As Global Firms Divest from the Arctic, One Still Needs to Come in from the Cold

As COVID-19 ran rampant in our world, forcing an international shutdown, we witnessed a noticeable and dramatic drop in greenhouse gas emissions and pollution around the globe. Clear skies are being seen for the first time in ages in Lebanon , where they have recorded a 70% drop in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and in Los Angeles where the NO2 pollution dropped 33%.  Even at the top of the world, in the Himalayan region, the mountains are visible from almost 100 miles away for the first time in decades, due to the lack of pollution.  In fact, the Global Carbon Project is expecting a world-wide drop in carbon emissions of 5% in 2020, the “largest amount since World War Two.”  However, it is not expected that once this emergency is over, that these decreases will have any lasting impact on climate change.

While our consumption habits plainly have an effect on the delicate global balance, a temporary suspension will never make a big enough dent to turn back the clock on the climate disruption. This means that we have to make even more serious commitments to reverse anthropogenically caused climate change at its source: the consumption and production of fossil fuels, particularly in one of the most sensitive places on the planet, the Arctic.

We are in an era when information is widely available regarding the climate disruption that is upon us. The 2018 International Panel on Climate Change report gave a very clear ultimatum with regard to the crisis: we must address it with the utmost urgency if we are to avoid impending disaster. The planet continues to heat up with record high temperatures hitting both the Arctic and Antarctica, increasing the speed of glacial melt, and answers on how to slow or stop it are complicated, but clear nonetheless, and largely rely on financial support.

Since April 2017, there has been a surge in the financial world pushing back on climate change. Citing commitments made to the 2015 Paris Agreement, as well as social and political pressures as their impetus, nineteen international firms have pulled financing from any new oil and gas exploration and production projects in the Arctic, including JP Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, CitiGroup  and Morgan Stanley and just last month, Deutsche Bank. However, there is one outlier bank who has refused to make this change: the Bank of America.

Bank of America’s Brian Moynihan, who is CEO of the second largest American bank, stated at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2020 that banks should not be divesting from these projects, saying “we should lend to those companies to make them progress faster, rather than divest from them, which won’t help them at all.” This statement occludes the fact that Bank of America is shirking its responsibility on climate change. While Bank of America has made many strides in cutting greenhouse gas emissions from its internal operations, they remain the fourth largest investor of fossil fuels globally, according to the 2020 Banking on Climate Change report, released by the Rainforest Action Network, the Sierra Club, and BankTrack. B of A made the largest increase of any financial institution between 2018-2019, ranked third biggest investor in the expansion of fossil fuels, added $231 million to coal projects and even added $4 million to Arctic oil & gas projects, all while multiple other global banks are pulling out of the Arctic completely. To willingly refuse to divest from oil and gas exploration and production projects and instead increase your investments in Arctic oil is frankly, reckless.

The Banking on Climate Change 2019reportgave Bank of America a solid D- in terms of policy regarding expansion of fossil fuel projects, including tar sands (D), the Arctic (D), ultra-deep mining, fracking and LNG (all D-) with the best grade being in coal mining (C+). Despite that comparatively high grade, it should be known that B of A has engaged in financing coal projects with Brazilian firm, Vale, to be sustained through 2024. The 2020 Banking on Climate Change report notes that of the $156.9 billion that Bank of America invested in fossil fuels last year, only 0.2% or $327 million are invested in Arctic projects. It seems incredulous that such a mega-power would be willing to sustain the guaranteed political and social backlash over such a tiny part of their portfolio, when they could easily reroute those monies to helping those same companies to develop green energy technologies, instead of projects that are proven to be detrimental to our planet.

As evidence from think tanks and scientists hasn’t seemed to be enough to persuade the B of A, multiple senators from the United States government recently pleaded with them and other banks to change their plans in the Arctic, saying, “The scale of your banks’ assets individually, let alone together, give you the ability to drive change in protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and in shifting towards a U.S. financial sector that effectively analyzes and plans for climate risk.” While some investment banks are heeding these calls to be leaders in the fight against the climate emergency, the Bank of America is willingly dismissing them.

It falls to all of us to commit to the planet we inhabit and do everything within our power to reverse this climate disruption. We cannot be lulled into believing that recent decreases in greenhouse gas emissions and pollution around the globe are an indication that we are winning this fight. Our very survival depends on total buy-in, vitally and especially from the financial sector, as they hold the keys to all future energy projects. We know that the Arctic, the planet’s air conditioner, is warming faster than any other place on Earth. It is reckless and immoral to willingly refuse to make a commitment that would have an immediate impact on this cycle. There is no more time to waste, the evidence is clear. We should encourage the Bank of America to be the global leader that they can be, and cease funding oil and gas exploration in the Arctic and reroute any monies towards creating a sustainable future for us all.

Environmental activist Sally Barr is completing a Master’s degree from New York University’s Center of Global Affairs in Energy and Environment. She has worked in the circular economy, medical relief, publishing and entertainment fields.

Sally Barr