I Broke Up with My Banks!

Sometimes it takes me a long time to get around to doing things, tasks that I’d rather put off, like doing dishes, weeding the garden, or paying bills. Some of those things are much easier to do once I’ve started, and then I ask myself why it became such a big deal in the first place. Finally, in late February I moved our money out of Chase and Wells Fargo banks because they are two of the largest banks in the world putting money into fossil fuel expansion. Soon thereafter, it was Bank of America.

Yes, a pandemic has happened since John and I started thinking about changing banks, but it’s too easy an excuse in this case. I finally completed a task I’d been thinking and talking about for— ahem— years. Perhaps you have already done it, long ago, in which case—congratulations and thanks for stepping up earlier.

In the past I have worked on campaigns to get my alma mater (University of California) divested from all fossil fuels, and they have done so. But up ‘til now, I haven’t divested us, an embarrassing confession. Inertia is great; other things seem more pressing. Even though I know the cause is important, there are decisions to make, like what bank should I move our money to? Also, how do I go about doing it?

Chase has signed things that make it sound like they are going green, but since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2016, JPMorgan Chase has financed over $268 billion to fossil fuel companies. To give that some context, consider that $268 billion is greater than the market value of BP, Shell and Chevron combined. Or that $268 billion is more than the annual GDP of over one hundred and forty countries. When it comes to the climate emergency, money underwriting the fossil fuel industry is coming from banks, with Chase at the head of the pack, Wells Fargo a close second, and Citibank and Bank of America nipping at their heels.  And their investments have been increasing every year.

John and I have chosen a local credit union, and we’re happy with that decision. Our first obstacle was that Chase didn’t allow me to do a wire transfer to the credit union online. I had to make an appointment with a banker, then go there with a mask and practice social distancing. I had to pay a wire transfer fee, but the whole process took about 15 minutes. Before I made the transfer, I had to find out the routing number of the credit union, involving a short phone call. The rest was very simple.

When I went in for my appointment, I was certain I would be asked why I was leaving, so I arrived with a set of questions for my bank (see below). I left a copy with my banker, who asked if I wanted to talk with someone about them. I said yes, and I await a call or email. In addition, I’m sending a letter to the CEO of each bank, using a template and addresses I found on the Green America website.

Another organization I encountered when I was looking up stuff about banking and the environment was Stop the Money Pipeline. This group and a coalition of more than 130 environmental groups was planning a big action against banks last April on Earth Day (2020), but the coronavirus interfered. We need to pick up the pace again.

I love the title of an article written by Bill McKibben in the 9/17/19 issue of the New  Yorker: “Money is the Oxygen on Which the Fire of Global Warming Burns.”   Indeed. Activists always endorse following the money to find out the source of the energy behind certain politicians, ballot propositions, movements, and  organizations. Divesting from big banks is a good step towards dampening the fire of global warming. Don’t procrastinate as we did. The world can’t afford to wait. As we in California know, we need to dampen the flames of global warming right now, before fire season starts.

Questions to Ask Your Bank:

  • What percent of its lending is for environmental (low-carbon, sustainable) businesses as compared to fossil fuel industries?
  • How much has your bank increased its funding to fossil fuel industries in the last year?
  • Does your bank fund projects such as power plants, pipelines, and dam construction?
  • Is your bank a member of various groups to advance clean energy, such as the American Wind Energy Association and Solar Energy Industries Association?
  • How does your bank promote transparency around climate-related risks and business opportunities?
  • What charitable donations is your bank making to environmental organizations?
  • What is your bank doing in your local community to improve the environment?
  • How much of your bank’s energy use is powered by renewable energy?
  • What ties do your bank’s executives have to fossil fuel industries?

Kathy Barnhart is a retired teacher, genetic counselor and therapist, an avid nature nerd, and a grandmother of 3 boys. She would love for them to live in a fossil free world.