Person Behind Rhode Island’s Climate Protests Wants to Rupture Funding Pipeline
November 29, 2021
For the past few years Brian Wilder has been picking on Chase Bank. In 2019, when the New York City-based bank was close to opening its first Rhode Island branch, at the intersection of Thayer and Angell streets in Providence, Wilder and a group of like-minded activists welcomed the JPMorgan Chase subsidiary wearing hazmat suits and holding homemade signs that accused the bank of funding mass extinction and the climate crisis.
They aren’t wrong. Chase Bank has a propensity to fund the fossil fuel industry. A report published earlier this year by the Rainforest Action Network and the Sierra Club titled Banking on Climate Chaos referred to Chase Bank as the world’s worst “fossil bank,” noting it contributed $51.3 billion in fossil fuel financing last year and a total of $317 billion from 2016 to 2020. The bank’s financing is used to fund such extractive operations as tar sands mining and hydraulic fracturing (fracking).
In fact, the top four fossil fuel financing banks, including Chase, are all based in the United States: Citibank spent $48.4 billion last year and a total of $237 billion since 2016; Wells Fargo spent $26 billion in 2020 (the report did note the bank’s fossil fuel financing actually fell by 42 percent last year); and Bank of America has spent nearly $200 billion in the past five years.
The Banking on Climate Chaos report also includes several case studies that show the impact the continued mega-financing of fossil fuels has on low-income communities and people of color, who are being disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis.
Another report, published in 2019, found that several major U.S. banks increased their investments in fossil fuels every year since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2016, with Chase lending the largest amount to the most fossil fuel projects worldwide.
Wilder, director of Climate Action Rhode Island’s campaign to end fossil fuel funding, concedes the polluting industry won’t stop until every methane bubble, tar sands deposit, coal vein, and oil well has been tapped. He said the key to stopping the relentless burning of fossil fuels that is destroying the global ecosystem humans and countless other living things rely on to survive and thrive is to shut off the funding pipeline.
“The fossil fuel companies will do what they want to do until they extract all of it,” he said. “The banks have a wider concern, as they like to portray themselves as civic organizations. But fossil fuel companies can’t do these projects unless they have the backing of banks and insurance companies. The most important thing we can do is change corporate behavior.”
That is why Wilder, Climate Action Rhode Island, Sunrise Providence, and their support network have held some 40 protests and actions since 2018 — the coronavirus pandemic, especially last year, culled such gatherings. When held, these demonstrations focus on making banks and insurance companies uncomfortable because of their ties to an industry that is simultaneously burning and drowning the world.
Fossil fuel companies need bank loans and insurance protection. For example, clients of Liberty Mutual, the fifth-largest property-casualty insurance company in the United States with nearly $40 billion in premium revenue in 2019, include some major fossil fuel projects, including the Keystone XL pipeline, the Trans Mountain tar sands pipeline, and the Mariner East II natural gas pipeline.
The fossil fuel industry may not give climate advocates a second thought, but it is harder for banks to shake off bad publicity. That is why Wilder, a Cranston resident, and fellow activists, such as Elizabeth O’Connell of Warren and Diane Hill of North Kingstown, often appear outside pro-petroleum banks or visit their branch lobbies — to let these institutions know their investment choices are helping to endanger the environment and public health.
I spoke with the three activists in early November at a Providence coffee shop. As we shared an outside table, they discussed concerns for their grandchildren’s future, lamented the loss of flora and fauna linked to the polluting ways of fossil fuels, and explained why they make time to protest even if friends and family show marginal support.
“Young people are anxious about their future,” Hill said. O’Connell called this human-made situation “frustrating,” “enraging,” and “dispiriting.”
The three advocates for climate action noted the problems — massive wildfires, prolonged droughts, increased flooding, population displacement, and more frequent and intense storms — we all face as fossil fuel exploration and extraction continues unabated.
Wilder, a retired union representative and community organizer, said Chase Bank, by funding these fossil fuel projects, is poisoning the planet and profiting from a crisis.
He and his fellow activists want Rhode Islanders to reject the banking behemoth until it changes its practices. They have been joined by other environmental action groups across the country calling on Chase and other too-big-to-fail banks to divest from fossil fuels.
