The gap between what needs to be done to save the Earth from the environmental disaster of unchecked global warming and what is actually being done continues to widen. Yet another exemplar of this gap is the funding practices of the world’s biggest banks.
Capitalists not concerning themselves with small things like the future ability of the planet to remain livable is nothing new, or we wouldn’t be in our present predicament. But a new report from seven environmental organizations finds that 60 of the world’s biggest banks have invested US$4.6 trillion in fossil fuel projects since the Paris Climate Accord was signed in 2015.
Our descendants, should they be faced with a chaotic climate, massive agricultural disruptions, mass extinctions on land and in the sea, drowned coastal cities and desertification — as they will be should present-day business as usual continue — are not likely to believe that their ruined world will be a fair tradeoff for a handful of industrialists and financiers of the past getting obscenely rich.
Can curses be made retroactive? Perhaps not. But perhaps a worldwide environmental movement can grow sufficiently large and militant to force the necessary changes. There are many out there trying to organize and raise attention — particularly young people, because they will be around long enough to potentially see today’s dire predictions become tomorrow’s reality — but perhaps global warming remains an abstract in too many minds. Or perhaps the daunting challenge of transcending capitalism, without which it is essentially impossible to reverse global warming, is too difficult a challenge. Throwing up our hands in despair would be easier, but if we wish our descendants (or people already alive) to inherit a living world, activism on a world scale is essential.
What words should we use to describe an economic system under which it is profitable for a handful of powerful people to profit from the destruction of the environment, and this behavior is richly rewarded?
What words should we use to describe an economic system in which, despite overwhelming evidence of the suicidal course that system is leading humanity, is nonetheless heading straight for global calamity?
What words should we use to those who profit enormously from all this, and why do they have such enormous sums of money to be able to force a continuation of this suicidal course? None of you reading these words voted for this, and none of you can vote to put an end to this. Economic decisions are completely out of the hands of working people; current capitalist ideology has evolved to the point where it is supposed to be unthinkable that economic decisions could be subject to democratic processes. Yet more proof that without economic democracy, there can be no political democracy. A lesson capitalism imposes daily.
Nice words for the environment, gigantic sums of money for fossil fuels
The aforementioned exemplar, a report titled “Banking on Climate Chaos: Financial Fuel Report 2022,” sponsored by Oil Change International, Rainforest Action Network, Indigenous Environmental Network and four other organizations, “finds that even in a year where net-zero commitments were all the rage, the financial sector continued its business-as-usual driving of climate chaos.” Banks are investing in fossil fuels at levels even higher than in 2016, the year after the signing of the Paris Climate Accord, when the world’s governments agreed to the goal of holding the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees from the pre-industrial level. Of the $4.6 trillion invested by 60 of the world’s biggest banks since the Paris agreement, $742 billion was invested in the industry in 2021 alone.
These banks come from countries around the world, but four United States-based banks were the worst offenders, the report said. “Overall fossil fuel financing remains dominated by four U.S. banks — JPMorgan Chase, Citi, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America — who together account for one quarter of all fossil fuel financing identified over the last six years,” it said. “RBC is Canada’s worst banker of fossil fuels, with Barclays as the worst in Europe and MUFG as the worst in Japan.” Three Canadian banks — RBC (Royal Bank of Canada), Scotiabank and Toronto-Dominion Bank (TD) — are among the top dozen in the world for financing fossil fuels.
Even more alarmingly, Royal Bank of Canada and TD have been the “leaders” in a grotesque expansion of tar sands financing — $23 billion was invested in tar sands production in 2021, a 51 percent increase from 2020. Those two Canadian banks combined doubled their funding for tar sands in 2021 compared to 2016. Even more money was poured into fracking. Last year alone, $62 billion was poured into fracking. Wells Fargo more than doubled its fracking investments to $8 billion in 2021. Since the Paris Climate Accord was signed, four U.S. banks are far and away the biggest culprits in fracking — JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citigroup and Bank of America.
