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A move to turn fossil fuels into the “new apartheid” has gathered pace as a further nine US cities join a push to sell any investments held in the coal, oil and gas industry blamed for climate change.

San Francisco; Boulder, Colorado; and Madison, Wisconsin, are three of the nine cities following Seattle, whose $2bn city employee pension fund this year started looking at selling its fossil fuel holdings following a request from the city’s mayor, Mike McGinn.

The move is the latest step in a campaign spearheaded by Bill McKibben, the US environmental activist, based on the 1980s disinvestment movement that pushed South Africa to end its apartheid system of racial segregation.

Four US colleges have already said they will sell out of fossil fuels since Mr McKibben and the 350.org international climate activist group he founded began campaigning last year against what he calls “outlaw” companies.

They are now aiming to get cities and states to follow, with the help of a group called the Mayors Innovation Project, which promotes environmental sustainability.

“Cities are taking the lead on the issue of climate change,” said Joel Rogers, director of the Mayors Innovation Project. “In the face of federal and state inaction, cities know they have to protect themselves.”

The other cities whose leaders have agreed to try to sell out of fossil fuels are California’s Berkeley and nearby Richmond; Ithaca in New York; State College, Pennsylvania; Eugene, Oregon; and Bayfield in Wisconsin.

The combined fossil fuel investments held by each city amount to a tiny fraction of the total value of the immense oil, gas and coal industries, and it is far from clear that the politicians backing divestment will succeed.

Pension fund trustees are typically bound by rules designed to ensure they work for the best financial returns of pension contributors, even if this involves investing in assets that some argue are ethically or environmentally suspect.

San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors passed a non-binding resolution on Tuesday urging the city’s $16bn employee retirement system to sell out of some $583m of fossil fuel investments. But it not yet clear if it will succeed.

Still, the emergence of the movement has galvanised many students and climate activists in the US, where campaigners have been heartened by the vows President Barack Obama has made to ensure climate change is a priority in his second term of office.

A growing number of banks and financial institutions have also started assessing the potential risk of investing in fossil fuels should climate change laws start to become more pressing.

Mr McKibben and 350.org are targeting the 200 companies that own most of the world’s coal, oil and gas reserves.

These reserves already contain up to five times more carbon dioxide than scientists say should be emitted to keep global warming below the 2°C from pre-industrial levels, a limit scientists say it may be unsafe to breach, according to research by the London-based Carbon Tracker think-tank.

That makes the actions of cities necessary, said Gayle McLaughlin, mayor of Richmond, California, in a statement released by 350.org.

“Richmond is home to the second-largest oil refinery and largest point source of greenhouse gas emissions in California,” she said. “I am proud to join with other cities in this divestment campaign, as we divest from an industry that is wreaking havoc on our community and planet, and reinvest in a clean energy economy with new jobs for our residents.”

350.org says it has divestment petitions running in 100 other cities and states across the country.

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