“My house gets flooded every single year,” 16-year old Diana Ramirez told City Limits, one of many New York City youth who took to the streets in the lead up to Earth Day to demand people in power stop funding fossil fuels. “The rising sea levels and flooding caused by climate change are affecting me heavily.” 

youth climate rally

Adi Talwar

On the morning of April 16, 2024, Diana Ramirez, 16, joined other high school students in front of Citigroup’s headquarters in downtown Manhattan to protest the company’s investments in the fossil fuel industry.

In the middle of the school day last Tuesday, over 70 students left Leaders High School in South Brooklyn for Tribeca. Their mission: approach bankers about the climate crisis in the front lawn of the global headquarters for Citigroup, one of the nation’s largest banks.

Employees in business attire on their lunch breaks listened as the kids, microphone in hand, tried to persuade the bank to stop financing companies that profit from the world’s leading contributor to climate change: fossil fuels.

Citigroup is among the top five largest fossil fuel funders in the world. It poured nearly $333 billion into the sector between 2016—after the Paris climate agreement was struck—and 2022, according to a report published last year by a coalition of environmental groups.

“My house gets flooded every single year. I live in a basement apartment in Sunset Park because that’s what we can afford, so the rising sea levels and flooding caused by climate change are affecting me heavily,” 16-year old Diana Ramirez told City Limits.

Climate change will continue to bring more rain, worse storms, higher sea levels and increased flooding to New York. By 2050, one out of every three cellars and basements in one-two-and three-family homes across the city will be at-risk for flooding, a report produced by the Comptroller’s office found.

And New York city’s public schools are also getting hit. Ramirez developed infections on her feet after wading through knee-high dirty sewage water to get to school during the flash floods that put the city under a state of emergency last September. Her high school cafeteria flooded with murky water, too.  

“That’s why I’m here speaking on behalf of my school, my community, and my family. I’m here today to try and make a change,” Ramirez added.

This Earth Day’s youth-led push to stop New York from continuing to use fossil fuels like oil and gas comes at a time when the companies that profit from them are resisting the state’s shift to cleaner sources of energy. They have introduced lawsuits to take down gas bans and lobbied to stop legislation from cutting back on plastic, which is made from oil.

To top it off, the NY Heat Act, a bill that had the power to curb the expansion of gas infrastructure across the state, didn’t make it into the state budget finalized over the weekend, to the disappointment of environmental organizations. Other major climate legislation like a superfund bill, which aimed to charge fossil fuel companies for their contribution to climate change, also didn’t make the cut.

But with the adults in power delaying the state’s transition away from polluting fuels, New York City’s youth are stepping up to demand the future they want.

“What can we, a powerless civilian, do to stop climate change? We use the one thing we do have: a voice,” 10th grader Ambriel Nieves told a crowd of bankers in front of the Citigroup headquarters last week.

Youth climate rally

Adi Talwar

Students gathered in front of Citigroup’s headquarters in downtown Manhattan on April 16.

 ‘The oceans are rising and so are we’

The kids at Leaders High School aren’t the only teenagers that took a stance in the lead up to Earth Day.

On Friday, hundreds of students walked out of classes and marched from Manhattan to the Brooklyn Bridge demanding an end to the era of fossil fuels. The protest was part of a national Earth Day call to action led by the international student movement Fridays for Future in 200 cities across the U.S.

In sneakers, jeans and red sunglasses, a youth organizer leading the charge chanted with a megaphone in hand: “the oceans are rising and so are we.” Behind her, rows of students repeated the phrase in unison while holding colorful signs calling on President Joe Biden to declare a climate emergency and stop signing off on fossil fuel expansion projects.

“Youth have an important place in the climate movement,” said 19-year old Michael Magazine, an organizer with Fridays for Future who took part in the march.

“We know many politicians are beholden to corporate investors. But youth don’t benefit from any corporations or any lobbying interests, we are the people incarnate, and our voice is for climate justice,” he added.

Youth leaders have also joined the push to get the NY Heat Act across the finish line. The bill would put a stop to utility companies’ efforts to build out new gas infrastructure, something the sector plans to spend $28 billion on by 2043, according to a report by the Building Decarbonization Coalition.

