The long-shot campaign to get big banks out of fossil fuels

Exterior of a Bank of America branch.
Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, and Goldman Sachs all faced shareholder votes to crack down on funding for fossil fuels expansion. Though all measures failed, they’ll face the same test again. | Stephen Chernin/Getty Images

Climate activists lost this week against big banks. Don’t count them out just yet.

This week, shareholders at Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and Goldman Sachs voted on resolutions recommending the companies stop any additional financing for fossil fuel projects.

All the resolutions failed, pretty spectacularly, garnering just over 10 percent of the vote. Despite that failure, the votes were notable examples of a strategy climate activists are implementing with increasing boldness: pressuring institutions from the inside to make meaningful reforms on climate change.

It’s one that showed some signs of success at the shareholder meetings of energy companies last year, and is also one advocates like Kate Monahan — director of shareholder advocacy at Trillium Asset Management, a fund that sponsored the climate resolution at Bank of America on Tuesday — believe will eventually bear fruit more broadly.

“I’m optimistic that we can build the vote over time,” she said. “This is a totally new type of proposal. So 11 percent, I think, is a really good base on which to build for next year.”

The incremental approach this strategy entails can seem frustrating, considering the scientific consensus that the world needs to stop financing new fossil fuel development today. But there is reason to believe it could ultimately have an impact.

The current shareholder push has its roots in the divestment movement, which saw climate activists building a case to a conservative audience of financial institutions, universities, and state pension funds that they should divest their investments from fossil fuel companies. After a decade and a litany of failures, powerful players relented — including Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, Harvard University, and New York state’s pension fund.

Now, the global fossil fuel divestment movement has come to represent about $40 trillion in assets. Other firms, like the world’s largest asset manager BlackRock, have made public commitments to align their funds with climate targets.

It’s that success that has led the groups behind this week’s resolutions, like the Sierra Club Foundation and asset mangers Harrington Investments and Trillium, to apply daring pressure campaigns at annual shareholder meetings.

The largest institutional shareholders at big banks are still clearly skeptical of this latest ask to stop new fossil fuel finance immediately. In part, that’s because the campaign hasn’t reached the same heights as the divestment movement — just yet.

The long road to changing the conversation around banks’ role in financing a climate crisis

All the banks with meetings this week (and JPMorgan Chase and Morgan Stanley, which have shareholder votes next month), joined a coalition at last fall’s climate conference in Glasgow aligning their financing with reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Despite that pledge, the same banks all still fund fossil fuel development that ensures they are not aligned with these longer-term targets.

“Now we need to see the policies that will actually make that happen,” Loren Blackford, the investor committee chair of the Sierra Club Foundation’s board of directors, said.

To that end, SCF’s proposal (similar to the others from this week) requested Goldman Sachs commit to “proactive measures to ensure that the firm’s lending and underwritten activities do not contribute to new fossil fuel development.”

It argued there were two problems: that Goldman Sachs’s “prominence in asserting climate leadership flies in the face of its actions, creating reputation risk from accusations of greenwashing” and that the bank is putting its long-term stability and gains at risk by pouring money into a dying industry — “knowingly loading potentially stranded assets onto its clients’ balance sheets, creating litigation risk.”

Big banks are indeed continuing to fund fossil fuel expansion: Last year alone, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, and Bank of America spent a combined $137 billion on fossil fuel projects, according to a report from a coalition of environmental advocacy groups, Banking on Climate Chaos. (JPMorgan Chase by itself spent over $61 billion in 2021 on fossil fuels.)

There are a few reasons for this.

One is that banks are deeply intertwined with fossil fuel companies even though their rhetoric suggests the opposite. The Banking on Climate Chaos report found that the 60 biggest banks spent about $4.6 trillion on fossil fuel investments since the 2015 Paris climate agreement, and about $742 billion last year alone. The pandemic illustrated just how exposed banks are to volatility in the oil market. When global demand for oil plummeted in 2020, big banks like JPMorgan advocated on behalf of oil companies for federal stimulus.

Climate advocates argue the only way to avoid similar fallout again is by limiting further investment in the sector. Bank boards disagree, so much so that they went to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to block this week’s votes. When the SEC didn’t intervene, the boards campaigned against the proposals. Goldman’s board finally said that it’s committed to the climate goals set out six years ago in Paris; however, they said, “We do not believe that placing limits on financing to producers will result in either reduction in emissions or demand for fossil fuels.”

Another factor is current turmoil in the oil market, caused by Russia’s war on Ukraine. That made any climate proposal a harder sell to major asset managers who are worried about their bottom line.

The importance of swaying the wealthiest companies owning stock at any given meeting — particularly firms like BlackRock and Vanguard — can’t be understated either. These two asset managers backed the climate proposals at energy companies last year, ensuring their victory. And although BlackRock and Vanguard have not yet disclosed their votes from this week, it’s expected, given the final results, they didn’t support the 2022 initiatives. Getting BlackRock on board, along with pension funds and other major asset managers, will be crucial to raise the stakes for financial institutions.

Changing banks’ approach to fossil fuels is difficult, not necessarily impossible

There are a few reasons for hope though.

One is that the play to get a giant corporation’s attention at the general shareholder meetings is not particularly new, and success doesn’t always entirely depend on getting to a majority. In 2019, for instance, environmental campaigners attempted to get Goldman Sachs to stop financing Arctic oil exploration. The company responded by making an initial pledge commitment not to fund drilling in the Arctic.

Another is climate activists’ successes in last year’s oil company meetings. Shareholders at Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Phillips 66 voted for more disclosure on climate preparation. And ExxonMobil lost three board seats to climate activist-backed candidates. In these cases, shareholders actually overrode the board’s recommendations against taking climate action.

Finally, there has been growing momentum for more climate disclosure and commitment from companies. Corporate governance analysts at the research group The Conference Board tracked how the average vote for climate-related proposals grew from 24 percent in 2019 up to 32 percent in 2020 (the investor-focused nonprofit Ceres counted another 10-point jump to 41 percent in 2021).

Every year that passes is another year that the world comes up short on its climate commitments. The International Energy Agency and the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have all asserted that averting the worst of climate change requires the world to stop investing in new fossil fuels, immediately. So rather than play it safe, activists are going bigger and bolder with their resolutions.

Some end in failure. But they’re also banking that someday soon, they might not.

“It may not be a quick process,” Monahan said. “But we believe it’s important for us to try.”

Correction, 11 am: A previous version of this article erroneously referred to the Sierra Club rather than the Sierra Club Foundation, the independent fiscal sponsor of the Sierra Club. It also misstated Loren Blackford’s title; she is the investor committee chair of the Sierra Club Foundation’s board of directors.

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