Yes, the world’s governments are hypocritical in signing agreements to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions with no enforcement mechanisms and are far from meeting their announced goals. But that certainly is no reason to excuse the financial industry for its significant role in ensuring that more greenhouse gases than ever are thrown into the atmosphere. Or bank hypocrisy. Take London-based Barclays, Europe’s biggest banking contributor to fossil fuel production and the world’s fifth-largest investor in fracking, trailing only the four U.S. banks mentioned just above.
What are we to make of Barclay’s pronouncement, right on its website home page, proclaiming that “Barclays gives shareholders a ‘Say on Climate.’ ” The bank says it will give shareholders “an opportunity to vote on its climate strategy, targets and progress” at its 2022 annual general meeting. Barclays Chairman Nigel Higgins, in a slick pamphlet, claims the bank aims to be “net zero” by 2050. It would seem to be heading in the opposite direction, unless the intention is to pour billions of pounds into fossil fuels until 2049, then magically stop. If the situation weren’t so serious, we could laugh at the chairman’s assertion that “We believe that our original championing of net zero and Paris alignment has made a difference in banking.” If hot air could displace carbon dioxide, I suppose it would make a difference.
The slick pamphlet, 36 pages long, is full of aspirational goals and even goes so far as to proclaim itself a founding member of the Net Zero Banking Alliance, “part of the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero.” How lovely. The result of last year’s Glasgow climate summit was to continue the tradition of “we were happy to talk and we will be happy to talk some more” while making commitments that ensure global temperatures will soar past 2 degrees C. As for Barclay’s, a reader searches in vain for any mention of what shareholders will be asked to vote on. Those affected by fossil fuel production won’t be asked, of course.
If only hot air could be tapped as an energy source
The intent here isn’t to single out Barclays. Rather, this sort of corporate greenwashing is all too typical. The world’s biggest funder of fossil fuel projects, JPMorgan Chase, for example, claims that it has a “commitment to align key sectors of our financing portfolio with the goals of the Paris Agreement” and “we are measuring the emissions of our clients in key sectors of our financing portfolio.” It would seem there are plenty of greenhouse-gas emissions to measure. But are we supposed to be fooled by this folderol?
Similarly, Royal Bank of Canada, the largest non-U.S. funder of fossil fuels and world’s fifth largest overall funder, says with a straight face that is helping clients reach net-zero goals and is “Setting the standard for best-in-class governance, including through our Climate Strategy & Governance group.” We’d hate to see what a lower standard might look like given the $201 billion it invested in fossil fuels from 2016 to 2021, with 2021’s total double that of 2020.
Although paling in comparison to the US$4.6 trillion the biggest banks have ladled out to the fossil fuel industry over the past five years, including $742 billion in 2021, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund have done their part. The World Bank, funded by the world’s governments, in particular those of the Global North, has provided tens of billions of dollars for fossil fuels since the Paris Climate Accords were signed, reports Urgewald, a non-profit environmental and human rights organization based in Germany. This money includes $12 billion in direct project finance in over 35 countries; as much as $20 billion annually given as government budget support, including for coal projects; and billions more for infrastructure projects that enabled new coal-fired plants that would not have been built otherwise.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF), notorious for imposing extreme austerity on peoples around the world as the price for loans, sometimes imposes additional conditions mandating they “roll out the red carpet for the fossil fuel industry,” reports the U.S.-based environmental organization Friends of the Earth. An FOE report found that:
“Aside from the austerity measures it is so well known for, the IMF has been found to attach conditions in its lending to a number of countries that support new tax breaks for Big Oil. One recent study found that IMF loan programs supported new producer subsidies for coal and gas in Mozambique and Mongolia. The Fund also enabled new legislation in these countries to facilitate public finance of fossil fuel projects. As more countries turn to the IMF for help in coping with COVID-19, it is imperative the IMF does not further entrench fossil fuel dependency around the world. But a recent analysis has found that the IMF’s COVID-19 era loans failed to boost green recovery policies. Another study found that most Covid-19 era loans by the IMF call for austerity measures to be implemented once the pandemic crisis subsides, limiting the resources that countries will have to spend on a just and green recovery.”
