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How Banks Could Bail Us Out of the Climate Crisis

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On Friday, the Comptroller of the Currency, Brian Brooks, proposed a new rule that would prohibit banks from refusing to lend to “entire categories” of lawful businesses. It is, Brooks explained, an attempt to stop the “weaponization of banking,” insuring fair access to loans for controversial businesses. He cited private prisons and weapons manufacturers as possible beneficiaries, but there can be no doubt about another reason for the rule (which may or may not have time to take effect before the Trump Administration departs): activists have begun persuading banks to stop some of their massive lending to the fossil-fuel industry. In particular, five of the six largest American banks have said that they won’t fund oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a project that Trump is desperate to have under way before he leaves office. (Bank of America is the last holdout, apparently uncertain whether wrecking America’s largest wildlife refuge in search of more oil to further warm the climate is an idea sufficiently evil not to try to make some money off of it.)

The idea that the banks are discriminating against the fossil-fuel industry is, of course, absurd. They’ve lent it trillions of dollars in the four years since the signing of the Paris climate accord; JPMorgan Chase, alone, has sent more than a quarter-trillion its way. But the pressure of campaigns like Stop the Money Pipeline (my involvement included getting arrested at a Chase branch in January) has clearly begun to tell: last month, Chase said that, henceforth, it will “align” its lending with the Paris targets. That’s a breezy promise with as yet no real meaning—and activists know that distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine means, among many other things, a chance to resume civil-disobedience campaigns.

In the meantime, however, most people need a bank and a credit card. As it happens, there are alternatives to the big players. Local credit unions are, in most cases, unconnected to the fossil-fuel industry. Headquartered on the East Coast, the Amalgamated Bank is fully disengaged from fossil fuels, as is the Beneficial State Bank, on the West Coast. Aspiration, on the Web, is a bank in all but name (deposits are F.D.I.C. insured), and it’s made cleanness a chief selling point. It commissioned a poll earlier this autumn that found that thirty-nine per cent of all voters said they’d be likely to move their “money to an account that never uses customer deposits to fund oil and gas.” (Aspiration has also set up a scheme for credit-card holders, which lets them automatically round up each purchase to the next dollar, and uses the cents generated with each transaction to plant trees—nearly three million so far, with a goal of a hundred million.) Among the larger lenders, Bank of the West, headquartered in San Francisco, stands out: its French parent company, BNP Paribas, has gone more deeply green than most banking giants, and now the Conservation Alliance, a consortium of more than two hundred and fifty businesses in the outdoors industry, has announced that it is ditching Bank of America for B.O.T.W., which doesn’t bankroll coal, tar sands, shale oil, and Arctic drilling.

A deeper solution may lie in a bill introduced by the congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, of New York, and Rashida Tlaib, of Michigan—which would, in the words of Vox’s Emily Stewart, “foster the creation of public banks across the country by providing them a pathway to getting started, establishing an infrastructure for liquidity and credit facilities for them via the Federal Reserve, and setting up federal guidelines for them to be regulated.” Under the law, these city and state banks would be prohibited from lending to the fossil-fuel industry—more to the point, they’d be responsive to local opportunities for development, including harnessing the wind and sun found in every part of the country. (In Germany, four hundred municipal banks have provided seventy per cent of the funding for the country’s transition to renewable energy.) There is a precedent for such a thing in American history: the state bank chartered in North Dakota, in 1919. It’s hard to imagine that the frack zone currently being described as “North Dacovid,” for its elected leaders’ unwillingness to take the pandemic seriously, was once a progressive hot spot, but prairie populism a century ago drove the creation of the Bank of North Dakota, which turns a profit even as its participation in loans from smaller, local banks lowers the cost of credit.

Given all the crises currently facing us, it may be difficult to see public banking becoming a priority. (Though it’s worth remembering that both Tlaib and Ocasio-Cortez sit on the House financial services committee, chaired by California’s Maxine Waters.) But the idea is growing: California passed legislation last year allowing public banks in that state, followed closely by New Jersey; there are also initiatives moving in Pennsylvania, Oregon, and New Mexico. Banks have helped cause much of the crisis we find ourselves in; it would be fascinating if they turned out to be one of the solutions.

