When I recently closed my account at Bank of America, my local bank branch clerk kindly informed me that “political reasons” were not available in the drop-down list of options to explain why an account was closed. customer account. Instead, the best chance I had to share my motivations was a blank box on the feedback survey that was automatically emailed to me after I left the bank, a former client, offering space for any additional comments on my decision.
BoA had served me since I graduated from high school and my father had helped me open a bank account before college. At the time, it would never have occurred to me to see where I banked as a deliberate or ethical choice – choosing a bank with branches near my home and my new college campus, and a fairly great to be able to provide services virtually anywhere I might travel seemed convenient, responsible, and well, completely harmless. Over the next three years, however, as I immersed myself in the fossil fuel divestment and climate justice movements, I found myself increasingly questioning that decision.
Why did I break up with BoA? It wasn’t customer service or any inconvenience. If anything, I found BoA went out of their way to provide consistent customer service and to be as hands-on as possible. But as a youngster demanding climate action, I could no longer accept doing business with what I learned is one of the world’s largest financiers of fossil fuels and, by extension, climate destruction and communities.
“Wall Street’s climate impact is a big part of our country’s climate impact,” said Jason Opeña Disterhoft, climate and energy campaign manager at Rainforest Action Network. As a result, big banks are “really big and potentially high-yield targets for the climate movement.”
Personal divestment is a small but important way for those of us who believe in a just and sustainable future to align our practices with our principles and take a stand against corporate giants who undermine that vision. The more people, and especially young people as a generation of future customers and workers, practice it, the more effective it will be in pushing the financial sector to break away from big oil, thus cutting the financial lifelines of the industry. fossil fuels and accelerating its inevitable demise. in a decarbonized economy.
Today, the big banks’ unsustainable spending sprees are putting our communities, our planet and our future at risk. A March 2021 report by Rainforest Action Network in partnership with several other environmental and financial accountability organizations found that the world’s 60 largest banks have provided $3.8 trillion in financial support to fossil fuel projects over the past five years following the Paris international agreement (2016-2020). These projects included the controversial Line 3, Mountain Valley and CoastalGas Link pipelines.
Last December, a report by the Center for American Progress and the Sierra Club found that together eight major U.S. banks and 10 major U.S. asset managers financed the equivalent of nearly 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide in 2020, more than what is emitted annually by Russia and almost as much as India, respectively fourth and third world emitters. Such action undermines stated commitments like that of JPMorgan Chase (the largest fossil fuel financier, to the tune of $317 billion from 2016 to 2020, according to the RAN report) to drive “sustainable economic development that leads to a planet and critical investments in underserved communities” and Bank of America ($198 billion in fossil fuel financing from 2016 to 2020) to “accelerate the transition to a net zero global economy.”
Yet these banks and financial institutions have often seemed to evade climate responsibility.
Now, that reality is finally changing, as young climate activists have increasingly begun to shine a light on malfeasance in the financial sector. Last October, members of the Youth Climate Finance Alliance joined indigenous and climate activists for a national day of action. Instead of hole-riddled promises of net zero by 2050 — which Disterhoft says already represent an early activist victory in their implicit recognition of banks’ role as carbon majors — they called on Chase, Liberty Mutual and d ‘Other Wall Street bear to immediately stop financing fossil fuels or risk losing a large potential customer base.
“The bank account you open when you’re 16, 17, or 18 is the bank account you’re going to be with for life,” said 22-year-old co-founder and executive Katie Eder. director of the Future Coalition, a national network of youth-led social change organizations at the helm of YCFA. Last year, Future Coalition also helped launch the Not My Dirty Money Pledge and the Not Your Future Workers Pledge, aimed respectively at getting young people to hold back their future income and work at Chase. “We make it clear to the banks,” Elder said. “If you don’t stop funding fossil fuels…you’re going to lose a whole generation of customers and employees.”
Already, climate finance campaigners have scored victories, including securing a commitment from a major French bank to end funding for the oil and gas sector by 2030, and captured the attention of lawmakers. Now, Eder said, activists are stepping up their demands ahead of this spring’s proxy season, when most major publicly traded companies report their performance to shareholders who vote on resolutions or propose corporate policy changes. business. Organizers of Stop the Money Pipeline have launched a new campaign aimed at leveraging the power of big banks’ existing customer base to push for climate justice.
“It’s a different world in terms of how much they’ve been forced to acknowledge the degree of their climate culpability,” Disterhoft of the financial sector said today compared to 2016. “It doesn’t happen without the climate movement do it, name and shame the banks as climate villains…so we are moving in the right direction in terms of accountability.
The fact that the financial case for climate action is increasingly aligned with this moral judgment, as Disterhoft noted, may also accelerate progress for activists. Growing evidence of the financial benefits of fossil fuel divestment and the risks of carbon-intensive industrial investments could put more than banks’ brands at risk. They may soon feel the adverse effects of investing in fossil fuels on their credit rating and performance, and even on their customer base.
On the day of my divestment, I walked into my BoA branch prepared. I had my reasons – if listening to climate science and caring about climate justice is political, then, of course, call them political – and I had done my research. Thanks to helpful online guides and resources from environmental organizations, I had already chosen a new bank that invests in climate and racial justice and opened an account. (Call me old-fashioned, but I picked one with physical buildings, though sustainable neo-banks are also popular alternatives.) And with the help of an incredibly kind BoA employee, I quickly closed my BoA account and went home with one last BoA. account statement and the feeling of autonomy filling my pocket.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m under no illusion that BoA spent time mourning the loss of my 21-year-old student account (or even noticing). But this is not the question.
The act of personal divestment struck me as not only rewarding but ethically required as someone calling for divestment from my own university and the world of higher education. To be clear, I am not saying that we confuse the importance of individual and institutional action. Big universities and big corporations have a lot more money and a lot more power in how they spend it, which is why getting the Harvards and ABPs of the world to divest is so important. Large-scale divestment drives systemic change.
Yet individual action is powerful in itself. Certainly, the more it occurs in large numbers, the more attention it attracts. But any divestment is powerfully symbolic of the reality that any investment in fossil fuels is too big in 2022. Personal divestment can also represent an entry point into the climate movement, joining people around the world in a community that literally and metaphorically, banking on our collective future.
Of course, not everyone has the privilege of choosing where they do their banking. Not everyone is privileged to have a bank account — many low-income Americans are still unbanked, and racial inequalities in access to banking services tied to historic redlining persist. But for those of us, and especially young people, who can decide where we cash in, this choice represents a chance to make the case for investing in our collective future in the face of climate chaos.