Nor can the massive industry subsidies be forgotten. A paper prepared in 2015 by, ironically, four IMF economists, found that subsidies for the fossil fuel industry totaled an astounding $5.6 trillion for 2014. This total included environmental damages, including air pollution, in addition to direct corporate subsidies, below-cost consumer pricing and foregone taxes. No, the IMF was not suddenly questioning capitalism, nor did this report, carefully noting that it did not represent the views of the IMF, devote so much as a single word questioning the economic system that has produced such disastrous outcomes. A more recent IMF study found that fossil fuel subsidies have increased to $5.9 trillion, of which 92 percent arose from undercharging for environmental costs and foregone consumption taxes.
Perhaps those responsible for IMF lending practices don’t read their own organization’s papers (or, if they do, ignore them when they contradict the IMF’s mission of enriching capitalists and immiserating working people). Government officials don’t pay attention to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports detailing the dire state of the climate. And oil and gas executives laugh at what they get away with and continue to fund “think tanks” that pump out a steady stream of global warming denial. Canada, during the Stephen Harper régime, went so far as to invent the new crime of being a member of an “anti-Canadian petroleum movement,” equating such a stance with terrorism. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police added to this criminalization of advocating for clean air and water by challenging the very idea that human activity is causing global warming or that global warming is even a problem. The basis on which a police force can make such a declaration is unclear.
Capitalism can’t be anything other than what it is
Capitalist governments, not only those countries like Canada and Australia that are dependent on energy and/or mining exports, are beholden to not only the industrialists and financiers who are the real rulers of the world but to the ever intensifying competitive pressures of capitalism, from which industrialists and financiers are not exempt. The controllers of corporations routinely threaten to move elsewhere if political office holders don’t do as corporate executives demand, and the decisions of those executives are not reviewable no matter the effect on the local area.
For corporate executives and the speculators whom they in turn must indulge, maintaining profits means cutting costs (in the first place, the cost of labor), taking bigger shares of existing markets, forcing open new markets and developing new ways of achieving these goals. An enterprise that doesn’t do these gets run out of business by enterprises that do. Larger enterprises, those big enough to be listed on stock markets, have to increase profits, not maintain them, piling on still more pressure — not only from the competition, but from the financial industry, which holds a whip over the producers and distributors of tangible goods and services. A company that merely has steady profits, no matter how high, will be punished by financial speculators because the stock price won’t rise. Stock prices are bets and claims on future profits, and finance capital is relentless in expecting higher stock prices. A corporate executive team that doesn’t deliver will be forced out and replaced by another team that will do as financiers demand.
A corporation can achieve the necessary profits by reducing wages, through either layoffs or moving production to low-wage locations with few regulations. Corporate globalization is due to precisely that. Corporations can also buy machinery so that they can employ less workers; they are doubly incentivized to do this because the machines can be depreciated, lowering their taxes. As more people are put out of work, faster overall economic growth is needed just to maintain existing employment; thus the long-term tendency of more unemployment and lower wages as more people compete for fewer jobs. As industries in national economies become consolidated in an oligarchy of the handful of giant corporations who survived national competition, the route to growth is to expand elsewhere. As the winners in other countries undergo the same process, the relentless competition, now on a planetary scale, winnows these national winners into a small number of global winners.
And when one competitor gives itself a boost to profits (including by finding the country with the lowest wages), the other competitors have to do the same to stay in business. Profits margins decline as the initial boost is eroded by competitors doing the same; and the next round of “innovation” — finding another country with yet lower wages, more layoffs, work speedups, exemptions from environmental rules, pressure on governments to reduce taxes and eliminate tariffs, and inducing governments to enact draconian “free trade” agreements elevating multinational capital above governments — touches off another round of cost cutting and doing whatever possible to boost profits. This is a cycle that has no end under capitalism.
As this mad, endless growth continues, more must be produced, more must be transported, new sources of energy and raw materials must be exploited and more pollution must be dumped into the environment with no cost to the corporate polluter. More carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases will be thrown into the atmosphere as a direct result of this growth and frenzied activity. Thanks to the massive capital accumulated by the winners of capitalist competition, industrialists and financiers can spend gigantic sums of money spreading propaganda through a network of institutions, bend school and university curricula to their interests, own and control the mass media and buy the political system.
