A Run on the Planet

March 14, 2023

Banking rarely moves quickly—there are thirty-year mortgages, and ten-year certificates of deposit, and we still talk about “banker’s hours.” But when things go badly, as they did last week in Silicon Valley, the scary unwinding can come in the blink of an eye.

One result of the rescue of the California bank will be to further entrench the four huge money-center banks—Chase, Citi, Wells-Fargo, and Bank of America. They were closing in on fifty percent of American deposits already, and that status as giants will likely draw in yet more money going forward because everyone understands that they are much too big to fail: at least since 2008, it’s been clear that they have the implicit backing of the federal government and its printing presses. More than ever, they will be the center of the financial world—a kind of money state.

Which means, in an ideal world, that they would exercise that privilege on behalf of the society that grants it to them. Obviously they’re going to look after their own interests—that’s what the rich and powerful do. But in an emergency we should be able to expect something slightly resembling responsibility from them. Facing the civilizational crisis that is climate change, they should act in at least modestly pro-social ways. Instead, they’ve continued to pursue their most narrow and short-term self-interest, loaning money to the fossil fuel industry for its continued expansion even though every climate scientist on the planet has insisted that expansion must come to a screeching halt.

To give just the most timely example, Conoco Phillips, which has received $10 billion from those four banks since the Paris climate accords were signed, won federal approval today for a vast new oil complex in the Alaska wilderness. This was a savage mistake by the Biden administration, which hopes for a small political boost as it mulls a re-election bid. But it was also a mistake by the banks, though they win a not-insubstantial profit on such loans.

That’s because the very slightly longer-term cost is enormous. For Biden, he’s diminished dramatically his standing as a climate champion, because the Willow project will pour carbon into the air for many decades to come.  Here’s Ellen Montgomery of Environment America:

The Willow Project would extract 500 million barrels of petroleum and release annual emissions equivalent of 76 new coal fired power plants operating in a single year.

And the banks? Well, they further undermine the planet’s environment, upon which all else depends. Including the economy—which is a subset of the earth, and not the other way around.

That’s why a broad coalition of groups, ranging from the Sierra Club and Greenpeace to the Sunrise Movement and Third Act, are protesting outside branches of those four big banks next week, on March 21. We’ve been planning it for months, but it’s now more important than ever. Yes, we’ll be cutting up credit cards, and encouraging people to find fossil-free banks, but we know we can’t really shake the financial foundations of these giants: instead, we need to get across both the modesty of our demands (not an end to banking with Big Oil but simply an end to funding of fossil fuel expansion) and the extreme radicalism of their current position. They are financing the single most dangerous experiment in the history of our species. Cash in those banks equals carbon in the air. (To see exactly how much carbon, you can run your own banking life through this nifty new calculator from Bank FWD).

Climate change doesn’t play out quite as fast as, say, a bank run. But climate change by now is happening in real time, entirely visible (in fact, the endless rains of this California winter were flooding the Bay Area even as SVB was angling for a bailout of a different kind). The Big 4 banks have failed morally, and we need to call them on it, eroding their social license.

Our society has given them unprecedented power, including an open tab. They’ve given us a run on the planet.


In other energy and climate news:

+The natural gas industry is mounting a massive (and expensive) campaign to overturn an ordinance that would electrify Eugene Oregon at a more rapid rate.

“It’s a very, very aggressive campaign,” said Anne Pernick, a community manager at the environmental nonprofit, which advocates for building electrification in communities nationwide. “We’ve seen state preemptions and local lawsuits … but I can’t find another example of what’s happening in Eugene to overturn something that has passed.”

Happily, locals are organizing hard to fight back

+Big Cancer Alley Action Party online tomorrow night, with great activists Sharon Lavigne and Robert Taylor, and moderated by William Barber III, son of the remarkable minister leading the national Poor People’s Campaign. Meanwhile from Texas, a remarkable video documenting the assault on neighborhoods as the liquefied natural gas industry expands

+The invaluable Gus Speth—one-time head of the UN Development Program, among a thousand other important jobs—has an austere and powerful essay out today at, warning that

as the so-called positive feedbacks become stronger, governments, communities, and individuals will all be increasingly forced to deal with multiple problems. Wildfires, droughts, water shortages, severe storms, heat waves, floods, sea level rise, biological losses, the spread of diseases, and other consequences will be among the first-order effects. They will lead to crop failures and famines, other economic losses and disruptions, climate refugees and mass emigrations, political destabilization, resource and other conflicts within and between countries, and costly efforts at adaptation and, most likely, geo-engineering.

The answer, obviously, is to get to work now.

+Aaron Gell at Bloomberg has a comprehensive account of the reluctance of some foodies to give up their giant gas stoves

It’s kind of sexy,” says Stacy Jones, founder and chief executive officer of product placement agency Hollywood Branded [who puts gas stoves on reality tv shows]. “You see the flames licking up into the pan, and you can almost feel the heat coming off of it even though you’re on the other side of the television.”

There’s good news, though—and not just that the British Baking Show has switched to induction. So have a lot of actual restaurants, and they are loving it. Gell visits one Michelin-starred Las Vegas eatery:

Joël Robuchon’s poissonnier was preparing a pan-seared sea bass with lemongrass foam, while the rôtisseur expertly caramelized a plume of Iberico pork with black truffle and the entremetier whipped up a saffron risotto with pimientos and cauliflower—all of it on induction-powered hobs.

The restaurant’s executive chef, Christophe De Lellis, says his adoption of induction cooking has been “life-changing.” In addition to being faster and easier to control, De Lellis says, induction has vastly improved working conditions for his staff. Induction hobs, by heating the cookware directly, rather than the air beneath and around it, make the cooktop three times more efficient than gas stoves, resulting in a cooler, more comfortable environment. Induction stoves also reduce the margin of error. “When you use gas and you tell somebody, ‘Put on medium heat,’ my medium might be different from your medium,” he says. “With induction it’s much easier to have consistency all across the board.” Sauces and bisques, in particular, are easier to prepare. “You know sometimes when the flame burns on the side and they get crusty?” De Lellis asks. “You don’t get this with induction.” And then there’s the cleaning issue—rather than scrubbing away at iron grates, his crew simply wipes down the glass cooktops.

+In the Washington Post, a thorough account of an Outer Banks town where the ocean is sliding houses into the sea. The video is otherwordly.

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Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben is the author of a dozen books about the environment, including The End of Nature (1989), the first book for a general audience on climate change, and Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (2010). He is a founder of the grassroots climate campaign, which has coordinated 15,000 rallies in 189 countries since 2009. He is a frequent contributor to various publications including The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Rolling Stone, and Outside. He is also a board member and contributor to Grist Magazine. A scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College, Bill holds honorary degrees from a dozen colleges. In 2011 he was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Tags: bank bailouts, fossil fuel projects