When I recently closed my account at Bank of America, the employee at my local bank branch kindly informed me that “political reasons” were unavailable on the drop-down list of options for explaining a customer account closure. Instead, the best chance I got to share my motivations was a blank box on the feedback survey automatically e-mailed to me after I left the bank, a now-former customer, offering space for any additional comments on my decision.
BoA had served me since I graduated high school and my dad helped me open a bank account before college. At the time, it would have never occurred to me to see where I banked as a deliberate or ethical choice—choosing a bank with branches close to home and my new college campus, and one big enough to be able to provide service virtually wherever I might travel seemed practical, responsible, and well, completely innocuous. 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 the customer service or any inconvenience. If anything, I found that BoA went out of its way to offer consistent customer service, and to be maximally convenient. But as a young person demanding climate action, I couldn’t accept doing business any longer with what I learned is one of the world’s greatest financiers of fossil fuels and, by extension, climate and community destruction.
“Wall Street’s climate impact is a huge part of our country’s climate impact,” said Jason Opeña Disterhoft, climate and energy senior campaigner at Rainforest Action Network. As a result, big banks are “really important 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 the corporate behemoths undermining 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 at pushing the financial sector to break up with Big Oil—severing the fossil fuel industry’s financial lifelines and hastening its inevitable demise in a decarbonizing economy.
Today, big banks’ unsustainable spending sprees are putting our communities, planet, and futures at risk. A report released in March 2021 by Rainforest Action Network in partnership with several other environmental and financial accountability organizations revealed that the world’s 60 biggest banks provided $3.8 trillion worth of financial support for fossil fuel projects in the five years since the international Paris Agreement (2016-2020). Such projects included the controversial Line 3, Mountain Valley, and CoastalGas Link pipelines.
Last December, a report from the Center for American Progress and the Sierra Club found that together, eight major US banks and 10 major US asset managers financed the equivalent of nearly 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide in 2020—that’s more than is emitted annually by Russia and almost as much as emitted by India, respectively the world’s fourth- and third-largest emitters. Such action undermines stated commitments like that of JPMorgan Chase (the largest fossil fuel financier, to the tune of $317 billion from 2016–20, according to the RAN report) to drive “sustainable economic development that leads to a greener planet and critical investments in underserved communities” and of Bank of America ($198 billion of fossil fuel funding from 2016-2020) to “accelerate the transition to a net-zero global economy”.
Yet these banks and financial institutions have often seemed to escape climate accountability.
Now, that reality is finally changing, as youth climate activists have increasingly begun spotlighting the financial sector’s malfeasance. Last October, members of the Youth Climate Finance Alliance joined Indigenous and climate activists for a nationwide day of action. In place of hole-riddled net-zero-by-2050 pledges—which already, Disterhoft said, represent an initial activist win in their implicit acknowledgment of banks’ roles as carbon majors—they called on Chase, Liberty Mutual, and other Wall Street bears to immediately stop funding fossil fuels or risk losing a large potential customer base.
“The bank account that you open up when you are 16,17, or 18 is the bank account that you’re going to stick with for the rest of your life,” said Katie Eder, the 22-year-old cofounder and executive director of the Future Coalition, a national network of youth-led social change organizations at the helm of the YCFA. Last year, Future Coalition also helped launch the Not My Dirty Money Pledge and the Not Your Future Workers Pledge, respectively aimed at getting youth to withhold their future earnings and labor from Chase. “We’re making it clear to banks,” said Eder. “If you don’t stop funding fossil fuels…you’re going to lose an entire generation of customers and employees.”
Already, climate finance activists have seen victories—including securing a commitment from a major French bank to cease oil and gas sector funding by 2030—and garnered lawmakers’ attention. Now, Eder said, activists are doubling down on their demands ahead of this spring’s proxy season, when most large publicly traded companies report on their performance to shareholders who vote on resolutions or proposed company policy changes. Organizers at Stop the Money Pipeline have launched a new campaign seeking to leverage the power of big banks’ existing customer bases to push for climate justice.
“It’s a different world in terms of how much they have been forced to acknowledge the degree of their climate culpability,” said Disterhoft of the financial sector today versus in 2016. “That doesn’t happen without the climate movement making it, naming and shaming banks as climate villains…. so we’re headed in the right direction in terms of holding them accountable.”
That the financial case for climate action is increasingly aligned with this moral reckoning, as Disterhoft noted, may also accelerate activists’ progress. Mounting evidence of the financial benefits of fossil fuel divestment and the risks of carbon-intense industry investment could jeopardize more than banks’ name brands. They may soon feel the adverse effects of investing in fossil fuels in their credit ratings and performance, if not also in their customer bases.
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, sure, call them political—and I had done my research. With the benefit of helpful online guides and resources from environmental organizations, I had already picked out 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 assistance of an incredibly kind BoA employee, I closed my BoA account swiftly and walked home with a final BoA account statement and the feeling of empowerment filling my pocket.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m not under the illusion that BoA spent any time mourning the loss of my 21-year-old college student self’s account (or even noticing it). But that’s beside the point.
The act of personal divestment felt not only rewarding but ethically required of me as someone calling for divestment from my own university and the world of higher education. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we conflate the importance of individual and institutional action. Big universities and corporations have a heck of a lot more money and a heck of a lot more power through how they spend it, which is why compelling the Harvards and ABPs of the world to divest is so critical. Divestment at scale drives systemic change.
Still, individual action is powerful in its own right. Certainly, the greater numbers in which it occurs, the more attention it commands. But any amount of divestment is powerfully symbolic of the reality that any amount of fossil fuel investment is too much 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, banks on our collective futures.
Of course, not everyone has the privilege of choosing where they bank. Not everyone has the privilege of having a bank account—many low-income Americans remain unbanked, and racial inequities in access to banking services linked to historical redlining persist. But for those of us and especially, young people, who can decide where we bank, that choice represents a chance to advocate for investment in our collective futures over climate chaos.