“If your banks don’t care about climate change—ask them why”

Thirteen-year old Ellyanne Chlystun-Githae has a serious message for the adults in the world: “While you are worrying about whether you have enough money to retire, people my age are worried about surviving in a world that is rapidly warming.”

These days, Chlystun-Githae and other young people refuse to be silenced when it comes to the link between banks and climate change—maybe because at this point their lives depend on it. 

“To me, it’s basic: If your banks don’t care about climate change—ask them why,” said Chlystun-Githae. “Ask the hard questions. Demand change and put your money behind it. Tell them that even the UN secretary general Antonio Guterres declared that it is time to end the addiction to fossil fuels.”

While young people can and do amplify their voices, for the most part, adults—and their employers—hold the money. 

Engaging in a company’s or organization’s pension fund is one way of ensuring the money adults are holding is not contributing to the climate emergency by financing fossil fuels.

The World Council of Churches (WCC) has taken the time, thoughtful steps, and sometimes difficult conversations required to decrease the carbon footprint of its pension fund, explained Laurent Veyrat-Durebex, WCC Human Resources manager. 

“Over a period of two years, we began a conversation with the WCC’s pension fund provider about how its sustainability strategy affected us as a client,” said Veyrat-Durebex. “While we appreciate the core principle of a pension investment strategy is to achieve a long-term return for the WCC, we also wanted to take account of environmental criteria when investing our funds.”

From an investment bank’s point of view, “de-carbonizing” a client’s portfolio isn’t necessarily simple, or accomplished overnight, but it’s increasingly being done—and successfully—as companies and organizations demand it. 

In fact, many banks have pledged to become “carbon neutral” within the next couple of decades—about the time kids Chlystun-Githae’s age may only just be starting to plan their retirement. 

With a shift from fossil fuels toward renewable energies, and more steps toward a climate-positive business orientation, pension fund providers are slowly getting on board with an ecologically responsible portfolio.

Now the WCC is calling for member churches, partners, and others across the world to take the same steps. 

Just over a year ago, the WCC also engaged other global organizations in reiterating climate-responsible finance as a moral imperative to protect children’s futures.

“We ask our financial service providers to invest in renewable energies and innovative environmental solutions that are sustainable for people, communities and ecosystems,” reads a joint message released 9 May 2022. “We will review our pension, banking, insurance and other financial service arrangements to ensure evidence-based accountability in this regard, as a moral imperative and responsibility to all children and the living world.”

The WCC is also working to take this commitment a step further through an Intergenerational Climate Justice Initiative aimed to obtain recognition that financing new fossil fuel expansion, and promoting disinformation about global warming, is a crime against children.

Those serious crimes against children may be more imminent that people realize, said Frederique Seidel, WCC programme executive for Child Rights. “There are over 400 ‘carbon bombs’—or gigantic oil and gas extraction projects that would each result in over a gigaton of  CO2 emissions over their lifetimes—under construction or already operating at this very moment,” said Seidel. “If banks continue financing those projects, it will be impossible to meet the requirements documented by lead scientists for a livable future, underlining that no new fossil fuel projects must be built to avert catastrophic climate breakdown,” adding that “It is well documented even by the conservative International Energy Agency that we there is  enough fossil fuel out of the ground for the current needs and the transition to renewable energies, and their analysis takes into account the Ukraine crisis.”

Veyrat-Durebex, Seidel, and, perhaps most of all, children like Chlystun-Githae are urging other organizations to ask their financial service providers about their carbon footprints, carbon bombs, and other aspects of climate-responsible financing.

WCC member churches—among them the Church of Sweden, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Evangelische Kirche Deutschland, and others—are already engaged in initiatives that keep them at the at the vanguard of climate action. The Church of Sweden’s investment managers, for example, were among the first to get rid of coal and oil companies from the church’s financial portfolio. By 2020, the church worked to help develop a larger offering of financial products for larger investors such as pension managers and insurance companies. 

But beware of—and work to uncover—“greenwashing,”. Greenwashing is when a company purports to be environmentally conscious for marketing purposes but actually isn’t making any verifiable sustainability efforts. A bank’s fiduciary duty must take into account the climate emergency, stressed Seidel. In the absence of adequate legal frameworks, bank clients need to request from their bank that their assets are not invested or lent for fossil fuel expansion. 

“Nobody has the intention to harm children through their bank accounts,” explained Seidel. “But if the client’s money is used by the bank for the financing of carbon bombs, they do harm children.”

Ultimately, though, if organizations take the time, do the research, and have honest conversations with their financial service providers, they can make a difference, urged Veyrat-Durebex. 

“It’s not perfect but we have certainly improved the carbon footprint of the WCC’s investment portfolio. What’s more, we continue to work on this facet of our pension plan, and we urge others to do the same.”

It’s urgent, so start now, reiterated Chlystun-Githae. “If your bank refuses to stop investing in fossil fuels—switch banks,” she said. “We need to change institutions along with individuals.”

The WCC has compiled links to basic resources to help member churches along the way.

Background document and resources for action – Save Children’s Lives – Responsible Banking Survival Guide for Faith Actors & Partners

Climate-Responsible Finance – a Moral Imperative towards Children

Resources on Commitment 3: Raise Churches’ voice for intergenerational justice, supporting initiatives for and with children and adolescents

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