Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
BY SVITLANA ROMANKO AND BILL MCKIBBEN
MARCH 9, 2022 3 AM PT
We are worlds apart now, one of us terrorized amid the wreckage of invaded Ukraine and the other entirely safe in the United States. But because we’ve been engaged in the same global fight against fossil fuels for decades, we are well-situated to see some of the key drivers behind this wretched moment, and hence some of the solutions.
Above all, it’s obvious that the world’s banks have amorally worked to build Russia’s oil and gas industry, the industry that funds the Russian army, and the industry that Vladimir Putin has used as a cudgel for decades to keep Europe cowering. And that’s why we cheered so loudly Tuesday when President Biden — as part of his ban on Russian oil — told American banks to make no new investments in Putin’s oil. As Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky tweeted, it strikes at the heart of Putin’s war machine.
And it is what more than a million people around the world — and more than 75 prominent NGOs — have demanded. Indeed, Wall Street and the banks must go further and stop the ongoing funding of fossil fuels everywhere, because they are the bulwark of autocracy and the death of the natural world. The sooner we replace oil, gas and coal with cheap, safe renewable energy, the sooner we can all live in peace.
If you think the links between American banks, oil and Russia’s war-making aren’t deep and profound, think again.
Consider, say, JPMorgan Chase, the largest bank in the world, and the largest lender to the fossil fuel industry. For decades it was the house bank to Exxon, largest of the world’s oil companies — David Rockefeller, heir to that great oil fortune, built Chase into a global giant. And Exxon could not have been more deeply involved in building Russia: Putin actually pinned a medal on the chest of Exxon’s former Chief Executive Rex Tillerson — the “Order of Friendship.” Friendship, in this case, entailed billions of dollars spent to help the Russian state oil company Rosneft search for oil and gas in the Arctic.
Exxon, reading the room, announced on March 1 that it would quit the last of its Russian entanglements in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine. And shortly before Biden’s announcement, Chase started taking Russian investments — including oil — off its investment indexes. But of course the damage has already been done.
The banks have happily profited off Putin’s Russia, even after its expansionist aims were clear. The invasion of Georgia didn’t slow them down, nor the annexation of Crimea. Likewise, they’ve happily profited off fossil fuels, even after science made the climate-disaster link crystal clear. The melt of the Arctic didn’t slow them down, nor the fires of California.
But perhaps this is the moment: Maybe the uncanny confluence of last week’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report chronicling just how little time we have left to deal with global warming and the hideous sight of Russian shells crashing into Kyiv apartment blocks will free up new thinking. What if banks refused once and for all to deal with the oil companies, and instead freed up the capital necessary for a rapid retooling of our energy world to make it both safe and clean?
With an influx of funding, we could, for instance, produce air source heat pumps by the millions and ship them to Europe, so by next winter they could be installed, heating homes and putting a noticeable dent in Putin’s oil-and-gas leverage — it would be FDR’s lend-lease program, but for a new day. We could quickly build out the network of electric buses, bikes and cars that would depress demand worldwide for Putin’s fossil fuels, and that of other oil autocrats and bullies, from the Saudi royal family to the Koch network.
What if we stopped believing that history determines today’s reality, that the future has to look like the past? Ukrainians are remaking their history in these tragic but remarkable days with their shockingly brave resistance to a war machine funded by oil and gas. Surely bankers safe in their peaceful offices can chart a new course. Or we can force them to.
Big banks have waffled and wavered over and over; just last fall at the climate summit in Glasgow they engaged in industrial-scale greenwashing as they claimed their “net zero” climate targets wouldn’t preclude them from lending to oil companies for the next round of pipelines or fracking wells.
Now some may engage in bloodwashing, pretending that somehow they’re helping the people whose misery they’ve ensured by their years of backing Putin. But we can push hard at the lies.
Even if the banks shift their priorities, it will have come too late for the brave people dead in Hostomel, Bucha, Irpin, Kyiv, Sumy, Kharkiv, Kherson, Volnovakha, Mariupol. But as Putin’s war and his occupation of Ukraine grind on, it could help.
Ukraine is in the crosshairs now, but we all share a planet that we must protect. These hideous days represent a decision point for the world, perhaps the last one we’re going to get. The most powerful forces on the globe may be its giant banks — they’re the “capital” in capitalism. As they go, so goes our Earth, the countries that it comprises, and the world’s people that increasingly live in fear.
Svitlana Romanko, in Ivano-Frankvisk in western Ukraine, and Bill McKibben, in Vermont, have worked together for years at 350.org, the global climate organization. She founded the Stand With Ukraine campaign, calling on governments to ban trade and investment in Russian oil and gas. He founded Third Act, a progressive organizing group for people over 60.