KEY POINTS

  • While in the short term the lockdowns have caused fossil fuel use, and therefore carbon pollution, to plummet, the pandemic does nothing to diminish the longer-term threat of the climate crisis.
  • Banks are quickly losing their social license to bankroll the climate crisis. 
  • Financing for fossil fuels has risen year on year since Paris, a tell-tale sign that we’re not even close to hitting the mark agreed upon by a global consensus of climate scientists to avert climate catastrophe. 

While much of the world economy remains shuttered due to the current coronavirus crisis, climate activists around the world are regrouping. We know that we need to adapt to this new reality while continuing the critical effort to hold corporations, financiers and politicians accountable for their role in the climate crisis. 

While in the short term the lockdowns have caused fossil fuel use, and therefore carbon pollution, to plummet, the pandemic does nothing to diminish the longer-term threat of the climate crisis.

Just like the COVID-19 crisis, the climate crisis threatens public health, economic well-being and political stability. Just like the pandemic, the climate crisis cruelly threatens the already vulnerable the most. And just like the pandemic, any solution will require solidarity and cooperation at local, national and global levels — and for political leaders to heed the advice of scientists. 

Fortunately, there is growing evidence that more and more people are rising up to challenge the worst of the worst climate actors, pressuring them to institute the urgent changes needed. More and more, climate protests have been singling out asset managers, banks, and insurers for their central role in driving the climate crisis. In recent months, thousands have engaged in civil disobedience at Chase Bank branches across the United States, from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Santa Cruz, California, from Seattle to New York City. And right out of the gate in 2020, a broad new national coalition, encompassing dozens of environmental, Indigenous and youth groups called Stop The Money Pipeline formalized to take on Wall Street for its massive financing of fossil fuels. 

Banks are quickly losing their social license to bankroll the climate crisis. It’s because the world is waking up to the long obscured fact that finance for deforestation and fossil fuels is climate change. Banks poured a staggering $2.7 trillion dollars into fossil fuels since the Paris Agreement was signed. To put that figure in perspective, it is significantly larger than the historic, largest-ever-in-American-history economic stimulus package approved this past week. A tower of 2.7 trillion stacked dollar bills would stretch more than three quarters of the way to the moon

New data clearly illustrate that, while the world has been suffering more frequent, more devastating and more deadly climate crisis events –– private banks have knowingly been pouring more fuel onto the fire. In spite of the landmark UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report’s dire warning in 2018, which stressed the need for a rapid phase-out of fossil fuels, funding from 35 major banks for 100 of the top companies expanding fossil fuel extraction and infrastructure  skyrocketed by 40% last year. In stark terms, for banks to be making these decisions that condemn all of us to decades more of fossil fuel dependency and deforestation –– all for their short-term profits –– is unconscionable. 

An outsized share of global fossil-fuel financing comes from U.S. banks — especially JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citi, and Bank of America — who are the worst funders of fossil fuels in the world. JPMorgan Chase alone, the clear outlier as the very worst banker of climate change, has provided $269 billion — over a quarter of a trillion dollars — in fossil financing since the Paris Climate Agreement, making it the No.1 fossil bank in the world by a 36% margin.

Given the recent cascade of banks announcing climate policies, it’d be easy to be under the impression that funding for fossils is on the decline. Unfortunately –– this is far from the truth. Financing for fossil fuels has risen year on year since Paris, a tell-tale sign that we’re not even close to hitting the mark agreed upon by a global consensus of climate scientists to avert climate catastrophe. JPMorgan Chase’s recent announcement that it will restrict some financing for coal and Arctic oil is a classic example of the mismatch between where banks are and where we need them to be. Call it “weak beer,” “baby steps,” or greenwash, this new policy impacts only a miniscule fraction of the bank’s overall support for fossil fuels. 

The letter on climate change by Larry Fink, CEO of Blackrock (which came after years of relentless pressure from grassroots environmental groups), and the domino of policies from banks around the world (in direct response to the tireless campaigns driven by grassroots and environmental groups), indicate that a chink in the armor has been achieved. Now is the time to triple down. 

Much like the outcome of the pandemic sweeping the world today, what will happen ultimately depends on what we choose to do at this critical time. It’s less about the science at this point, and more about our societal and political will to enact what the science clearly demands of us. We must fight to keep fossil fuels in the ground and forests standing. There is no time left to waste.

Ginger Cassady is Executive Director of Rainforest Action Network