NY Heat, which passed the Senate, can still become law if the Assembly decides to vote in its favor before the end of the legislative session in June. But  the Assembly stopped the bill in its tracks last year, something advocates fear could happen again.

“It’s mind blowing to have your future being decided by politicians so many years older than you, and not being taken into consideration. We need to give actual political weight to the rights of the people who will be living in the future,” said Helen Mancini, a 17-year old youth organizer with Fridays for Future.

“Why should we have to suffer because of a system that continuously puts profit over people?” Mancini added.

Financing fossil fuels

Youth groups have been targeting Citigroup in particular for its sizable role in keeping the fossil fuel industry going by lending these companies money and underwriting their debt, covering financial losses and assuming any monetary risks or liability they encounter. 

Despite being one of the world’s largest fossil funders, Citigroup  says it’s committed to helping its clients reach net zero by 2050 and to get rid of the carbon footprint generated from its own operations by 2030.

“Supporting a fair and inclusive transition [to zero emissions] remains a top priority for Citi. This is part of who we are, and we will continue to learn and lead as the global community enters this next critical stage of climate action,” said Citigroup’s CEO Jane Fraser in a public letter published when the company first committed to net zero back in 2021.

Fast forward to 2024, and progress is lagging. Citigroup’s latest climate report revealed that 42 percent of its clients in the energy sector don’t have a “substantive plan” for aligning their emissions with a net zero plan or are “unlikely to transition” at all.

Mariana Simoes

“It’s mind blowing to have your future being decided by politicians so many years older than you, and not being taken into consideration,” said Helen Mancini, a 17-year old youth organizer with Fridays for Future, pictured her with her 5-year-old sister.

To top it off, Citi is the lead financial advisor for Exxon Mobil in a $59.5 billion deal that will allow the oil giant to increase production by buying the U.S company Pioneer Natural Resources.

“Citi supports the transition to a low-carbon economy and is committed to net zero,” a Citigroup spokesperson said in an email. “We are working with our clients as they seek to decarbonize their businesses and we are supporting clean energy solutions through our $1 trillion sustainable finance goal. Our approach reflects the need to transition while also continuing to meet global energy needs.”

The bank’s sustainable finance goal includes investing money in renewable energy solutions like “community solar projects in the United States” and helping vulnerable communities around the world, like providing “access to clean water and sanitation in Brazil.”

But environmentalists say that isn’t enough. 

“They tout their commitment to sustainability and to a transition to a net zero economy. But meanwhile, they are working with Exxon and continuing to fund fossil fuels,” said Liat Olenik, co-founder of the environmental group Climate Families NYC. 

“So we’re really just asking them to live up to what they say they’re doing, and come up with a clear plan for phasing out fossil fuel funding.”

To push for that plan, Climate Families NYC, which brings children and their families together to demand climate action, are planning a youth-led press conference in front of Citigroup’s headquarters on April 30.

At last week’s protest, 16-year old Jaden Rogucki said that Citigroup should be using its money to help underserved communities in New York that have been impacted by climate change rebuild. Rogucki, who lives in Coney Island with his six siblings, said his house flooded during Hurricane Sandy.

The impacts of climate change fall disproportionately on disadvantaged communities across the U.S., including low-income communities and communities of color. Black individuals are 34 percent more likely to live in areas with the highest projected increases in childhood asthma, and 40 percent more likely to live in areas with the highest projected increases in extreme temperature-related deaths, according to the EPA.

“I have asthma. Climate change makes me scared because it’s taking away our clean air. Without air there’s no life,” Gwendolyn Smalls, a 16-year old student at Leaders High School, told City Limits at the bank’s headquarters last week.

“Why do we have to live like this because of selfish people who want to make money off of these fossil fuels? That’s not right. Because these selfish people are grown. They finished high school, they went to college,” Smalls added.

“It’s our turn. And the next generation is not going to get that turn if people in power keep being selfish.”

To reach the reporter behind this story, contact Mariana@citylimits.org. To reach the editor, contact Jeanmarie@citylimits.org

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