Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Big Bad Banks and the Climate Crisis
distributed 3/22/19 - ©2019

I hold these truths to be self-evident (and apparently others do not!):

  • Climate change is real, and is driven by human emissions.
  • There is a measurable "carbon budget" of how much fossil fuels can be burned before we move into the realm of extreme climate change.
  • A large part of known fossil fuel reserves have to stay in the ground to keep within that budget, so the production of fossil fuels needs to be cut immediately.

A major report released this week makes it clear that some of the world's largest banks either don't grasp those self-evident truths, or they don't care.

A key finding of the report tells us that 33 of the world's largest banks have financed fossil fuels with $1.9 trillion since the Paris Agreement was signed (2016-2018), and that the amount of financing has risen each year. $600 billion of this went to 100 top companies which are aggressively expanding fossil fuel production.

At a time when the nations of the world have agreed on the need for rapid and dramatic action to cut greenhouse gas emissions, banks and oil/gas companies are intentionally increasing production. This egregious behavior by banks does not call for moral reflection, because it is so obviously immoral and perverse. It does call for public witness and targeted action.

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The new report is titled "Banking on Climate Change: Fossil Fuel Finance Report Card 2019." This is the tenth annual report, and is the most comprehensive edition, with detailed information on particular sectors of the industry, such as coal, tar sands an arctic drilling.

The report was compiled by Rainforest Action Network, BankTrack, Indigenous Environmental Network, Oil Change International, Honor the Earth, and the Sierra Club. Eco-Justice Ministries is proud to be one of the 160 organizations around the world which have endorsed the report.

The full document is 110 pages long, and that's probably more information than most of you need. Check out the one page executive summary (p. 3) and the introduction (pp. 4-6) to get the basics. There's a shorter (12 page) and very graphic "report card" that covers the main points. You can also play with an interactive graph in the summary from FossilBanks that lets you limit the display of funding data to a particular sector of fossil fuels. (I'll come back to this.)

What you'll see from those charts is that JPMorgan Chase (commonly known just as Chase) is the world's top funder of fossil fuels by a wide margin. The four banks that are the largest funders -- JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citi, and Bank of America -- are all headquartered in the US. All of the big six of the U.S. banking giants are in the top dirty dozen fossil banks. Together, they account for a staggering 37% of global fossil fuel financing since the Paris Agreement was adopted. It is not only corporate executives and politicians in the US (especially the Trump administration) who are headed in the wrong direction on climate action, but US banks are the worst in the world in accelerating climate change.

All those big numbers and "staggering" percentages are rather abstract. Let me get a bit more personal in both impacts and actions.

As I spelled out last week, Eco-Justice Ministries is based in Colorado, and there are lively conversations about oil and gas in our home state. With over 50,000 active wells here, there are increasing conflicts between local communities and industrial-scale drilling operations. Most of those new wells are "fracked" to increase production. Legislation is now working through the Colorado General Assembly that would significantly change the rules for fracking.

If you go to the interactive graph, and ask to see who is funding fracking, you'll find that Wells Fargo is the biggest investor in that part of the industry, and that their level of funding has been increasing. That hits close to home because my family has had its accounts at Wells Fargo ever since that banking behemoth bought up the regional bank where we'd started. Our deposits have been helping to fund the fracking that we oppose.

We are in the process of closing our Wells Fargo accounts, and shifting to a credit union that invests in the local community, not in fossil fuels. When we officially close our accounts, we'll give the branch manager a copy of the "Banking on Climate Change" report to explain why we're leaving.

I urge you -- for your family, your church, or at work -- to look at the banks where you do business. Are you a customer of one of the big banks that are doing the wrong things on climate change by funding the expansion of fossil fuels? If so, at least complain to the bank management. (Don't take it out on the tellers. They have nothing to do with it.) Consider moving your accounts to a smaller, more local institution. It is not hard to do.

Moving your bank account has some similarities to the movement to divest from the major fossil fuel producers. Changing banks has some financial impact on the companies, but more importantly it is an action to "revoke to the social contract" that allows such financing. So it is valuable to publicize your decisions -- the act of witness is as important as the economic piece. Even better: help to organize a group of people who will publically announce that they are closing their accounts.

If you are outraged at the irresponsible funding levels of the big banks, there are other options for witness and action.

  • On Wednesday, April 10, there are a few protests being planned across the US for a "DefundDisaster national day of action" with a primary focus on Chase. Check to see if there's an action near you, and how edgy that protest will be.
  • FossilBanks is collecting signatures for a global campaign to end funding of the fossil fuel industry. They list specific demands to be met before next fall's UN Climate Summit.
  • There have been some shareholder resolutions calling on banks to reduce their investments in fossil fuels. If you have any of those stocks, watch carefully for proxy mailings and vote your conscience.

The role of big banks in the expansion of fossil fuel exploration, production, and pipelines is no secret, but it is not often talked about. Help break the silence, and name the immoral participation of banks whenever you're talking about climate change.

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There's a familiar saying from Jesus, best known in the language of the King James Version -- "You cannot serve God and mammon." (Matt. 6:24) Mammon comes from an Aramaic term, and it personifies wealth.

The big banks are a modern face of mammon. The problem doesn't arise simply from the presence of money or wealth. The policies and decisions of banks have intention. They have chosen to make these kinds of investments. Chase, Wells Fargo and the other big banks personify corporate irresponsibility in the pursuit of wealth.

We cannot serve God, and be active in protecting God's creation, if we also are joining with mammon to devastate creation. We are complicit with mammon when we have our accounts with those banks, and when we are silent about their role in funding climate disaster.

Read some of the Banking on Climate Change report, or one of the summaries. Be touched by anger, and be moved to action.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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