Banking rarely moves quickly—there are thirty-year mortgages, and ten-year certificates of deposit, and we still talk about “banker’s hours.” But when things go badly, as they did last week in Silicon Valley, the scary unwinding can come in the blink of an eye.
One result of the rescue of the California bank will be to further entrench the four huge money-center banks—Chase, Citi, Wells-Fargo, and Bank of America. They were closing in on fifty percent of American deposits already, and that status as giants will likely draw in yet more money going forward because everyone understands that they are much too big to fail: at least since 2008, it’s been clear that they have the implicit backing of the federal government and its printing presses. More than ever, they will be the center of the financial world—a kind of money state.
Which means, in an ideal world, that they would exercise that privilege on behalf of the society that grants it to them. Obviously they’re going to look after their own interests—that’s what the rich and powerful do. But in an emergency we should be able to expect something slightly resembling responsibility from them. Facing the civilizational crisis that is climate change, they should act in at least modestly pro-social ways. Instead, they’ve continued to pursue their most narrow and short-term self-interest, loaning money to the fossil fuel industry for its continued expansion even though every climate scientist on the planet has insisted that expansion must come to a screeching halt.
To give just the most timely example, Conoco Phillips, which has received $10 billion from those four banks since the Paris climate accords were signed, won federal approval today for a vast new oil complex in the Alaska wilderness. This was a savage mistake by the Biden administration, which hopes for a small political boost as it mulls a re-election bid. But it was also a mistake by the banks, though they win a not-insubstantial profit on such loans.
That’s because the very slightly longer-term cost is enormous. For Biden, he’s diminished dramatically his standing as a climate champion, because the Willow project will pour carbon into the air for many decades to come. Here’s Ellen Montgomery of Environment America:
The Willow Project would extract 500 million barrels of petroleum and release annual emissions equivalent of 76 new coal fired power plants operating in a single year.
And the banks? Well, they further undermine the planet’s environment, upon which all else depends. Including the economy—which is a subset of the earth, and not the other way around.
That’s why a broad coalition of groups, ranging from the Sierra Club and Greenpeace to the Sunrise Movement and Third Act, are protesting outside branches of those four big banks next week, on March 21. We’ve been planning it for months, but it’s now more important than ever. Yes, we’ll be cutting up credit cards, and encouraging people to find fossil-free banks, but we know we can’t really shake the financial foundations of these giants: instead, we need to get across both the modesty of our demands (not an end to banking with Big Oil but simply an end to funding of fossil fuel expansion) and the extreme radicalism of their current position. They are financing the single most dangerous experiment in the history of our species. Cash in those banks equals carbon in the air. (To see exactly how much carbon, you can run your own banking life through this nifty new calculator from Bank FWD).
Climate change doesn’t play out quite as fast as, say, a bank run. But climate change by now is happening in real time, entirely visible (in fact, the endless rains of this California winter were flooding the Bay Area even as SVB was angling for a bailout of a different kind). The Big 4 banks have failed morally, and we need to call them on it, eroding their social license.
Our society has given them unprecedented power, including an open tab. They’ve given us a run on the planet.
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