Tim Root on getting the climate crisis up the agenda by targeting banks

Greta Thunberg and her allies recently said that “the climate crisis has still not once been treated as a crisis”. Governments’ Covid-19 recovery packages are largely “business as usual”, with G20 governments spending 1.7 times more on fossil fuels than on renewables. The director of Greenpeace UK said that the government’s actions over the past year “add up to a tiny fraction of what is needed” to get to net zero carbon by 2050. Considering the record of Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings, campaigners should not put all their efforts into pressuring the UK government. The Financial Times reported that Cummings actually wanted to divert money earmarked for home energy efficiency to building new homes, with insulation work deferred. 

Government inaction is in part a reflection of the polls. In a March 2020 poll, when asked to endorse any of a few options which should “be the economic focus of the government”, “establishing a ‘Green New Deal’ to tackle climate change and create new green jobs” was rated only fourth, endorsed by only 28%. In June, a poll of 27 nations found climate change only the ninth most concerning issue. However, the radical recommendations of France’s Citizens Assembly on climate, and the proposals made so far by the Citizens’ Assembly set up by the UK parliament, show that when people are enabled to engage carefully with the topic, most recognise that it is a priority. 

Tell climate victims’ stories

Campaigns need to make much more rapid progress in cutting emissions, partly because pessimism is likely to spread as future bad climate news emerges. We need to learn from other campaigns and tell the stories of people who have suffered due to climate breakdown. The tragic cases of women who died or suffered dreadful distress influenced Ireland to vote to legalise abortion. People in the West have heard about climate change for so long without feeling directly affected by it that most tend to avert their attention from the worrying issue.

We should tell them of people such as Annie Hall, who was drowned in a flood in Derbyshire in 2018. Her “care, her personality and her love” were praised by a worker in one of the charities for which she volunteered. Another tragic pollution victim was nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah, after whose death it was found that the dates of her emergency hospital admissions were linked to spikes in levels of harmful pollutants near her home by a busy London road. As the famous activist Srdja Popovic said, “giving oppression a face is absolutely critical if activists hope to mobilise people”. The famous picture of the woman who died in an Irish hospital after being refused an abortion was very influential during Ireland’s referendum. 

Coalition for impact

On 25th September, the school strikers have called a Global Day of Action. Climate campaigners must try to ensure that this is not just a repeat of previous events which have not yet achieved the progress we need. The successful Irish abortion referendum campaign sustained a united coalition of 100 organisations. A diverse coalition would boost our influence and gain us the attention of a much larger number of people. To build such a coalition, we need to agree goals with as many organisations as possible. There are many groups across the political spectrum who are concerned about climate breakdown, but who do not devote much effort to it, as their usual activities are different. We need to get them to recognise that not only does climate breakdown threaten their ability to achieve their goals, but also that it is such a fundamental threat that prioritising it would be a very important way of pursuing their values. Such a coalition could communicate very effectively, provided its messaging was carefully agreed in order to inspire the commitment of a wide range of potential supporters. This would require some groups to downplay certain language expressing some of their beliefs, recognising that their priority values required tackling climate breakdown above other less urgent considerations.          

Shame the banks

The best strategy to complement our pressure on governments is targeting the major banks, which invested $2.7 trillion in fossil fuels in 2016-19. Recent improvements by various huge banks, including BNP Paribas, Goldman Sachs, and Deutsche, show that they are susceptible to pressure. Recently, the Financial Times reported that some banks are starting to reduce their fossil fuel investments – whose returns have been poor – and putting aside funds in the expectation that many fossil fuel companies will be unable to repay their loans. This year’s Brand Finance report found that, of all the major sectors of the economy, banks are rated next to lowest on reputation. One of the world’s leading management consultancies said that “reputation risk… often tops the list of risks of most concern to senior executives.” An international campaign pushing selected banks to cut their support for fossil fuels could attract massive support, inspiring people with a challenge worthy of the crisis we face. People understand that banks operate in a competitive market, and can change policies promptly if their market share is threatened. An international campaign targeting one selected bank in each country would incentivise their competitors not to appear dirty in comparison.

We could increase pressure on bankers by highlighting their hypocrisy. This January, the CEO of Citibank said it is not a bank’s job to be concerned with companies’ environmental standards, implying absurdly that all loan applications are granted indiscriminately: “We don’t want to find ourselves being the person that dictates winners and losers. A bank’s job is to support the communities in which it operates.” A film could show him making this statement next to photos of Houston, Texas, after Hurricane Harvey, and Paradise, California, after the 2018 fire.

We could take bikes to the bank’s head office, displaying signs challenging executives to leave their big cars at home. Being filmed refusing the bike would embarrass the bank, and in the unlikely event of the executive cycling, this would reinforce the need for the bank’s policies to become climate friendly. And if we recruited some high-profile supporters, for instance of the stature of Marcus Rashford, with his three million Twitter followers, the campaign could grow and achieve some great victories.

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