The city has filed a federal claim seeking damages from BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell to help compensate its $US20 billion ($AU25 billion) plan to protect the city, economy and public services from the effects of climate change.
Mayor Bill de Blasio drew comparisons between oil companies and the tobacco industry, which knowingly profited out of a habit they knew to be harmful.
While other cities in Europe and the United States have already taken similar steps, New York hailed its move as significant, as it is the biggest metropolis in the country. The city suffered billions of dollars of damage in Hurricane Sandy which paralysed New York in 2012, causing 3m-high floods across coastal New York and New Jersey, and an estimated $US71 billion ($AU89.7 million) in damage.
A study published by researchers in October warned that rising sea levels from man-made climate change could prompt catastrophic flooding in New York as frequently as once every five years by 2030 to 2045.
New York’s $US189 billion $AU238.8 billion) pension fund — held for city employees such as police officers, teachers and firefighters — currently has around $US5 billion ($AU6.3 billion) in securities of more than 190 fossil fuel companies, officials said.
Mayor de Blasio said staff would instruct fund trustees to start analysing ways to divest responsibly from fossil fuel over the next five years, in a process that officials warned would not be easy and would take time.
“New York City is standing up for future generations by becoming the first major US city to divest our pension funds from fossil fuels,” Mayor de Blasio said.
US President Donald Trump inflamed the world last year by announcing that the United States would withdraw from the Paris climate accord, setting off a crescendo of efforts by Democrat-run cities and states to shrink the country’s carbon footprint.
A report issued at UN talks last November said those efforts would not fully counteract Mr Trump’s decision to reverse climate policies and promote fossil fuel use.
In December, the US did not attend international climate talks in Paris, where countries announced they were boosting investment in green energy and divesting from fossil fuels.
New York, home to 8.5 million residents and the US financial capital, is a bastion of opposition to Mr Trump.
COURTS ‘NOT THE ANSWER’
“New York City is taking on these five giants because they are the central actors, they are the first ones responsible for this crisis, and they should not get away with it anymore,” Mayor de Blasio told reporters.
“As climate change continues to worsen, it’s up to the fossil fuel companies whose greed put us in this position to shoulder the cost of making New York safer and more resilient.”
Chevron, ExxonMobil and Shell issued statements calling the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions a global issue that required more sweeping action than legal action.
BP and ConocoPhillips declined to comment.
“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,” a Shell spokesperson said.
Last month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo also unveiled plans to divest state pension funds from fossil fuel investments.
In June 2016, the largest public pension fund in the US capital Washington said it had successfully purged its $US6.4 billion ($AU8 billion) fund of all direct holdings in fossil fuels.
Later that year, global movement DivestInvest said funds held by institutions and individuals committed to divesting from fossil fuel had reached $US5.2 trillion ($AU6.5 trillion).