When Protect Our Winters holds its annual summit later this month to discuss top priorities for advancing climate action in 2020, the group will have a new issue on its agenda: global finance and banking.
The role that big banks play in funding the fossil fuel industry and helping to drive the climate crisis is a topic of increasing concern for climate activists. ExxonMobil and large oil companies are blamed for profiting at the expense of the planet, but without financing from big banks, the fossil fuel industry could not carry on business as usual.
As author and 350.org founder Bill McKibben wrote in a recent New Yorker article that has stoked conversation around this topic, “money is the oxygen on which the fire of global warming burns.”
Banking may seem a heady topic for Protect Our Winters, an organization founded by skiers and snowboarders to drive progress on climate change, but it is an issue POW says it must take on if it wants to help the snowsports and outdoor industries lead the rapid transition to renewable energies and carbon neutrality by 2050 as outlined in the Paris climate accords.
The clock is ticking, and while some companies, individuals and governments are making efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions, bank funding for fossil fuels has increased since the Paris accords were signed in 2015.
“We need three things to hit carbon neutrality by 2050,” says Torrey Udall, director of development and operations for POW, who outlined the group’s Theory of Change, which details the systemic shifts necessary to decarbonize the economy. First, Udall says, there must be political will. Leaders and elected officials must enact the laws and regulations necessary to transition away from fossil fuels.
Secondly, there must be a cultural shift and broad-based movement among citizens to support action and reject leaders who fail to act. The third front is technology and finance. “We need technology deployed at scale,” Udall says, referring to renewable energies, electric vehicles, smart grid technologies and other measures, “and we need the financial mechanisms to support the scaling up of that technology.”
Auden Schendler, a POW board member and VP of sustainability for Aspen Skiing Company, puts it more bluntly: “The ski industry does a lot of business with big banks. Can we pressure those big banks to get out of fossil fuels?”
The conversation around climate and finance within the snowsports and outdoor industry began percolating at the Outdoor Retailer Snow Show in January when, after a POW panel discussion, staff members were introduced to representatives from Bank of the West, which has stopped financing some fossil fuel industry projects.
Bank of the West and its parent company, France’s BNP Paribas, have committed to no longer doing business with companies whose main activity is producing or transporting oil and gas from shale and tar sands, which are particularly carbon intensive. Bank of the West likewise does not finance oil and gas exploration in the Arctic, and it is reducing support for coal mining and coal power generation.
Following the meeting at OR, POW and the bank entered intense discussions about how they could work together. Last summer, following a lengthy vetting process, Bank of the West became an official partner and financial supporter of POW. “We had never partnered with a bank before,” Udall says. “We had multiple conversations with them and reviewed all of their financial materials, as well looking at their parent company.”
“There was a natural fit between our bank’s financing policies, our geographical footprint and a mutual desire to reverse climate change,” says Ben Stuart, Bank of the West chief marketing and communications officer.
POW was impressed that the bank held strong when it faced a political backlash in Wyoming and parts of Colorado in 2018. Wyoming politicians called for a boycott of the San Francisco-based bank for its fossil fuels stance. “They took a beating, but they held their ground,” Udall says.
In addition to POW, Bank of the West has joined multiple environmental and conservation groups and is marketing its services to businesses in the snowsports, outdoors and renewable energy spaces. In early October, Stuart flew to Aspen, Colorado, to attend The Meeting, a gathering of thought leaders and industry executives. Stuart was there to pitch the lending policies of his bank, which also declines to finance tobacco, palm oil, and other activities it deems harmful to the planet.
“A lot of us think about where we’re spending our money, but don’t think about where our bank is spending it,” Stuart says. “When you put your money in a bank, it doesn’t just sit there. It goes out into world and finances things—including some you may not want to support.”
And the support of fossil fuels by big banks is on the rise. From 2016 to 2018, 33 banks around the world provided $1.9 trillion in financing for fossil fuels, according to the 2019 “Banking on Climate Change” report produced by the Rainforest Action Network, BankTrack, the Sierra Club and others. According to the annual report issued in March, JPMorgan Chase topped the list. “The $196 billion the bank poured into fossil fuels between 2016 and 2018 is nearly a third higher than the second-worst bank, Wells Fargo,” says the report.
In addition to JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo, the report lists Citi and Bank of America as the third and fourth top “bankers of climate change.” Morgan Stanley ranked 11th and Goldman Sachs 12th. The six U.S. banking giants “account for an astonishing 37 percent of global fossil fuel financing since the Paris Agreement was adopted,” the report says.
All of this will be on the agenda when POW’s 40 athlete ambassadors, 20 staff and board members and the group’s strategic partners and advisers gather in Moab, Utah, from October 21-24 for the group’s annual summit. It will be the first time that POW explicitly discusses banking and finance as a key tactic for driving change, and in 2020 the group plans to begin educating POW members, partner brands and the snowsports community about the role of big finance in the climate crisis.
“We want to show our industry and partners and members the financial impacts of the institutions they support,” Udall says.
For individuals, switching banks in this era of automatic bill payments is a time-consuming annoyance—but it’s doable. But for big ski resorts, financing debt is immensely complex. Nevertheless, Schendler says, the message for the ski industry is simple: “Do you want to finance your new ski lift with a loan from a bank that is wrecking the future of your industry?”