Bill McKibben, The New Yorker, September 17, 2019.

What if the banking, asset-management, and insurance industries moved away from fossil fuels?

I’m skilled at eluding the fetal crouch of despair—because I’ve been working on climate change for thirty years, I’ve learned to parcel out my angst, to keep my distress under control. But, in the past few months, I’ve more often found myself awake at night with true fear-for-your-kids anguish. This spring, we set another high mark for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere: four hundred and fifteen parts per million, higher than it has been in many millions of years.

There’s good news, too: as the crisis grows more obvious, far more people are joining in the fight. In the year since the scientists imposed that deadline, we’ve seen the rise of the Green New Deal, the cheeky exploits of Extinction Rebellion, and the global spread of the school strikes started by the Swedish teen-ager Greta Thunberg. It seems that there are finally enough people to make an impact. The question is, what levers can we pull that might possibly create change within the time that we need it to happen?

But what if there were an additional lever to pull, one that could work both quickly and globally? One possibility relies on the idea that political leaders are not the only powerful actors on the planet—that those who hold most of the money also have enormous power, and that their power could be exercised in a matter of months or even hours, not years or decades. I suspect that the key to disrupting the flow of carbon into the atmosphere may lie in disrupting the flow of money to coal and oil and gas.

So now consider extending the logic of the divestment fight one ring out, from the fossil-fuel companies to the financial system that supports them. Consider a bank like, say, JPMorgan Chase, which is America’s largest bank and the world’s most valuable by market capitalization. In the three years since the end of the Paris climate talks, Chase has reportedly committed a hundred and ninety-six billion dollars in financing for the fossil-fuel industry, much of it to fund extreme new ventures: ultra-deep-sea drilling,

Illustration by Matt Chinworth

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