Protesters in raincoats hold yellow signs calling for an end to fossil fuels.

People involved in climate activism hold a demonstration in the Financial District of Manhattan to demand an end to fossil fuel funding by Wall Street and the American government on September 18, 2023, in New York City.

(Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Biden and Wall Street: End Fossil Fuels or Expect Resistance

Now is the time to keep building momentum and bringing a lot more pressure to bear, because we’ve hardly won yet.

The rain was pouring down hard, but that didn’t seem to deter the big protest crowd gathered outside the Federal Reserve building. Amid the typical Monday morning bustle of Wall Street, we chanted for the Fed to stop fossil fuel financing as cops arrested row after row of protesters blocking the building’s entrances during what ultimately became the largest climate-focused civil disobedience ever in New York City.

We were coming off the 75,000-person March to End Fossil Fuels the previous day: a protest that shattered our attendance expectations as organizers, uplifted our spirits, and landed on the front page of The New York Times the next day. Earlier that week, hundreds of activists and groups like Climate Defenders, Oil & Gas Action Network, Stop the Money Pipeline, and my own, New York Communities for Change, had disrupted two of the largest fossil fuel financiers in the world, shutting down Citi’s global headquarters for a whole morning and halting traffic in front of BlackRock’s global HQ. With Planet Over Profit, a youth-led group I co-founded, we forced the Museum of Modern Art to close for an afternoon because of its ties to dirty fossil fuel investor KKR. And the morning after shutting down the Fed, another dirty financier, Bank of America, found its New York office the site of another act of civil disobedience.

Others reflecting on these protests have noted how this September felt like a potential turning point. The U.S. climate movement enjoyed the biggest revival of street protest since the pandemic. With the march, unlike previous climate mass mobilizations, we were laser focused on calling out a specific decision-maker (President Joe Biden), making it impossible for him to ignore the broad-based, diverse support for our laser-focused specific demand (ending fossil fuels). And when it came to Wall Street, with thousands of white-collar Citi employees unable to get into work for hours, for example, we made it clear that if Citi’s bottom line included profiting off fossil fuels, then that bottom line would not go undisrupted.

If we’re to have any chance of ending fossil fuels, and transitioning to a more just system, we need sustained, committed resistance against these fossil fuel-loving powers that be.

We sent a statement of intent to both Biden and Wall Street: End fossil fuels, or expect resistance. Now it’s time to keep building on that momentum, and bring a lot more pressure to bear, because we’ve hardly won yet.

Politicians continue to approve new fossil fuel permits, and financiers continue to move more fossil fuel financing. It’s not for lack of awareness: These are well-informed elites who know well the scientific consensus that we have already maxed out our carbon budget with existing projects and that our carbon accounts cannot afford any more fossil fuel expansion. Nor do the actual financials necessitate fossil fuels: Power from renewables is now cheaper to produce than power from fossil fuels in many places, and besides, we simply cannot enjoy stable, functional global economies on a planet beset by endless storms and fires, widespread drought and famine, and hundreds of millions crossing borders to flee unlivable conditions.

The simple reason the fossil fuel industry and its enablers won’t change course on their own is because the status quo is working splendidly for them right now. Oil majors have been reporting record-breaking profits, and generally speaking, elites have continued to consolidate their wealth and power within a global political economy still powered largely by fossil fuels. (For instance, in 2015, the richest 1% in the world owned as much as the remaining 99% combined; those state of affairs have only worsened during a pandemic during which those at the top gained trillions in wealth while ordinary people suffered.)

Plus, these planet-wrecking elites, as Andreas Malm writes, “do not worry at the sight of islands sinking; they do not run from the roar of the approaching hurricanes; their fingers never need to touch the stalks from withered harvests; their mouths do not become sticky and dry after a day with nothing to drink.” The climate crisis may be coming for the whole world over at some point—but those at the very top do not currently face many serious consequences, and many of them may assume that they never really will in their lifetimes. Meanwhile, there are fossil fuel lobbies to please, and fossil fuel profits to reap.

So: We’re up against immensely powerful fossil fuel executives and some of the most powerful financiers and politicians in the world. All of them are highly incentivized to maintain the status quo of enabling mass death. If we’re to have any chance of ending fossil fuels, and transitioning to a more just system, we need sustained, committed resistance against these fossil fuel-loving powers that be.

If you are a bank like Citi that continually pours billions into fossil fuels each year: You should not expect to be able to operate and greenwash without having your bottom line impacted and the lives of your business elite constantly disrupted. Your CEOs and execs should expect to be challenged at public events, your offices’ operations should be continually disturbed, your brand and client deals should be scrutinized and protested. If you are Biden, who approves climate bomb after climate bomb, you and your administration should assume there will be disruptions at your public appearances and lagging enthusiasm from your base to turn out to the polls next fall.

What hangs in the balance, after all, is everything we know and love. We want to enjoy safe, stable societies; we want to breathe clean air, drink clean water; we want to live rich, dignified lives uninterrupted by profound climate upheaval. And we won’t be able to do that for much longer on this planet if we don’t force a move away from fossil fuels with serious, sustained pressure.

We don’t live in a world yet in which fossil fuel-loving politicians and capitalists face constant, sustained pressure, direct action, and disruption of business-as-usual. So let’s keep rolling up our sleeves. Let’s keep organizing more people. And let’s keep escalating with more hard-hitting protest to force an end to fossil fuels. If they don’t at the moment have enough incentive to give up their profits to save our lives—well, then let’s create some incentive for them.

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