“We are on the edge of a fundamental reshaping of finance.”
A growing movement for climate justice has connected climate change’s root cause not only with greenhouse gases, but also with capitalism, a more ingrained and pervasive foe. The United States supports a system which allows a few corporations and individuals to profit from climate change, primarily through the mining and proliferation of fossil fuels such as coal and gas. Yet, the people charged with regulating these industries (e.g. federal elected officials) continue to refuse to do so. It is becoming increasingly difficult to reduce global emissions and restore balance to the global ecosystems. This is why climate activists and front-line land defenders are now going straight to the source for climate chaos: financial institutions.
The movement is called “divestment,” and it’s growing both inside and outside financial institutions’ walls. The idea is simple: Take money, talent and public approval away banks and financial institutions that invest heavily in fossil fuel extraction. This usually comes in the form grassroots student-led campaigns at universities or colleges. Harvard students was one example. $42 BillionEndowment from investments in fossil fuel-related assets
In the 1980s, South African apartheid began to use divestment as a strategy.
In the 1980s, South African apartheid was being defeated by divestment. Bill McKibben, an environmental activist and founder 350.org, was one of the first major U.S. figures that tore the idea to apply at universities and financial institutions. He outlined the case for divestment and urged them to do so. 2013 Rolling Stone piece. “The logic went something like this: Most people don’t live near a coal mine [or] oil pipeline, but everyone is near some pot of money—their college endowment, their church pension fund, their local pension fund in their community,” McKibben says. “Those are all sites where you could take effective action about climate change.”
Some “good-hearted” universities, like Unity College in Maine, were the first to divest their assets from fossil fuels, which offered activists early momentum and evidence that divestment wins were possible. Since then, divestment strategies have evolved and diversified to include stopping pipeline construction and funding and hindering college recruitment efforts as well as organizing members of state pension board.
Over the past decade of climate activism, McKibben says, what’s made the divestment movement successful is how diffuse the individual, primarily student-led campaigns have been. The strategy of college campuses organizing divestment protests in solidarity with frontline resistance efforts and at state pension board meetings is working. Extractive companies are increasingly reporting difficulties raising capital for projects. Banks are being pressured by investors to reduce fossil fuel financing. debt financingIt has become more expensive. Stock optionsInvestments in fossil fuels no longer seem viable.
Larry Fink is the head of one private asset manager that funds climate change. Received, “We are on the edge of a fundamental reshaping of finance.”
What Does Money Say When It Talks?
Matt Remle, an enrolled Hunkpapa member and co-founder, of The Hunkpapa Laba, said that it is not easy to divest from banks that support extractive industry. Mazaska TalksThe Coalition of Indigenous People and Activists, which targets pipeline funders. He explains that no corporation or oil company has the financial resources to build a pipeline on its own. In other words, banks are sustaining the extractive companies, profiting off their returns, and financing the debt—all at the expense of the planet.
Despite the fact that annual CommitmentsG-20 countries have been working hard to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels over the past decade. However, the government continues to provide financial support to the industry in the hundreds of billions of dollar range. Instead of relying only on distant targets and broken promises Native leaders, grassroots activists are waging campaigns to stop the financial industry from a consumers perspective.
Mazaska Talks organized direct actions to close down banks, organized community groups and churches that wanted to change which institutions they bank with, even introduced the Socially Responsible Banking OrdinanceSeattle is to push for the city to end its ties to banks that finance fossil fuel extraction.
MazaIt means “metal” and skaIt means “white” in Remle’s Lakota language, which is a testament to the continuous nature of American capitalist violences as well as Native resistance to genocidal forces. “I’m Lakota Standing Rock, and I think we’ve never been at a time of peace with the settler colonizers,” Remle says. “It just has changed forms, and the battlefield has changed, and the weapons used have changed, and that’s really about it.”
Remle says that now financial institutions are the battlefield, and that public education and outrage are the weapons. During the fight against the terrorists, the organization encouraged people to move their cash out of Bank of America. Keystone XL pipeline. Now, the fight is over Wells Fargo’s section of a transnational pipe called Line 3It runs through northern Minnesota.
“The only thing that will talk to them is the money,” Remle says. “So when we started going after [the] money, [it] was the first time corporations and banks started listening.”
Who Wants to Get a Paycheck from a Financial Institution?
Divestment isn’t just about moving money. It’s about fundamentally changing the companies that invest in fossil fuels, either by pushing them to consider climate change as a threat to their business or by withholding labor and workers. This is often where the students of colleges and universities demand more from potential employers.
“When you think about market forces,” says Sof Petros, a distributed organizing support coach at Future Coalition, “what are the things that actually get corporate targets to move?” Answer: potential young employees and corporate “recruiting pipelines,” a catchall term for the various ways banks show up at universities to attract potential workers—the future of their workforce.
