On a narrow dirt path in Westchester County, four small children dressed as superheroes in a rainbow of satiny capes and masks picked dandelions on the grassy roadside. As they giggled and chanted for ice cream, their mothers, carrying babies in their arms or sporting baby bumps, unfurled a black and yellow banner that read:
“Fossil fuel expansion is incompatible with a 1.5 degrees Celsius pathway.”
The message was intended for the man living across the dusty lane behind a white picket fence and a neatly clipped lawn, CEO of BlackRock Larry Fink,. His company is the world’s largest asset manager controlling a value of about $10 trillion — and the globe’s biggest investor in coal production.
The rally of moms and kids outside of Fink’s home on May 14th was the second in six months held by Sunrise Kids, a climate activism organization started by new parents in 2018 that caters its meeting schedule and protests to parents who are juggling babies and professional careers. Sending this message to Fink until he gives in to their demands to divest from coal has become the primary goal of this network of moms concerned about the planet’s future and their children’s.
“We want to tell him [Larry Fink] to be a superhero, and not a super villain,” said Thea Prince, a 4-year-old who was waving a silvery star-studded baton. “This is a magic wand. It shoots out powers to get super villains to save the Earth.”
BlackRock is the ultimate decision maker for the largest global bond and shareholder in the coal industry. According to a February analysis released by Urgewald, a German-based environmental group that tracks investments in the fossil fuel industry, BlackRock had $109 billion in assets in the coal sector based on its company’s filings through November 2021.
This valuation is an increase from a year prior when the company had only $84 billion in coal investments. About $34 billion of BlackRock’s money is also dedicated to developing new coal projects, such as mining expansion and new infrastructure. These numbers do not include BlackRock’s financial deals in oil or natural gas. Despite multiple requests, BlackRock did not provide Gothamist with the company’s total holdings in the fossil fuels sector.
If one of the investment giants, such as BlackRock, were to fully divest from fossil fuels, the effect would be seismic on the energy sector, said Tom Sanzillo, director of financial analysis for the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), a nonprofit that analyzes energy markets, trends and policies.
“When the big funds decide to move [divest], they pack a wallop,” Sanzillo added. “If there was a move by BlackRock [to divest from fossil fuels], it would send a shock through the markets, and it would push the fossil fuels sector to innovate at a faster rate, and that would be a major change.”
BlackRock has publicly stated that it plans to continue investing in coal for the long term. The company is openly opposed to divestment of fossil fuels, even while it increases investments in sustainable projects.
The origin of Sunrise Kids
The Sunrise Kids protesters sang and waited at the wooden gate for several minutes before a petite woman in full horseback riding gear approached the group made up of four children in shiny superhero costumes and a half-dozen moms holding signs in one hand and some with babies in the other. She identified herself as Lori, Fink’s wife.
‘I don’t care that you want to do your little show out here,” said Lori Fink to the Sunrise Kids moms, from the other side of the gate. “You’re taking this a bit too far. This is a bunch of malarkey.”
Larry Fink was not home, but in his absence, Lori leaned forward on her fence and loudly told them that her husband “is not causing the climate crisis’’ and asked the rallyers to leave. Marlena Fontes, one of the lead organizers, responded that they were only there to talk to Larry Fink about his company’s complicitness in the climate crisis. Lori agreed to pass on the message, deliver a large card the children made for her husband and gave Fontes her personal email address. Lori then departed, saying she was going to ride her horse.
Sunrise Kids was made for and by New York moms who wanted to remain active in the climate movement without sacrificing work or family life. They also realized the powerful potential in protesting, family style. The group consists of about 10 moms who act as lead organizers, but the hierarchy is fluid, as some moms step away from duties to give birth, and other mothers step in to take the reins. Over the last couple of years, Sunrise Kids have rallied at Larry Fink’s office or home five times, with the intent of opening a dialogue with him about BlackRock’s investment in fossil fuels.
One of their first organized protests was a “play in” at BlackRock headquarters in Midtown Manhattan in December 2019. In front of the company’s office building, the children played games with a large white parachute painted with flames inspired by the fires raging in the Amazon forest and 100 white pit balls painted to look like eyeballs to symbolize that all eyes are on BlackRock.
The child-centered nature of their protests and events were borne out of their own frustrations from aging out of the youth climate organization they were once heavily involved in, the Sunrise Movement.
Between erratic breast-feeding schedules and balancing jobs with active toddlers, the group’s founding moms Brooklynites Marlena Fontes, a labor organizer, and Elizabeth Widdicombe, a writer, had a hard time attending Sunrise Movement meetings during parental rush hours. The adult-centered events — filled with long hours of marching or standing in protest — could also be trying for small kids.
Chandra Bocci, a lead organizer, said they schedule Sunrise Kid meetings in the hours after kids go to bed and never between 5 to 9 p.m. when parents are consumed with feeding and bathing their children. Protests are usually held in the mornings and weekends when kids tend to be more cooperative.
