In 2008, the greed of Wall Street banks pushed the economy into a nosedive. Millions of people lost their homes. As with the COVID-19 pandemic, low-income households and communities of color were the most impacted. Between 2007 and 2010, Black Americans lost more than 240,000 homes. In all, nearly one-third of all Black wealth in the United States was wiped out during those years, compared to 11 percent of white wealth.
At the time, there was reason to hope that we would learn from this tragedy. Occupy Wall Street popularized the concept of the 99 percent and the 1 percent and sharpened the class consciousness of a new generation; in 2010, Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Act, overhauling our country’s system of financial regulation and placing increased scrutiny on the banking sector.
Unfortunately, the one group that learned precisely nothing was the one with the most to learn: the banking elite.
Less than a decade later, Wells Fargo was caught opening bank accounts for millions of people without their knowledge. The bank stole tens of millions of dollars from countless people by hitting them with bank fees on accounts they never consented to open. Wall Street had, once again, inflicted mass fraud on the American people. And, once again, it was immigrants and people with darker skin who saw the brunt of it. One subsequent lawsuit claimed that Wells Fargo management instructed their employees to “corral” undocumented immigrants into a branch and “cajole” them into opening bank accounts.
Six years on from the Wells Fargo scandal, it’s clear that Wall Street has still learned nothing. Greed remains the driving force in the banking industry. The only difference now is that Wall Street’s greed has metastasized to threaten not just the economy but the entire planet.
Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the most comprehensive review of climate science ever published. Synthesizing more than 34,000 peer-reviewed studies, the report’s headline findings include the fact that 1 in 3 people are now exposed to deadly heat stress on a regular basis; that the mass die-off of species — from trees to corals to insects — is already underway; and that the window of opportunity to avoid cataclysmic climate change is rapidly vanishing.
Reeling from these desperate howls of warning, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, the world’s top diplomat, put it simply: “Investing in new fossil fuels is moral and economic madness.”
He’s right. Investing in new fossil fuel production is now, quite literally, investing in species extinction, famine, mass migration and geopolitical instability. To call it “moral and economic madness” is to put it kindly. But no one ever said that Wall Street’s greed was a sane phenomenon.
Since the Paris Climate Agreement was signed in 2015, the six largest U.S. banks — JPMorgan Chase, Citi, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs — have provided over $1.4 trillion to the fossil fuel industry. This includes more than $400 billion in financing to the corporations that are most aggressively building major new fossil fuel infrastructure.
Without Wall Street’s backing, fossil fuel corporations simply couldn’t afford to build their new oil pipelines and fracked gas export terminals. This makes Wall Street not just complicit in the climate crisis, but deeply culpable.
Fortunately, there are things that we can do. For a start, if you happen to bank with Chase, Citi, Wells Fargo or Bank of America, you can join the Customers for Climate Justice campaign.
Since January, more than 35,000 customers have signed open letters to CEOs of Chase, Citi, Wells Fargo and Bank of America, expressing grave concerns over their banks’ funding of fossil fuels. Last week, customers of those banks sent the letters to the CEOs and requested a meeting to discuss their concerns. We’re still awaiting their reply. In the meantime, dozens of customers across the country are setting up meetings with branch managers to let their feelings be known. If you bank with one of these four banks — the four largest funders of fossil fuels in the world — you can join the campaign at www.customersforclimatejustice.com.
Of course, you can always move banks, too. Any credit union is, by definition, less likely to invest in toxic, destructive industries and more likely to invest in local communities than any of the Wall Street megabanks. And the Seattle area is filled with credit unions: BECU, Seattle Credit Union, and Verity Credit Union are just a few of the local options. Just be sure to let your bank know why you’re switching. If we all leave our megabanks but neglect to tell them why, it won’t make one jot of difference.
If you don’t bank with one of the megabanks, there are still things you can do. You could join a local climate action group, such as 350 Seattle. Since 2016, 350 Seattle, alongside partners such as Mazaska Talks and Protectors of the Salish Sea, has helped organize countless protests at bank branches: dropping banners, engaging in sit-ins and occupations, and shutting down streets outside of JPMorgan Chase’s regional headquarters.
And one thing is for sure: As long as banks continue to fund the fossil fuel corporations driving the climate crisis, that is unlikely to change any time soon.
Alec Connon is the co-director of Stop the Money Pipeline, a coalition of more than 200 organizations working to stop the funding of the fossil fuel industry. He also organizes with 350 Seattle.
Read more of the Apr. 13-19, 2022 issue.