Santa Cruz lawyer Brian Unitt admits he has “benefited from the fossil fuel economy” in his 65 years. That’s why he now wants to do his part for the future and is pulling his money from big banks — which have loaned or underwritten more than $800 billion in fossil fuel financing since 2015, he says. He closed his checking and savings and credit card accounts with companies like Chase and Bank of America and moved his money to more climate-friendly institutions. He challenges all people over 60 — who he says control up to 70% of the money in the U.S. — to do the same.
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The danger of climate change is beyond scientific debate.
The past three years have foreshadowed a world in which we fail to limit average warming of the atmosphere to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius, where people will increasingly experience the trauma of extreme fire, drought and weather events.
In my 65 years, I — and the rest of my generation — have helped cause this problem and benefited from the fossil fuel economy. So like many others my age, I have decided to do something about it.
A year ago, I joined “Third Act,” which climate champion Bill McKibben launched in late 2021 to connect older Americans in the fight for the future being waged vocally by young people around the world.
We simply must stop burning fossil fuels by 2040 or sooner to have any chance of minimizing these consequences. Even the coal, oil and gas producers know this, but they won’t stop on their own.
One of the few levers we can pull to have the needed impact in the short time left to us is to cut off fossil fuel investment capital.
This month’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report tells us the “window for action is rapidly closing,” and states, “public and private finance flows for fossil fuels are still greater than those for climate adaptation and mitigation.”
Many countries (Russia, China and the United States, for instance) have already committed to building and financing fossil fuel infrastructure that would take the world well past 1.5 C or even 2 C of warming. The recent U.S. approval of the Willow oil project in Alaska is one egregious example.
It turns out the four biggest U.S. banks — Bank of America, Chase, Citibank and Wells Fargo — account for at least 30% of the $2.7 trillion in global lending and underwriting to the fossil fuel industry since 2015. That is according to Rainforest Action Network’s 2020 report on banking and climate change.
The numbers break down like this: Chase $269 billion, Wells Fargo $198 billion, Citibank $188 billion and Bank of America $157 billion, for a total of $812 billion.
If you’re a customer, that’s your money at work, and these banks are able to lend that money in large part due to taxpayer underwriting.
Being “too big to fail,” they get especially cheap money from the Federal Reserve, on top of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) backing all U.S. banks enjoy. The recent Silicon Valley Bank failure will likely make the “big four” even bigger and more dangerous to the planet.
But while the numbers look daunting, they are actually a small part of total lending by these banks. The “big four” could get clean, as some of Europe’s largest banks (HSBC, Credit Agricole and Danske) did last year, but they seem to need a push from their customers.
That’s where we, and “Third Act,” come in.
People over 60 control 70% of the money in the U.S.
That’s a big number and a lot of power, and we want banks to know it. We can use that power by choosing to close our checking, savings and credit card accounts with big, fossil fuel-loving banks and moving our money to more climate-friendly institutions.
I have had accounts with two of those banks for years, but not anymore. I will no longer help bankroll the climate destruction that will ruin our children’s future.
There are better options out there, local banks and credit unions that focus their lending close to home, not off in the global oil fields and coal mines. Third Act’s website has links to resources to help make the switch.
On March 21, thousands of bank customers took to the streets in nearly 100 cities across the continent to demand that banks change their ways.
In Santa Cruz, 15 intrepid folks braved the high winds and pouring rain in what organizer Michelle Merrill called “a show of great energy and true commitment.”
Why are seniors so committed to this campaign?
I asked my neighbor, Phyllis T. Greenleaf, who said, “becoming 80, I’ve decided to make sure every day of living makes a real difference in protecting the future for all the grandchildren of our planet. Showing up as an elder activist today in solidarity with seniors all over the U.S. is my living statement of loving life fully, and being older and bolder.”
We know there will be an orderly transition away from fossil fuels, so we’re not asking the banks to get out fully today. But we do want them to stay out of new projects like the disastrous Willow project.
We support these banks with tax dollars, so we have the right to insist they help make a better future for the generations to come, not finance its destruction.
Brian Unitt is a lawyer in private practice, a Live Oak resident, and a member of Third Act, and its S.F. Bay Area Working Group and Lawyers Working Group. The opinions expressed are his own.