By Sam Hayward, Project Officer – Climate Change, ShareAction
At ShareAction we are campaigning to make big banks, like Barclays and HSBC, align with the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change. In practice, this means banks shifting their lending activity out of fossil fuels and into the low-carbon sector. However, in the last three years alone, just 14 European banks provided more than $450 billion to the fossil fuel sector.
Outside of incomprehensibly large figures, this means that banks, as underwriters of risk and lenders of credit, are providing money to the companies that frack America and cause earthquakes, that are lobbying for the Dakota access pipeline to be built on Native American land and that have polluted the waterways and endangered the life of newborns in the Niger Delta.
Though ShareAction’s banking campaign is very active and has had many successes, we sometimes still struggle to secure meetings with key decision-makers within the banks (i.e. the board of directors). This means that AGMs, which allow us to put a bank’s board of directors on the spot, are an extra important time of year for ShareAction.
Banks are anxious to avoid direct questions on climate change: they’re all out of answers and backed into a corner. And with the ever-growing swell of climate activism round the planet, who can blame them?
I took our questions on fossil fuel financing to major UK banks – including Standard Chartered, HSBC and Barclays – and was surprised by how poor their answers were, with the CEOs of both HSBC and Standard Chartered avoiding my question. To give you a flavour of how desperate some banks are to avoid accountability, I’ll give a short run-down of the Barclays AGM:
The CEO of Barclays, Jes Stanley, decided to lump all 10 climate questions together and give a general stock answer. What’s more, the bank’s security was outrageous. They tried to deny us entry to the AGM building, confiscated my bag, escorted me from the entrance of the building to the AGM room in a separate lift from everyone else. They even followed me to the toilet during the AGM (seriously, there were around five of them), tried to deny me re-entry to the room. They were everywhere: they lined the walls, surrounded the seating area, and the entries and exits to room. Contrast this with the treatment that we received at RBS, where our question was welcomed by the board and the ESG team.
From the absurd measures at the Barclays AGM I’ve come to two conclusions:
- Barclays is afraid of the reputational risks associated with climate activism
- The bank has a more robust security policy for its AGM than it does exclusion policy for its fossil fuel activities.
Overall, AGM season has shown me that most banks don’t quite grasp the monumental challenges and opportunities that the climate crisis has created, or else they’d be acting rather than prevaricating. Instead, banks’ directors and CEOs would rather focus on business-as-usual, while they play lip-service to serious climate action.
But it also showed me that banks are anxious to avoid direct questions on climate change: they’re all out of answers and are backed into a corner. And with the ever-growing swell of climate activism round the planet, who can blame them? We need to keep shareholder pressure on banks, we need to ensure that we have a seat at the table and bring the energy of the climate movement into discussions about what the future of finance will look like.
Ordinary people can get involved too. Write a letter to your bank or leave your bank for a more progressive one, letting them know your reasons for leaving. One such progressive bank is Triodos – and switching is easier than you’d think. Attend an AGM with ShareAction’s banking campaign and take your own bank to task on its climate performance. There are loads of ways we can win this!
Thanks Sam! To learn more about our banking campaign, click here.