent,” Wu said. “My older son Blaise was born in the first year that I served in this building and the first year that we started to hear it was the hottest year ever on record. Since then, his six years alive on this planet, each has been our hottest on record.
“We’re moving quickly to make sure that Boston will set the tone for what’s possible for that brightest green future for all of our kids.”
Though trailblazing for climate policy, the move is similar to an ordinance created by city officials in 1984, when the city, in protest of apartheid, divested public money from companies conducting business with the Republic of South Africa.
“The fact of the matter is a budget is a statement of values and how we choose to talk and walk need to be consistent as a city,” Edwards said. “We have talked about being greener, we’ve talked about being cleaner, but where our money was being invested didn’t line up with that.”
O’Malley said Monday was a “really big day for the city.”
“Mark my words: Other cities will follow suit,” he said.
Boston is indeed joining only a handful of other cities who have made similar moves, including New Orleans, Los Angeles, Seattle, and New York.
“This is an important moment because it builds huge momentum,” said environmentalist Bill McKibben, co-founder of the global grassroots climate campaign 350.org. “The signal goes out first half a mile to Beacon Hill. We need the state Legislature doing exactly the same thing and making sure that the state’s pension funds are divested from fossil fuel right away.”
Last week, State Treasurer Deborah Goldberg called on the Massachusetts state pension fund managers — who oversee the $98.5 billion fund — to push companies to more aggressively cut carbon emissions, The Boston Globe reported.
McKibben first raised the notion of divestment a decade ago, and since then, the idea has purportedly blossomed into a nearly $14.5 trillion movement as of earlier this year.
The goal is “to revoke the social license of the fossil fuel industry,” said 350.org in 2012. And while fossil fuel industries have seen continuous investment over the years, there are other signals that show major companies are not the players they once were.
As United Nations climate and finance leader David Carlin noted in Forbes in February, Exxon, Chevron, Shell, and BP have fallen from their status as among the world’s largest companies over the past 10 years.
“An Oxford study made this point, stating, ‘the most far-reaching threat to fossil fuel companies’ comes from increased social and political stigmatization of their activities and the resultant uncertainties around their long-term viability,” Carlin wrote earlier this year. “Within finance, government, and civil society, the divestment movement has forced a fundamental reckoning with the future of the global energy system.”
Monday’s signing ceremony showed again Wu, who won her seat on a platform to bring a “Green New Deal” to City Hall, plans to make good, and fast, on her promises to rise to Boston’s most pressing issues, with climate change perhaps chief among them.
Last week, only one day into her term, Wu announced a proposed $8 million investment to make three MBTA bus lines fare free for at least two years. The move would reduce a financial barrier for residents in some of Boston’s most economically disadvantaged communities and could potentially promote the use of public transit over cars, thereby reducing carbon emissions.
Sen. Ed Markey, who co-authored the “Green New Deal” at the federal level, said Monday the divestment ordinance is “what a Green New Deal city looks like in the United States.”
“We are making the correct investment decision for our country because that energy source, the fossil fuel industry, is the technology of the past,” Markey said. “What Boston represents here today is the future of our state, of our country, and of our planet.”
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