Let’s face it, fossil-fuel companies are incapable of reining themselves in; they have no intention of switching their business practices. They will frack, blow up mountains, drill and destroy a beautiful, pristine, arctic wilderness, home to wildlife and Indigenous people, until the last drop of gas, coal or oil is extracted and our world is a wasteland.
They’ve known, for a very long time, the consequences of their products and they do not care. But they have not acted alone. The government gives them access to public land and subsidies, and banks are all too eager to lend them money. What’s in your wallet may be another tool to fight for a livable world.
According to Banking on Climate Chaos, an annual report issued by the Rainforest Action Network, the top four banks financing the fossil-fuel sector since the Paris Agreement in 2016 are (drumroll, please): JP Morgan Chase ($382 billion), Citibank ($285 billion), Wells Fargo ($272 billion) and Bank of America ($232 billion).
Without banks lending money and without insurance companies’ underwriting, the fossil-fuel industry wouldn’t be able to expand extraction. Even though most major U.S. banks have agreed, in principle, to align their business practices with the emissions-reduction timeline in the Paris Agreement, the reality is another story.
Locally, Janet Apuzzo is one of many activists who have been targeting banks with equal parts protest (to get banks to cut their funding to fossil fuels) and public education (to get people to move their money if the banks won’t listen). Apuzzo, who lives in Wallkill, in Ulster County, is part of a group called Extinction Rebellion Mid-Hudson. They call themselves “the roving rebels,” and they show up outside a new bank every other Thursday.
Earlier this month, the group did an action at the Chase Bank in Fishkill. Seven people turned out, holding signs and singing. The police met them there, which Apuzzo said she found exciting.
“I guess we are on their radar,” she told me. “They don’t want us going in and telling the truth that people should divest their money from Chase. We’re just here to raise consciousness and educate people, get them to move their money to a local bank and get people to tell their friends.”
She said that Chase in 2021 invested $61.7 billion in the fossil-fuel industry, far surpassing its competitors.
There are a number of resources with information about how to individually divest, such as Rivers and Mountains Greenfaith and Stop the Money Pipeline.
Many investment funds also support the fossil-fuel industry. Public pension funds for teachers, public employees and firefighters, for example, are some of the biggest investors in the country and are often overseen by elected officials, who must answer to voters. For your own investments, asset managers pool money from a variety of sources, such as pension funds, individual retirement accounts and endowments, and invest for their clients.
That means companies such as BlackRock, Vanguard and State Street own significant shares of banks and fossil-fuel companies. Keep an eye on shareholder season between April and June, when publicly traded companies hold their annual meetings — shareholders can vote on resolutions that provide direction for how a company does business, including climate.
It will take time to transition away from fossil fuels, but for banks to keep funding new exploration makes them culpable in the climate emergency. It’s time to hold them accountable, too.
Permit me to change a few words in the opening paragraph of this article:
Let’s face it, consumers in a radical consumerist society are incapable of reining themselves in; they have no intention of switching their lifestyle practices. They will drive oversize cars from oversized houses to oversized stores to buy buy buy, and destroy a beautiful, pristine, arctic wilderness, home to wildlife and Indigenous people, until the last drop of gas, coal or oil is extracted and our world is a wasteland.
People will say to this: “But the evil, fossil-fuel companies are forcing us to do this as part of their diabolical plan to get rich!” Claiming this as justification for unavoidable hypocrisy is like a fish saying, “But you are forcing me to live in water!” Yes, like all international mega-companies, including banks and big tech, they have few qualms about doing harm.
But here is the big dilemma: Everything that you use or observe throughout your day that has been manufactured uses fossil fuels in some way, whether as a key ingredient (clothing, plastics, medicine, fertilizer, etc.) or as part of the mining / manufacturing / distribution. This includes your electric car, the roads you drive, the food at the grocery store — everything. And there is no “transitioning” to “net zero carbon.”
You cannot run an industrial, radical consumerist society on solar and wind power, because when you factor the true energy created on the energy invested to create it, the margins are so low they don’t work. (Conversely, large scale solar and wind is not possible without heavy industry — a conundrum indeed.) Concentrating sun power, mining rare earth elements, storage issues, transmission losses — all take away from the energy available to actually contribute to the economy — it is that excess energy that drives everything.
That’s before we look at the human-rights issues associated with mining the elements for batteries and solar panels, and the fact that we don’t have a good supply of the raw materials needed, as well as the fact that most are made in China — even if they were enough to run things, we would be trading dependence on the Middle East for dependence on China. And virtual slave labor in Africa for much of the rare earth elements needed.
Energy return on energy invested has also been affecting the fossil-fuel industry. The whole shale thing (not many realize a lot of the fracking is for oil, with natural gas as a byproduct) is falling apart because it was initially highly financed by Wall Street, and now it is clear nobody can really make money on it — it takes too much energy to get it out of the ground and sell it at a profit.
The author should know about the basic facts of physics and economics that dictate how our energy systems operate. For instance the statement in the same paragraph “until the last drop of gas, coal or oil is extracted.” There will still be plenty of oil and gas in the ground when the fossil fuel era ends — it simply will not be economically viable to extract it at some point.
Instead of banning natural gas in buildings (which is like cutting off some of the bottom of a blanket that’s too short and sewing it on the top — all that electric in a nice “fossil-fuel free” house is being generated in most cases by natural gas or coal, except now you need to account for transmission losses); or buying electric cars or protesting banks (which are in enough trouble), we should look back to the 1970s, when, for a brief moment, conservation was the “in” thing. That is, smaller cars, turning down the thermostat, driving 55 mph — what today is known as LESS (Less Energy, Stimulation and Stuff).
Fossil fuels were created by immense pressures over millions of years — for free. The inconvenient truth is that there is no equivalent. The universe does not owe humanity a perfect fuel source to keep our 21st-century U.S. comforts going to infinity. All empires have their day.
The relationship of energy and the economy is complex. To reduce it to the binary good versus evil, climate change versus fossil-fuel companies, is counterproductive and more religious cult than science.