BRATTLEBORO—The transportation sector is the largest contributor to greenhouse gasses in Vermont, producing approximately 40 percent of our carbon emissions. That’s why Rep. Mollie S. Burke, D-Brattleboro, has spent her 15 years in the Legislature on the Transportation Committee, working to fight climate change by lowering dependency on fossil fuels. And that is why she joined Vermont’s new climate change organization, Third Act Vermont.
A little over a year ago, climate activist and Middlebury College Distinguished Scholar Bill McKibben decided that Baby Boom–age Americans — people age 60 or older — need to reorganize and reenter the political fray. He and a group of like-minded activists founded the rapidly growing Third Act, a national organization of people over 60 who want to protect the planet and democracy. Third Act Vermont is one of many “working groups” that have formed all over the country.
McKibben reasoned that the older members of the Baby Boom generation, born between 1946 and 1964, had marched through the 1960s and 1970s and brought about significant changes to the country. He cited the civil rights movement, the fight to end the Vietnam War, and the women’s rights movement as examples.
Boomers mostly left politics after that. Now retiring or retired, they collectively control great reserves of retirement funds, and they also have a lot of free time. McKibben believed Boomers like himself would need to make more change as the planet heats up, inequality grows, and democracy flounders.
Third Act is calling for a National Day of Action on Tuesday, March 21 to demand that the country’s four largest banks — Chase, Citibank, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America — stop their massive funding of the fossil fuel industry.
The organization is asking people to sign a pledge: “If Bank of America, Chase, Citibank, and Wells Fargo are still funding climate-destroying fossil fuel projects in March 2023, I pledge to close my account and cut up my credit card. If I don’t bank at these institutions now, I pledge I won’t do so in the future.”
Burke said she is researching new credit cards before she cuts up her old one.
“I plan to do that, but I need to get a new card first,” she said. “There are some things like websites that are supported by my credit card, and I need to change all that.”
Shame the banks
Burke, who has served as a member of the Transportation Committee for 14 years, sees her membership in Third Act Vermont — an organization she describes as “a really cool idea” — as a continuing part of her committee’s mission to cut fossil fuel emissions.
“We’ve got electric vehicles and other projects, and we’re doing a huge amount of work to make a difference. Our committee is making these seemingly little steps to cut transportation emissions in Vermont. And meanwhile, the banks are investing in fossil fuels,” the representative says. “Then what kind of a difference are we making?”
Since the whole is often bigger than the sum of its parts, Third Act’s idea is to shame the banks into divesting by staging this one big protest, with actions in California, Oregon, Washington State, and Nevada, as well as up and down the East Coast regional corridor from Vermont to Florida.
Climate change activist and transportation expert Jud Lawrie of Essex Junction is leading Third Act Vermont’s response.
“I believe the planet is facing an accelerating climate catastrophe,” Lawrie told The Commons. “It’s already happening in many parts of the world and is most affecting those least able to cope with it.”
“Further, I believe as an elder that we have a responsibility to be Earth stewards, to leave to our children, grandchildren, and all those who follow a better world than we received,” he continued. “So far it looks like we are doing quite the opposite.
“We need to recognize this is happening — not just to us but [to] all the creatures we share our beloved planet with. Continued dependence on fossil fuels will destroy the biodiversity and ecosystems upon which all human life depends,” Lawrie said.
One small catch to the protest: Other than Chase’s two small brick-and-mortar branches in Burlington and Williston, none of the Big Four banks has a presence in Vermont.
But in the larger scheme of things, it doesn’t matter, Lawrie said — the “real audience” for the action is the public.
“We want the public to become very aware of the close connection between the banks’ continued massive funding of the fossil fuel industry and the climate crisis,” he said. “The nexus between climate and carbon.”
And despite the small corporate footprint in Vermont, “The National Day of Action will take place all over the country,” Lawrie said. “The goal is to make it clear to the American public the close connection between the climate crisis and the funding of fossil fuels and the nexus between climate and carbon.”
Burke supports the action because it will draw attention to the fact that U.S. banks support and prolong the life of the fossil fuel industry.
The National Day of Action is “a way to get a lot of attention,” Burke said. “Last year, there were some shareholder meetings at the banks, and some shareholders really wanted to divest. It didn’t really move then, but if there were enough people who who want to protest, they may have to bring it up again. And that would be a huge thing.”
Burke pointed out that in Europe, banks are responding to the pressure to end dependence on fossil fuels.
For example, in 2019, according to The Guardian, “the European Investment Bank has agreed to phase out its multibillion-euro financing for fossil fuels within the next two years to become the world’s first ‘climate bank’” In 2020, Deutsche Bank recognized the need to divest but “failed to halt finance for fossil expansion.”
In 2022, London-based HSBC, “the largest bank in Europe and the eighth largest bank in the world, has announced that it will stop funding any new oil and gas developments globally,” according to Electrek.co, a news site covering the electric vehicle industry.
Unfortunately, it continued, “The bank’s new policy applies specifically to new oil and gas field projects and any related infrastructure meant to support those new fields.” HSBC would “continue to provide consulting and financing to energy companies at the corporate level, even if they are in the oil business.”
And according to S&P Global, “Large European banks cut financing to fossil fuel companies by 27.6% in 2021 amid mounting shareholder pressure and the publication of new funding policies, while U.S. and Canadian peers increased their financing, according to new research.”
The March 21 Third Act Vermont Action will take place from 3:30 to 5 p.m. at the Chase Bank at 1 Church Street Marketplace in Burlington. All Vermonters, no matter how young or old, are welcome to join in the protest.
“Please join us and bring your signs,” Lawrie said. “We will march down Church Street and back, then gather in front of the bank for skits, a credit card cutting ceremony, and music.”
Burke said she will be at work that day and won’t be able to participate, “but I will be there in spirit.”
“We may not have the big four banks, but Vermont is being an example to others by looking at electric vehicles and other ways of cutting down on fossil fuels,” Burke said. “We would spark a movement that would support people getting rid of their credit cards from the big banks.”
“If we’re doing all this interesting stuff to cut carbon emissions, let’s try to cut it at the source,” she said.