Petros works with students on college campuses and universities to create strategies to disrupt the recruitment funnels that financial companies rely on for young and talented workers. Petros says that Petros’ work starts with pushing back against the negative messaging banks and asset managers use. BeforeCareer Day is about changing how students think about banks and shifting how financial firms influence campus happenings. Some campuses do this by asking boards of trustees for disinvestment from fossil fuels, refusing banks to open branches on campus, bird-dogging professors and refusing donations from financial institution boards.
Divestment isn’t just about moving money.
There’s a long history of divestment on college campuses, McKibben says. “One of the best results of the divestment campaign was that many of the students who undertook it in the U.S. … graduated from college and went on to form the Sunrise Movement and bring us the Green New Deal.” The Green New Deal legislation and the swell of grassroots organizing that emerged across the country in support of it catalyzed a new generation of climate activists, leaders, and political candidates.
“Corporate targets are very sensitive,” Petros says, because “they’re used to … evading public consequences for their actions.” Whether it be their InoculationWhether you are facing the consequences of the 2008 financial crisis, or the fact that The banks are stillFinancial institutions have been allowed to slip through the cracks of government accountability for their involvement in predatory and harmful financial practices that led us here. Pushing back against the direct source of climate harm—and seeing a response—shows there’s hope in the fight against climate change.
Amber England, a community organizer, is a master’s student at the University of Houston. She piloted recruitment disruption strategies on her campus in fall 2021. England’s current focus is on AIG, a global insurance company that invests billions of dollars in insuring fossil fuel extraction. “They are one of the only companies without any commitment to reduce its support for fossil fuels,” England says. “They’re facing a recruitment crisis, and they’re struggling to recruit new talent.” Part of that is because young people are no longer willing to put up with financial firms’ long hours and demanding workplace culture for the pay. Another part is that young people are questioning ethics. WorkingFinancial firms may be interested in other areas.
During a virtual career fair this year, England pretended she was looking for a job at AIG in order to secure a meeting with the recruiter, and then proceeded to ask them questions about their company’s climate policies and support of the fossil fuel industry. “I was [later]The anonymous email was sent to the [AIG] sustainability team that basically said that climate change is a complex issue and it isn’t in the best interest of their stakeholders to completely divest from fossil fuels.”
Next semester, England hopes she’ll be able to ask these questions at an in-person recruitment fair in front of other students to demonstrate that the insurance company doesn’t have answers when it comes to climate change—or the futures of its potential employees.
Dispersed campaigns of disruption in recruitment seem to work. Petros says she and other organizers have been invited to discussions by Chase, Morgan Stanley, and Citibank, and while these meetings are tense, they “chip away” at the grip banks have on university leadership and students. The bigger goal of these efforts was to get these companies to remove fossil fuels from their investment and insurance portfolios.
What would you do if your retirement savings put your future at risk?
It’s not just private money and institutions that fund fossil fuel extraction; it’s also public pension funds run by elected officials. The problem is that most people don’t know their retirement savings are being used in this way, much less that there’s something they can do about it. Mary Cerulli, director of Climate Finance Action, which trains coalitions to organize individual states’ publicly funded investment portfolios, says pension board treasurers and board members who are both appointed and elected “haven’t used the muscle of these huge pension funds to mitigate the climate crisis.”
The total amount of state and local government pension funds in the country is $5.1 trillion. That’s public money managed both by government officials and outside asset managers, including Vanguard and BlackRock, Cerulli says. “Vanguard and BlackRock are the number one investors in coal, the number one investors in deforestation companies, the number one investors in utilities,” Cerulli says. She and the CFA team help other organizers build relationships with pension board treasurers to understand what’s blocking them from making changes.
If pension funds have constituents who lobby for change, and members of pension boards organize to shift the portfolio of investments, they can change the asset managers that they hire. Cerulli says that when the treasurer of the Massachusetts pension board and the chair wanted to shift parts of the portfolio to exclude fossil-fuel extraction, Cerulli had to organize and train two climate deniers, which CFA assisted with. Working with those who manage money or with third-party financial firms can yield different results than an outside public pressure campaign that stands in opposition to banks, like strategies of direct action protests or pulling one’s savings account from a bank.
In the past decade, $40 Trilliona divested from fossil fuels. This means that the divestment movement has grown and is, in fact, effective. Everyday citizens can take part in combating climate change through divestment.’s demonstrating to financial firms that climate change is no longer a worthy investment.
Ray Levy Uyeda
Bay Area-based freelance writer who focuses his work on activism, gender, and politics.
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