In late April, shareholders at nine of the biggest banks in the U.S. and Canada will vote on proposals calling for concrete action to end financing for new fossil fuel development. As the CEO of a triple-bottom-line bank that has never invested in fossil fuels, I urge these shareholders to vote yes.
Climate change is the most urgent and consequential issue of our time. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that our goal of limiting warming to 1.5° Celsius is slipping out of reach. Fractions of a degree more than that would lead to horrific consequences for people and the planet. To date, the countries and industries most responsible for greenhouse gas emissions have been slow to take action, and the danger compounds with each passing year.
The financial sector is a large part of this problem—and a vital part of the solution. Many banks have made net-zero commitments and argue that they are doing all they can to reduce or offset their emissions. But the numbers tell a different story.
The latest Banking on Climate Chaos report tracks how much capital the world’s 60 largest banks have invested in the fossil fuel industry since the adoption of the Paris Climate Accords in 2016: a staggering $4.6 trillion. This money, which could be used to alleviate so much suffering around the world, is instead fueling natural disasters, unlivable conditions, and the destruction of our planet. Additionally, InfluenceMap, a climate think tank, found that big banks are undermining their own net-zero targets by lobbying against sustainable finance policies.
There is increasing recognition among many shareholders that this is bad business. Worsening climate change poses a tremendous risk to investors. Extreme weather events, sea level rise, wildfires, and other climate impacts introduce volatility into various financial markets, such as housing and insurance. Without mitigating action, the global economy will shrink by an estimated 18% by 2050, according to the Swiss Re Institute.
With all of this evidence, it is clearer than ever that bold action is required to avoid climate catastrophe—not just for the planet, but for investors’ bottom line. Long cycles of negotiation between advocacy groups and bank shareholders are preventing decisive action. But as the experts tell us, we are running out of time.
That’s why shareholders at these nine banks—JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Bank of Montreal, Toronto-Dominion Bank, and Royal Bank of Canada—must vote yes later this month.
Keep in mind that the proposals on the table are fully in line with both global recommendations for the 1.5° Celsius best-case scenario and the existing “net-zero by 2050” commitments of these banks. What these proposals will do is commit financial institutions to laying out the short-term steps they will take to reach that longer-term goal. Any responsible investor should want to hear from these banks what specific actions they are taking to meet the commitments they’ve made, how they are going to reorganize their portfolios to shift away from fossil fuel financing while managing transition risk, and what more they are doing to build up a green economy that’s resilient to climate impacts.
I want to assure both shareholders and financial institutions that it is 100% possible to divest from fossil fuels, invest in climate-friendly projects, and remain profitable. Beneficial State Bank, which I lead, has never invested in extractive fossil fuel projects. We also take it one step further by actively investing in sustainability and renewable energy initiatives. While we optimize for mission rather than solely profit, we still provide fair returns to investors. And it’s not just us. We are part of a small but growing list of financial institutions that prove that responsible, sustainable banking is possible.
Big banks are known for putting their shareholders first—and should listen closely to what they’re saying now. More and more investors are demanding transparency about climate-related risks and prioritizing sustainability in their portfolios.
Regulators are also pushing for more action. Last month, the Securities and Exchange Commission proposed a rule to require all publicly traded companies—including banks that fit that criteria—to disclose their greenhouse gas emissions and climate-related risks in a standardized way. The FDIC also released an outline in March for how large banks ($100 billion or more in total assets) should measure and plan for climate change risks, with guidance for smaller banks to come in the near future.
These steps, while overdue, should be welcomed by shareholders and bank executives alike. Global climate experts, financial regulators, critical investors, and consumers are all demanding change. At the annual meetings in late April, I urge shareholders to join that chorus and vote for divestment.
Randell Leach is the CEO of Beneficial State Bank, a state-chartered, federally insured, and for-profit bank whose economic rights are majority-owned by the nonprofit Beneficial State Foundation, which is in turn permanently governed in the public interest. Beneficial State Bank is one of the world’s top Certified B Corporations.
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