Passing the Mic

Ruth DeFries is a professor of ecology and sustainable development at Columbia University and a MacArthur Fellow. Her new book, “What Would Nature Do? A Guide for Our Uncertain Times,” will be out in December.

Nature is obviously skilled at dealing with disease. What advice from other species might come in handy dealing with COVID-19? Or with the spread of false reality?

Ants, termites, and other social insects live in crowded, densely packed colonies akin to cities. Curiously, they do not often succumb to epidemics from infections that could sweep through a colony. Why not? When a pathogen comes into their colony, they instinctively sanitize their nests with plant resins, dying members leave the nest of their own volition, and healthy insects drag sick nest-mates and corpses away from the nest. Human societies would obviously not promote such self-sacrificing measures. But the insects also have a strategy that mirrors the way people are dealing with the pandemic. These tiny creatures collectively manage their social networks to curtail the spread. Their networks are highly clustered and modular. With the threat of a pathogen, the clusters can quickly close off contact with the others. Our notion of “pods” to cluster with family and friends has roots in the natural world.

When it comes to the spread of false reality, the same principle applies. False realities circulate in social clusters that don’t communicate with each other. From nature’s example, the solution is to cut off the false information before it can spread in the cluster. Of course, political reality is quite different.

What does this analysis tell you about how humans are different from the rest of creation? Are you hopeful that the big brain will turn out to be a useful adaptation or not?

Over hundreds of years of our species’ existence on this planet, our big brain has figured out ways to harness nature to provide copious amounts of food, energy, and other resources. From the taming of fire to domesticating plants and animals to digging fossil energy from the ground, humans have been very successful at coming up with new technologies. We have been less successful at applying our big brain to collectively manage the repercussions of our technological success. Climate change is a primary example, as is the inability of our human institutions to control the pandemic.

I don’t have much doubt that people will figure out more ingenious ways to produce food and invent new ways to get energy. What gives me pause is not the technological know-how but whether our governments and other institutions are up to the task of using the fruits of these technologies equitably and nimbly enough to correct the problems that they create. Nature is full of self-correcting features, like the incredible cycling of carbon from the atmosphere to the deep earth and back that keeps climate stable. We need to build these types of self-corrections into our human institutions.

At the moment, we seem to be moving from highly concentrated systems of information and energy production into much more dispersed networks. Is that a good trajectory?

Going back to the social insects, the so-called queen actually has no power or ability to control where the workers go or what they do. Top-down control from a central authority has no analogies in nature. The military-like march of ants in a straight line emerges as each individual follows cues from its local neighbors, not from a queen directing traffic. The queen has no way of knowing the best route, even if she could tell each ant where to go. This idea, applied to human societies who self-organize to manage their local forests, fisheries, and policing, won a Nobel Prize for the late Elinor Ostrom. She countered the commonly held notion of the tragedy of the commons with many examples where people do figure out ways to sustainably manage their resources. The key is access to local information and the ability for local communities to make decisions. If one adheres to the idea that evolution provides useful strategies worked out over millions of years, while humans have been on the scene for only a sliver of that time, a move to less centrally controlled information and production seems like a good trajectory.

Climate School

It’s coming up on a year since I launched this newsletter, and I hope that you’re finding it worthwhile. I’m glad it’s free and available to everyone. But that’s only possible because enough people subscribe to The New Yorker to keep the magazine a going operation. So I also hope that you’ll subscribe to The New Yorker, either in print or digitally—it’s the best periodical in the English language, and you (and those on your Christmas list) will be happier and smarter for having it to read.

An almost literal climate school, Cool the Climate is worth checking out. It’s a Web site full of activities for kids, and it features a new animated movie of the same name—which has been endorsed by UNICEF. The site’s creator, Denis Thomopoulos, says, “We’re offering it on an honor system where kids stream for free and adults pay with a tree planted for each dollar of purchase.”

Source: How Banks Could Bail Us Out of the Climate Crisis

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