Growth for growth’s sake, and without controls — capitalism is a cancer. A system that nobody controls nor can anybody control it. A system, however, that runs on its own momentum and can’t be anything other than what it is. That we can somehow get control of the machine and make it do good is worse than an illusion.
The future has no value in capitalist economics
Not only is the environment an externality that corporations do not have to account for, thereby dumping the costs on to the public, but orthodox economics doesn’t account for the environment, other than as a source of resources to exploit. The same capitalist market that is nothing more than the aggregate interests of the largest and most powerful industrialists and financiers is supposed to “solve” environmental problems. A May 2009 Monthly Review article by sociologists Richard York, Brett Clark and John Bellamy Foster, “Capitalism in Wonderland,” puts this contradiction in stark perspective:
“Where [orthodox economists] primarily differ is not on their views of the science behind climate change but on their value assumptions about the propriety of shifting burdens to future generations. This lays bare the ideology embedded in orthodox neoclassical economics, a field which regularly presents itself as using objective, even naturalistic, methods for modeling the economy. However, past all of the equations and technical jargon, the dominant economic paradigm is built on a value system that prizes capital accumulation in the short-term, while de-valuing everything else in the present and everything altogether in the future.”
From that perspective, it follows that present-day environmental damage is of minimal concern to capitalists and future damage of no concern. The industrialists and financiers who reap billions today won’t necessarily be around when the environmental price becomes too high to avoid. The “Capitalism in Wonderland” authors write:
[H]uman life in effect is worth only what each person contributes to the economy as measured in monetary terms. So, if global warming increases mortality in Bangladesh, which it appears likely that it will, this is only reflected in economic models to the extent that the deaths of Bengalis hurt the economy. Since Bangladesh is very poor, [orthodox] economic models … would not estimate it to be worthwhile to prevent deaths there since these losses would show up as minuscule in the measurements. … [E]thical concerns about the intrinsic value of human life and of the lives of other creatures are completely invisible in standard economic models. Increasing human mortality and accelerating the rate of extinctions are to most economists only problems if they undermine the ‘bottom line.’ In other respects they are invisible: as is the natural world as a whole.”
Every incentive is for more
Lest we doubt that orthodox economists are moving down a down a slippery slope in which some humans are valuable and others are without value, recall the infamous memo of Lawrence Summers, written when he was chief economist for the World Bank, in which he wrote:
“I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that. … The costs of pollution are likely to be non-linear as the initial increments of pollution probably have very low cost. I’ve always thought that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly UNDER-polluted.”
The modern corporation has a legal duty only to provide the maximum profit for its shareholders. In other words, it is expected to act to further its own interest without regard to anything else. The corporation is considered a legal person under U.S. law — one that has no biological limits nor barriers to its growth. Joel Bakan, in the introduction to his book The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, summed up capitalism’s dominant institution this way:
“The corporation’s legally defined mandate is to pursue, relentlessly and without exception, its own self-interest, regardless of the often harmful consequences it might cause to others. As a result, I argue, the corporation is a pathological institution, a dangerous possessor of the great power it wields over people and societies.”
That pathological institution is controlled by, and the wealth produced for, a tiny percentage of people. We can call them the one percent (using the language of Occupy Wall Street), the bourgeoisie (using classical terminology), or industrialists and financiers (using broad labels). Their towering piles of money, hidden away in tax havens and secret bank accounts, are directly built on the backs, the sweat and labor, of their employees. This would be the case even without the added bonus of corporate personhood. Yet no matter how successful today, corporations must expand and be ruthless in beating the competition on pain of going under tomorrow. Every incentive is for more growth, more production, more consumption. Nobody, not even the biggest or most powerful capitalist, has the ability to stop or control it. Even capitalists ride the tiger, although of course they have vastly better ability to manage the vicissitudes of capitalist competition than do working people.
Capitalism is a system that is built, and functions, to generate profit, not to meet needs. If you doubt that, then why are extraordinary amounts of money spent on advertising to get us to buy what we don’t need? If global warming is to be reversed, a rational economic system based on human need, not on private profit, is what is needed. Cooperation for the common good, not competition for the profit of a few at any cost. Is corporate profit really worth the destruction of Earth’s livability?