Climate philanthropy beyond the check: holding banks accountable

Climate philanthropy beyond the check: holding banks accountable

Climate philanthropists are often called on to support grassroots activists fighting fossil fuel projects in their backyards — like the Black community in Louisiana's Cancer Alley that is protesting the siting of yet another petrochemical plant or the Standing Rock Sioux fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline. A growing awareness of environmental justice means we look to fund folks who are directly impacted by the project in question, as they're usually the ones with the best solution. That's a positive development.

But philanthropists can do more to support climate action — and they can do it without having to give more dollars. How? By using the clout we have with our banks.

While individuals and foundations give generously in support of frontline climate activists, most of our wealth is parked in banks that use those funds in ways that exacerbate the problems we're trying to address. Big banks like JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Citibank, and Morgan Stanley are major funders of the fossil fuel industry and provide many of the players in that space with unrestricted lines of credit. That money, in turn, is used to fund the projects our grantees are fighting to stop.

Sound wacky? It is.

Enbridge's Line 3 project is a case in point. In northern Minnesota, Chippewa water protectors have been sitting in trees and in front of bulldozers, fighting to stop construction of what has been billed as a "replacement" tar sands pipeline across three hundred and thirty-seven miles of treaty-protected lands and waterways used by the Chippewa since time immemorial for hunting, fishing, and wild rice gathering. Pipelines leak; sooner or later, they do. The Line 3 pipeline would transport more than 900,000 barrels of diluted bitumen (tar sands) over two hundred different water sources to Enbridge's refinery each and every day. The completion of Line 3 would also lock us into another half century — the lifetime of a pipeline — of tar sands pollution and the further destruction of Alberta's boreal forest. Tar sands are an environmental injustice of historic proportions perpetrated on Canadian First Nations and a climate tragedy for all of us.

Many philanthropists have provided support to the groups that are fighting Line 3 and getting arrested on these cold winter days; they include GINIW, MN350, and Honor the Earth. The work of these activists truly is heroic, and they deserve our support. But we have influence beyond our philanthropic dollars, because Enbridge needs a new loan if it is to complete the pipeline, and that loan likely will be coming from your banks.

Nearly three dozen big banks currently underwrite a $12 billion-plus "credit facility" for Enbridge. One loan is up for renewal at the end of March, another in July. The lead agents in the U.S. are Bank of America, TD Bank (a Canadian bank with a strong U.S. presence), and Wells Fargo. These banks will orchestrate the securitized funding with participation from Citigroup, Huntington Bancshares, JP Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, and Truist Financial.

What's more, the loan to Enbridge is an unrestricted line of credit, meaning the company can build whatever it wants with the funds. Interestingly, many of the same banks that extend credit to Enbridge have made commitments to align their loan portfolios with the Paris Agreement, including achieving net-zero carbon emissions in those portfolios. JP Morgan has adapted a "Paris-aligned financing commitment" that says, in part,  "[we] will establish intermediate emission targets for 2030 for [our] financing portfolio," while Morgan Stanley has announced that it intends to reach net-zero financed emissions by 2050. Elsewhere, Bank of America has joined the Partnership for Carbon Accounting Financials (PCAF), a Dutch organization that measures the financing of carbon emissions, with BofA vice chair Anne Finucane announcing that "we are helping to drive a consistent framework for institutions to measure financed emissions, as well as providing a useful tool in the management of these emissions...."

Despite such statements, participating in an unrestricted credit facility that enables Enbridge to complete Line 3 means these banks have no current plan to meaningfully address or measure financed emissions — let alone  "manage" them. Indeed, by going ahead with the loan, these same banks are increasing their financing for carbon emissions. 

High-net-worth clients of these banks can and should be questioning them about their hypocrisy. We should ask — no, demand — that they not just measure financed emissions but take action to reduce them. Banks listen; they care about their reputations. In response to a spate of negative publicity, demands from the G'wichin people, and much client pressure, all six big U.S. money-center banks and dozens of international ones recently announced they will not fund drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. These are just a few of the examples of successful environmental pressure campaigns brought to bear on banks.

It may seem like a tough ask to suggest to your bank how it should conduct its business. It's not. First of all, it's your bank, and it needs your deposits. Second, you're only asking them to observe and strengthen their own commitments to climate action and environmental justice. And third, with "peak oil" upon us, banks will benefit from our prodding, in that the actions they take to address climate change almost certainly will improve their bottom lines. Don't believe me? Consider: the market capitalization of Exxon Mobil (XOM), which peaked above $500 billion in 2007, no longer is large enough for the company to be included in the Dow Jones, while the two best performing equity funds in 2020 were Invesco clean energy funds. The times they are a-changin'.

Foundations and high-net-worth donors can help advance the climate action movement by raising their voices. For some, that might be more difficult than writing a check, but it's really not that hard — and the upside is, well, exponential. Imagine if no one had to chain themselves to an Enbridge bulldozer; imagine if Enbridge couldn't secure the funds it needs to build Line 3. Imagine the impact your action would have on Native communities, ranchers, and farmers — not just tomorrow but for generations to come.

Fellow philanthropists, let's make our voices heard. Starting with Line 3, let's demand that our banks and bankers stop funding the climate crisis.

 Jill Soffer is co-founder of Our Part, a foundation that funds climate and democracy work, with a focus on movement building initiatives.  She also serves on the boards of the Sierra Club Foundation, the Wilderness Workshop, and the NRDC Action Fund and recently founded Banking for Climate, a campaign aimed at engaging high-net-worth individuals, families, foundations, and businesses to ask their banks to stop funding fossil fuel expansion.