“As a mom, I feel like every day I wake up and I feel like the world is just not on the same page, and I have only a handful of years left to even make any kind of difference,” said Bocci, Queens artist and mother of a 4-year-old boy. “I also would like to set an example for other parents and other kids that activism is accessible to everybody.”
Outside of the core group, Sunrise Kids has many more parents on a list that can be called to action to write a letter to a politician or show up at a protest. They are also part of a coalition of family-centric activists groups, Climate Families NYC. Many of these auxiliary parents were recruited at their monthly playdates hosted at various Brooklyn playgrounds.
“Having a child really switches a lot of people's brains where they realize that now you're responsible for what kind of planet we're leaving for our kids,” Bocci said. “There seems to be a lot of power there.”
On their first visit to Fink’s home in October 2021, he called the police, according to Fontes. But then Fink opened his gate and invited the mothers to talk in his yard for about 20 minutes while their children rolled around on the grass. They expressed their concerns about the climate crisis and asked him to do everything in his power to divest from fossil fuels.
“We're going to try as hard as we can to get him [Larry Fink] to listen,” said Fontes, who is a mother of a newborn and a 2-year-old boy. “As a mom, I would do anything for my kid and there's nothing more logical than to talk to the person who has the power to make sure that they can grow up in a livable planet and have a future where they don't have to be afraid of food insecurity, floods, fires.”
A successful transition
On a hot Sunday morning in mid-May, Sunrise Kids set up a folding table with a large paint-splattered canvas spread on the ground at J.J. Byrne Playground in Park Slope Brooklyn.
A half-dozen children painted a banner that read: “Later is too late.”
The station, managed by Bocci, was filled with activities, including pictures to draw for elected officials, stickers and even a large hand puppet that looks like a big black rock wearing a tie. Its hat read “Larry,” and the puppet carried a bright yellow money bag in each fist.
Bocci said a curious child will often approach the table eagerly to join the other kids in painting and drawing, and their parents follow them to learn more about the group. The recruitment tactic has been successful enough to grow their ranks to more than 500 parents.
“It's a special power that we have to bring – the moral authority of moms and the disarming honesty of children,” Bocci said.
Fossil fuels, especially in the world’s transportation and power sectors, are the largest contributors to climate change. Weaning society off gas-powered vehicles, coal and natural gas is a necessity for survival, according to a recent UN report, and requires an accelerated push toward electrification and renewable sources of energy.
Sanzillo from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis said that investing in coal doesn’t make sense anymore financially for a company trying to make a profit.
“Climate risk is an investment risk,” Sanzillo echoed Fink’s own words. “You have something that's not doing very well in terms of returns, and you have something that has a social or a larger risk to the world.”
That’s why the activist moms with Sunrise Kids want more from BlackRock than extracting fossil fuels from its money-making indexes. They want the company to invest heavily into climate technology.
That requires an enormous amount of investment capital.
Bruce Usher, co-director of the Tamer Center for Social Enterprise at Columbia Business School, argues such investments would stave off the harsher ravages of global warming. Divestment from fossil fuels alone would not be effective against mitigating climate change because most of the industry’s companies are not publicly traded. Most are owned by governments such as in Russia and China, and are not responsible to or dependent on shareholders.
“The only way we can do that [stop using fossil fuels] is to replace products that are contributing to climate change,” Usher said. “That requires an enormous amount of investment capital.”
Some climate technologies are promising but still so nascent that their costs remain high. One example is carbon capture, a process in which carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere and buried deep within the Earth. With investment, Usher believes carbon capture could have enormous long-term benefits and become as viable as electric cars.
But to develop these climate technologies, he estimated $150 trillion would be required over the next three decades to adapt and transition the U.S. economy and its industries. That’s equivalent to about seven years worth of America’s current gross domestic product — or all the goods and services we make annually. BloombergNEF estimates that the United States invested only about $105 billion in energy transition assets last year.
BlackRock told Gothamist via email that its latest earnings report in March reflected the company’s commitment to sustainable investment with management of over $500 billion, double from a year ago. But that still only comes to about 5% of the company’s assets.
Although the investment company acknowledges the inevitable transition to renewable sources across all industries over the next three decades, they remain strongly committed to investing in the fossil fuel sector, including coal and oppose divestment.
“We expect to remain long-term investors in carbon-intensive companies, because they play crucial roles in the economy and in a successful transition,” BlackRock wrote in its 2030 net zero statement. “We do not pursue broad divestment from sectors and industries as a policy – particularly as a portfolio fully divested of such sectors in the near term may be at odds with enabling an orderly transition to a net-zero economy in the long term.”
Hence why the Sunrise Kids moms continue to breastfeed and brandish signs in places where Fink abides and resides. Their latest protest headed back to BlackRock headquarters on May 25th.
“I don't have the power. I'm a school teacher,” said Liat Olenick, a Sunrise Kids lead organizer and a Brooklyn public school teacher with a newborn baby. “[Larry Fink] is a billionaire who runs a giant company. He has more power than almost anyone on this Earth to change the course of this crisis.”