We couldn’t be much more different: One of us lives in greater Houston, the hydrocarbon capital of the planet, the other all the way across the country in the Green Mountains of Vermont. More to the point, we span the even wider continent of age: One of us collected his diploma in the 1970s, while the other just graduated high school amid this pandemic in the Class of 2021. Still, in the face of climate change, we’ve transcended our differences to form a powerful alliance between the ends of the generational spectrum—the perfect combination to take on this most crucial of issues.
Later this month, in fact, we’re helping mobilize our respective peers in the largest intergenerational climate push to date: taking on big banks like Chase and Citi to cut off the financial lifeline that Big Oil depends on. Together, we are inviting Americans of all ages to stand alongside us. Youth are amassing under the Future Coalition and “more-experienced” Americans are gathering at Third Act. While some of us have decades before us—and others decades behind us—our messages overlap seamlessly at this moment in history.
For young people, climate change is about the present and future. In Houston, we’ve seen back-to-back “500-year floods” that turned Houston’s streets into rivers; every American rainfall record was shattered by Hurricane Harvey, which dropped five feet of rain in some areas. Last winter’s polar vortex that left millions to freeze when it crippled the Texas power grid seems less like a freak disaster than a harbinger of what we’ll be living with all our lives: a new normal in which a reliance on fossil fuels will likely fail us. A new study pointed out last month that we will experience “three times as many droughts, river floods and crop failures as people born 60 years ago.” Do young people not deserve the livable planet that was guaranteed to those born a mere six decades ago?
And from the other end of the telescope, some things look surprisingly similar. Older Americans face particular risks from the unfolding climate catastrophe—the new weather is hard on bodies growing more frail, a risk that as usual is magnified in the poorest and most vulnerable communities. But we also know that the biggest risk is to our legacy: We’re about to be the first generations to leave the world a markedly worse place than we found it, with rising temperatures, rising seas, and shrinking possibilities for our kids and grandkids.
Our descent into climate chaos was no accident, and we share our anger at its enablers: in this case, the banks funding our destruction. Since the Paris climate accords were signed in 2015 (six years ago, when one of us was still in junior high), the biggest financial institutions have lent more than $3 trillion to the fossil fuel industry—even though the International Energy Agency has made it painfully clear that we need to stop that industry’s expansion right now. Chase and Citi have each sent more than a quarter trillion dollars off to this industry. Of course we’re glad that they’re making noise about their renewable energy investments and 2050 climate targets. But unless they also stop financing Big Oil right now, that’s exactly what it will remain: noise.
But if we can get enough people engaged in the months ahead, we think the banks may listen to us… though for different reasons.
For a banker, young people are their future customers: If they open an account or take out a credit card with a bank, they’re likely to stick with it for decades. Gen Z has already begun boycotting fossil fuel banks en masse—why bother when they’re already selling us out? And that goes double for working at these banks, which rely on a flood of fresh young talent each year. When youth fights and wins battles like forcing Harvard to divest from fossil fuels, they’re not going to just turn around on graduation day and report for work.
Older people have leverage of their own. Fair or not, they’ve ended up with most of the country’s money in their retirement accounts and pension funds—boomers and the silent generation have about 70 percent of America’s assets, compared with about 5 percent for millennials (and far less for those in Gen Z). If bankers see that the people with money in their vaults have begun to rebel, that will matter too.
We both understand that this fight will take a while—after all we’re going up against the biggest banks on earth. Some of us have a lifetime ahead, and we know that we’ll spend much of it battling—even as we go to college, find our first jobs, raise our families. Others of us have free time right now, because we’ve begun to retire—inspired by all the many young activists that have emerged around the planet, we’re ready to follow. And if the youth and the boomers move at slightly different speeds—well, that’s OK. What matters is that we move together.