Why Seniors Are Blocking Entrances to the 4 Largest U.S. Banks

Courtesy of Third Act and Wendy Benchley
Wendy Benchley cuts up a credit card while scuba diving in Key West, Fla.

When customers of America’s four largest banks visit their local branches on Tuesday, they might be greeted by an unfamiliar sight: activists in rocking chairs blocking the entrances.

It’s part of a national campaign to pressure banks to stop financing fossil fuels and heed warnings from leading scientists about the need to rapidly phase out oil, gas and coal to avert the worst effects of climate change.

The rocking chairs are the brainchild of Third Act, a group that seeks to engage Americans 60 and older – those in their “third act” of life – in environmental activism. But the demonstrations have drawn attendees of all ages in about 100 cities across 29 states, according to the 53 groups organizing the events.

The protests add to the mounting environmental pressures on Wall Street from politicians of both parties. Liberal lawmakers have pleaded with large financial institutions to cut ties with the fossil fuel industry, while conservatives have attacked what they see as “woke” capitalism, a reference to companies that treat climate change as an economic risk.

Caught in the middle are four banks – JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citibank and Wells Fargo – that rank as the world’s largest lenders to the fossil fuel industry, according to a report released last year by Rainforest Action Network and other environmental groups. Since the 2015 adoption of the Paris climate accord, the four firms together have provided more than $1 trillion in lending and underwriting to companies building new coal plants, natural gas pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure.

“In certain ways, if we can get the banks to shift, that would probably have more global impact than getting Congress to shift,” said Bill McKibben, the author and climate activist who launched Third Act in 2021. “Washington doesn’t really run the world anymore. But Wall Street still kind of does.”

Mobilizing boomers on climate

In recent years, young people have dominated climate activism globally, with Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg organizing school strikes and the youth-led Sunrise Movement pushing Congress to pass last year’s landmark climate bill. But McKibben said baby boomers – defined as people born between 1946 and 1964 – have a moral responsibility to join the climate crusade.

“If you’re 65 now, you’ve been on this planet for something like 80 percent of the carbon dioxide that’s ever been emitted,” he said. “There’s a debt to be paid, and there are ways to pay it.”

Activists started planning the protests well before the March 10 failure of Silicon Valley Bank. But in its wake, consumers and businesses have poured tens of thousands of dollars into the coffers of the nation’s biggest banks because of their perceived safety, making the demonstrations more timely, organizers said.

On Monday, a dire report by the world’s top climate scientists injected further urgency into the demonstrations. The report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that nations must rapidly shift their economies away from fossil fuels to prevent the most catastrophic consequences of climate change, including several feet of sea level rise, the extinction of hundreds of species and the migration of millions of people from places where they can no longer survive.

One of Tuesday’s biggest protests drew hundreds of people to the heart of the nation’s capital. A rally downtown featured remarks by environmental leaders including Ben Jealous, the new executive director of the Sierra Club and former head of the NAACP.

“The big banks in the U.S. are really participating in the No. 1 threat to the future of our planet,” Jealous said in an interview before the rally. “When I was president of the NAACP, I sued the big banks successfully to change their behavior when it came to discrimination. And now that I’m leading the Sierra Club, I see a similar need to put pressure on the banks to get them out of the business of financing fossil fuels.”

The demonstration in Washington ended at an intersection downtown where both Chase and Wells Fargo have branches. Dozens of activists sat in colorfully painted rocking chairs outside both entrances. Elsewhere in the country, activists cut up their credit cards.

Though organizers are encouraging customers of the biggest four banks to take their business elsewhere, they say the main point of the protests is to push those banks to change their policies. “The key is to push them in the months ahead to shift – that’s more important than purifying your own wallet!” McKibben said via email.

Wendy Benchley, an ocean conservationist and the widow of “Jaws” writer Peter Benchley, has already snipped her card while scuba diving in Key West, Fla., where warming waters have triggered severe coral bleaching events.

“The coral reefs are in terrible trouble,” Benchley said. “And right now the big banks are planning to have more fossil fuel infrastructure built for another 20 or 30 years. It’s just absolutely tragic.”

Which banks are the biggest funders of fossil fuels?

Chase, the subsidiary of JPMorgan Chase, was the largest financier of fossil fuels from 2016 to 2021, providing roughly $382.4 billion, according to the report by Rainforest Action Network and other environmental groups. Citi was the second-largest over that period, providing about $285.4 billion. (The latest version of the report, covering 2017 to 2022, is set to be released in April.)

Charlotte Powell, a spokeswoman for JPMorgan Chase, pushed back on the report’s findings, pointing to a separate analysis by BloombergNEF that found the firm was the largest financier of renewable energy in 2021 and 2022, facilitating more than $175 billion.

“These efforts help put us well on our way to our target of $1 trillion for green initiatives over 10 years, including for technology that will tackle climate change but does not even exist yet,” Powell said in an email.

Citi, too, has touted its strides toward sustainability. The bank in 2021 committed to reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions associated with its financing activities by 2050, and for its operations by 2030. Citi has also committed to $1 trillion in sustainable finance by the end of the decade.

“Citi respects the advocacy of climate activists and their right to protest, and we share the goal of transitioning to a low-carbon economy,” a spokeswoman said in an email.

Wells Fargo spokeswoman Jennifer Manfre said in an email that the bank, which has also set a goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, “believes that climate change is one of the most urgent environmental and social issues of our time.”

Bank of America did not respond to a request for comment.

Across the Atlantic, London-based HSBC, the largest bank in Europe, said in December it would stop financing new oil and gas drilling. The move followed a year of pressure from shareholders and activists.

“It’s not an entirely impossible quest,” said Lawrence MacDonald, 68, a climate activist from Arlington, Va., who helped organize the Washington protest. “HSBC took a very good step.”

Other Wall Street titans, however, have assured conservative critics they are still investing in fossil fuels. Asset managers are not “the environmental police,” BlackRock chief executive Larry Fink wrote in his annual letter to investors last week, adding the firm has continued to invest in natural gas pipelines.

At the same time, Fink defended his embrace of ESG – environmental, social and governance – investing, which has made him a top target for Republican lawmakers.

“For years now, we have viewed climate risk as an investment risk,” he wrote. “That’s still the case.”