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“Stop Dirty Banks”: Bill McKibben & Ben Jealous on Ending Big Bank Funding for Fossil Fuel Expansion

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We speak with Third Act founder Bill McKibben and Sierra Club executive director Ben Jealous about protests they’ve organized today across the United States to demand the four biggest banks — Chase, Citi, Wells Fargo and Bank of America — stop financing the expansion of fossil fuel projects.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The United Nations has issued a “final warning” that the world is facing its last chance to prevent catastrophic global warming. The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, said Monday every additional increment of warming will amplify impacts already felt by millions worldwide, and called for an end to coal and net-zero electricity generation by 2035. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called the report a, quote, “how-to guide to defuse the climate time bomb.”

SECRETARY-GENERAL ANTÓNIO GUTERRES: The rate of temperature rise in the last half-century is the highest in 2,000 years. Concentrations of carbon dioxide are at their highest in at least 2 million years. The climate time bomb is ticking.

AMY GOODMAN: The IPCC report comes as the death toll from Cyclone Freddy has topped 500 in Malawi. At least another 66 people have died in Mozambique. Over a half-million people have been displaced in the southeastern African nations. Cyclone Freddy was one of the strongest storms ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere and the longest-lasting tropical cyclone on record.

As corporations and governments face growing pressure to address the climate crisis, President Joe Biden vetoed a Republican-backed bill Monday to reinstate a Trump-era ban on retirement plans using a sustainable investment practice known as ESG, that takes into account environmental, social and governance impacts.

This comes as funding for fossil fuels remains much greater than for climate adaptation and mitigation. Our next guests are focusing on the four biggest banks in the U.S. that finance fossil fuel expansion: Bank of America, Chase, Citibank and Wells Fargo.

Bill McKibben is co-founder of, founder of the organization Third Act, which organizes people over 60 years old for progressive change, and today is its first National Day of Action to Stop Dirty Banks, he’d say. Also with us, in D.C., Ben Jealous, new executive director of the Sierra Club. He’s the former president of the NAACP and People for the American Way. They co-authored a piece for The Guardian headlined “US banks are sacrificing poor communities to the climate crisis.” Also with us, Dipti Bhatnagar. She is longtime climate justice activist based in Mozambique with Friends of the Earth International in Mozambique.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Well, Bill McKibben, your group Third Act is organizing today’s protests around the country. It is interesting to look at the banks you’re focusing on, the largest banks in the United States, at this moment when many are fleeing smaller regional banks, thinking the only place their money is secure is at the big banks. What is your message?

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, Amy, hello.

And Third Act is organizing 102 demonstrations in 30 states and the District of Columbia today with the enormous help of the Sierra Club and others. The reason is that, as you point out, these four big banks are now bigger than ever. They’re in some ways quasi-public banks. The reason that everybody is going to them is because they know that the taxpayer has taken on the risk associated with running a bank and will backstop them forever. Therefore, we need them to act responsibly in the face of the greatest crisis our species has ever wandered into.

At the moment, they’re doing just the opposite. These four big banks are also the four biggest lenders to the fossil fuel industry on planet Earth, even though, as you point out, the IPCC and every other set of climate scientists has long since said that expansion of the fossil fuel enterprise has to cease. We’re not calling for an end to banking for oil and gas. We’re going to have oil and gas for a few more years, and they’ll need a bank. All we want, and it is a very moderate demand, is for them to cease funding the expansion of that industry, the way that HSBC, the largest bank in Europe, agreed to do in December.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Ben Jealous, you were head of the NAACP, then People for the American Way. Now you’re with the Sierra Club and particularly looking right now at these protests that are talking about these big banks and their effect on communities of color. Can you respond to what has to happen at this point, and what the Sierra Club is calling for?

BEN JEALOUS: We are very clear that the banks need to stop funding this — new projects to extract oil and gas. It’s the biggest threat we have to all of the work that’s going into trying to stop climate change. And what we saw with HSBC can be done here. The banks simply need to say to their clients, “We’ll continue to finance what you’re currently doing, but we’re not going to finance you at all if you keep expanding, because what you’re doing is putting the people of this planet in grave risk.”

AMY GOODMAN: What about the fact — I mean, in the piece that you write with Bill McKibben in The Guardian, you say, “The collapse of Silicon Valley Bank will bring many forms of fallout. One of the most obvious consequences is that the biggest banks” — the ones you’re protesting today — “Chase, Citi, Wells Fargo, Bank of America — will probably get even bigger.”

BEN JEALOUS: No, look, I mean, that’s precisely right. And what we’ve seen, actually, is, look, there’s probably a dozen banks in the U.S. that will not fund oil and gas expansion. There’s at least a dozen, lots of them smaller banks, lots of them regional banks. And so, what we’ve seen, actually, is people decide that this is a priority for them. And the big banks see those trends, too, and yet they feel beholden to an industry that is literally driving us towards human extinction.

And so, what we’re asking these banks to do is to have the moral clarity to say to their clients, again, “We’re not going to stop financing you if you just do what you’re currently doing, but if you keep expanding into the Arctic, if you keep expanding into the Gulf, if you keep drilling new drills in Africa and throughout the globe, then we’re going to have to stop financing you, because what you’re doing is putting everything else at risk.”

AMY GOODMAN: And, Bill McKibben, you wrote this piece right before President Biden signed off on the Willow Arctic drilling project. You call it a climate turning point. Your response to what has happened with his greenlighting of that project?

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, this is a perfect example of what we’re talking about. ConocoPhillips, which is developing that ill-begotten project up in the Arctic, has tens of billions of dollars of loans from the banks that we’re talking about. They keep funneling them money so that they can do these kind of projects. And, I mean, that one is just absolutely emblematic of the insanity. They’re going to have to literally refreeze the ground up there before they’re able to — the ground that they have melted, before they’re able to drill again for yet more oil.

But it’s not just up in the Arctic. Look at what’s happening in Africa. Cyclone Freddy blows across Malawi, leaving huge devastation, while Total, the French energy giant, and others are busy trying to build a giant oil pipeline across the heart of Africa. This is — as the IPCC said yesterday, this is really the battle for the future of planet Earth.

If we cannot slow these guys down — and there’s only two levers big enough to pull to really matter. One of those levers is marked “government,” and we’ve been tugging on it as hard as we can. And we’ve gotten at least something: the IRA and the climate bill last year. The other lever is marked “money, finance.” That’s what we’re pulling today all across the country. These four banks are — well, they’re the capital in capitalism, so they’re not going to be an easy target. But now that they’re in this dominant role on our planet, we have to be able to make sure that they pay attention.

And today people will at least be paying attention. Here in D.C., for instance, the banks are going to be blockaded with people in rocking chairs, Amy. Older people are sitting down today, but they’re also standing up in a way that they haven’t before.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to bring in Dipti Bhatnagar after break into this conversation. As you mention Malawi, Madagascar, we’re talking about massive cyclone and damage, deaths, lives lost. Bill McKibben is staying with us, of and Third Act, organized today’s Day of Action to Stop Dirty Banks. Ben Jealous, executive director of the Sierra Club.

And coming up, Dipti Bhatnagar will join them. She’s with Friends of the Earth International in Mozambique. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Vendem o País” by Azagaia, the popular Mozambican rapper and cultural icon, who died on March 9th.

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Next story from this daily show

U.N. Warns “Climate Time Bomb Is Ticking” as Cyclone Freddy Death Toll Tops 560 in Malawi & Mozambique

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