Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.
On March 21, climate activists across the country will cut up their credit cards and close their bank accounts. “Some of the actions will be beautiful and symbolic,” Bill McKibben, whose new organization Third Act is leading the day of action, told me. “People will be cutting up their Citi credit cards underwater next to dying coral reefs in the Florida Keys. Others will be cutting up their Chase cards on their fire-scarred homelands in California. Other actions will involve civil disobedience inside bank branches; some will involve people protesting on the sidewalks outside.”
There are already actions planned at banks in more than 80 cities, with new actions being confirmed almost daily. The day of action is the latest effort in a yearslong campaign to get Wall Street to stop funding fossil fuels. It also shows that more and more people are beginning to grasp something important: Our money is our carbon.
“The goal is to link cash and carbon in people’s minds,” McKibben told me. “When you look at huge wildfires and devastating hurricanes, yes, you should blame ExxonMobil, but you should also blame Citi, Chase, and Bank of America.”
When you put your money in the bank, it isn’t just sitting idly waiting for you to use it. The bank can use up to 90% of the money in your account to provide loans to companies across the economy. If you bank with Citi, Chase, Wells Fargo, or Bank of America―the world’s four largest funders of fossil fuels―they are using a percentage of that money to finance new coal mines, oil pipelines, and the massive build-out of liquefied natural gas (LNG) that is currently exacerbating environmental racism in the Gulf South.
We’ve known all this for a long time. For more than a decade, Rainforest Action Network and others have put out an invaluable annual report on banks’ financing of fossil fuels. What we didn’t know until recently, however, was the exact climate impact of our cash in the bank. That changed last year, when three nonprofit organizations—BankFWD, Climate Safe Lending Network, and The Outdoor Policy Outfit—released “The Carbon Bankroll,” a report containing a first-of-its-kind methodology to quantify the greenhouse gas emissions caused by the money we hold in the bank. The findings are stark.
Owing to the fact that your bank is using a chunk of your money to pay for new coal mines and oil pipelines, if you have $50,000 with one of the big Wall Street banks, the annual carbon associated with your cash is equal to taking around 12 flights between New York and London. If you have $500,000 with one of the big banks, it’s the equivalent of taking 120 flights between the Big Apple and the Big Smoke. Turns out, if you care about the climate crisis, ditching the banks funding the fossil fuel industry is one of the most important things you can do.
Defunding All Kinds of Fossil Fuels
Third Act isn’t the first organization to encourage people to dump banks that fund fossil fuels. In August 2016, Tara Houska was working in Washington, D.C., when she saw a Facebook video from Standing Rock Sioux historian LaDonna Brave Bull Allard urging people to travel to Standing Rock to resist the Dakota Access pipeline. The next day, Houska rented a car and drove to Standing Rock. She was there for the next six months.
As the Standing Rock resistance grew, a researcher produced a graph highlighting the banks that were funding the pipeline. “There was a group of us at Standing Rock trying to figure out ways to get people around the world to help,” Houska told me. “When we saw that graph, we knew that was it.” A wave of divestment and mass protest targeting the banks financing the pipeline broke out across the country under the banner #DefundDAPL. In Seattle, groups like Mazaska Talks sprung up and helped organize protests at which dozens of Wells Fargo customers closed their accounts. In Los Angeles, Jane Fonda took a crowd of hundreds with her as she closed her accounts. Bowing to community pressure, Seattle, San Francisco, and other cities even passed resolutions promising that they, too, would break ties with the banks funding the pipeline. It was the first time so many had connected the dots between Wall Street and the climate crisis.
Since then, the movement to end fossil financing has continued to grow. In January 2020, 32 organizations―including many that were involved with the #DefundDAPL campaign―launched Stop the Money Pipeline, a coalition of national NGOs, grassroots groups, and frontline environmental justice organizations dedicated to forcing the financial industry to stop financing the fossil fuel industry. Back in 2020, I helped launch the coalition and have spent the past three years helping coordinate it. The coalition has since grown to include more than 240 organizations, and, while there is still a long way to go, the movement has helped force real shifts in the industry. Six years ago, few banks would have admitted they were a part of the problem. Now, every one of them has committed to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. Even if those commitments aren’t sufficient to give us a fighting chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, it’s a sign big banks can be moved by the type of public pressure activists hope to apply on March 21.
Better Banking Options
Another thing that has changed in recent years is the number of good banking options available to the climate-conscious. “In many cases, the best banking option—like the best energy and food option—is to stay close to home,” said McKibben when we spoke. “Your local credit union is often terrific, and very unlikely to be tied into the fossil fuel industry.” (You can check the funding practices of your local credit union at Bank.green or Bank for Good.)
Nowadays though, there are even better options than simply avoiding the bad stuff. Atmos, Clean Energy Credit Union, and Climate First Bank only provide loans that support the deployment of renewable energy. Beneficial State Bank rejects fossil fuel companies and also funds renewable energy projects. One in every $3 that Amalgamated Bank lends goes to renewable energy, and it has been a key player in founding industry groups that are nudging the entire banking sector toward climate action. If you bank with any of these institutions, your money is avoiding fossil fuels and helping to fund the transition to renewable energy. This is no small thing: One of the biggest barriers to curtailing the climate crisis is financing.
When I spoke about the upcoming day of action with Tara Houska, she said, “The enormity of the climate crisis makes people feel that there’s nothing they can do that will make a difference, but moving your money is something that you can do that can make a real difference.”
So if you care about the climate crisis, join us on the streets on March 21 and consider finding yourself a better bank. Just make sure you tell your old bank why you’re leaving: to fund a greener future.
Alec Connon is the coordinator of the Stop the Money Pipeline coalition, a coalition of over 160 organizations working to stop the flow of money from Wall Street to the fossil fuel industry. Based in Seattle, his writing on the climate crisis has appeared in The Guardian, The Seattle Times, Salon, and Common Dreams. His first novel, The Activist, was published in 2016. He can be reached at www.alecconnon.com.