They encourage Rhode Islanders to do their banking with People’s Credit Union, Navigant Credit Union, Washington Trust, and/or BankNewport (full disclosure: ecoRI News does its banking with BankNewport.)
Wilder said banking with local financial institutions that have limited investment in fossil fuel infrastructure is one response to the statement he hears routinely about the climate crisis: “There’s nothing I can do about it.”
The fact Chase Bank’s leadership and shareholders seem to care little about future generations and environmental health isn’t surprising. They don’t seem to much care about anything other than profit, no matter the damage inflicted.
Eight years ago the bank agreed to pay $5.1 billion in restitution for mortgage fraud, which included foreclosures on people who weren’t even Chase customers, and another $13 billion to settle charges that the bank overstated the quality of mortgages it was selling to investors in the run-up to the 2007-08 financial crisis.
Four years ago, Chase paid $55 million to settle a lawsuit that claimed it charged thousands of Black and Brown borrowers higher interest rates on mortgages than White customers.
A 2020 analysis found that from 2012 to 2018 Chase Bank had the worst lending disparity rate of any bank doing business in Chicago, lending only 2.4 cents in Black neighborhoods for every dollar lent in White neighborhoods.
The bank’s own employees have accused Chase of allowing its retirement fund managers to pick in-house investment products over cheaper rivals, costing employees “tens of millions of dollars in losses” to their 401(k)s.
Chase Bank is the largest U.S. bank when it comes to assets, with access to $3.19 trillion. The bank’s CEO, Jamie Dimon, receives some $30 million in compensation annually.
Wilder and Climate Action Rhode Island have spent the past few years bringing attention to Chase’s less-than-stellar community record.
In late October, Wilder, Hill, O’Connell, and about 30 other activists retuned to the intersection of Thayer and Angell streets, this time with members of the Jewish Youth Climate Movement of Rhode Island. To dramatize the deadly consequences of Chase’s immense fossil fuel investing, many supporters dressed as zombies.
In early August, Climate Action Rhode Island held a protest at Chase Bank’s first southern Rhode Island branch, on Kingstown Road in South Kingstown.
This past spring, the organization, part of the 350.org global movement, hand-delivered Greenwashing Certificate of Achievement awards to eight Rhode Island Chase branches, “for successfully completing the most outrageous and deceptive greenwashing of any major corporation in 2021.”
The initiative was part of a nationwide effort that saw hundreds of Chase Bank branches receive such a certificate.
Wilder said the protests are a long-term strategy, noting one or two actions won’t change anything. The group’s sustained efforts are about making Chase and other big banks redirect their funding to renewable energy and power-grid improvements. It is also about getting these banks to end their aforementioned greenwashing — ineffective actions taken in bad faith, such as Chase’s sly climate emissions accounting scheme based on what it calls “carbon intensity.” Wilder called it a public-relations stunt. O’Connell said it is nothing but a bunch of vague claims. Hill called it deceptive jargon.
Chase Bank measures clients’ carbon intensity by “evaluating ongoing progress and integrating carbon performance considerations into business decision-making.”
“We need to keep the pressure on, so we educate the public that they shouldn’t be doing business with institutions that back the fossil fuel industry,” Wilder said.
He said the major financial institutions, including Chase, at least now admit the climate crisis exists, even if they have done little to help solve the problem. He noted big banks and multinational corporations now mention climate change in their quarterly reports. He said investment in Arctic drilling and coal mining is waning.
Faced with other crises, the United States and the world have responded. During World War II, the U.S. economy was essentially transformed overnight. Congress swelled the tax base by lowering the minimum taxable income and reducing personal exemptions and deductions. Victory gardens were planted. Meat consumption was reduced. The federal government imposed a speed limit of 35 mph to reduce gas consumption.
In the late 1980s, a global agreement, the Montreal Protocol, was signed to protect the stratospheric ozone layer by phasing out the production and use of ozone-depleting substances, such as chlorofluorocarbons.
The climate crisis demands similar action.
“We have a moral imperative here to do something,” Hill said. “If we’re going down, I’m going down fighting. I want to be able to look my grandchildren in the eye and tell them I tried.”
Frank Carini is the ecoRI News editor.