SOMETIMES, WHEN YOU'RE reading a murder mystery, a new clue appears as if out of thin air—the coroner phones the detective to report that the corpse was drugged with some rare toxin, or an image conveniently appears on old CCTV footage. There was a similar moment in the climate fight this spring, when investigators came up with something remarkable: a number definitively linking the biggest banks in the world to the biggest crisis in the world.
We’ve known for quite a while, of course, that Chase, Citi, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America have been lending vast sums to the fossil fuel industry—more than a trillion dollars since the Paris climate accords were signed. But it took investigative research by a climate consultancy called South Pole to make clear exactly how massive that money was. They found, in essence, that if you kept $125,000 in the banking system (your retirement account, or your college savings fund), then that money emitted more carbon than all the other actions of a normal American life combined. That cash is recycled into pipelines and liquefied natural gas terminals—you might as well be spending it to drill oil wells in your backyard.
The main focus of the South Pole report was not individuals; it was the biggest companies on Earth, and it showed that while Google and Microsoft and Apple were busily trying to reduce their carbon footprints, their cash hoards were producing vast clouds of greenhouse gases simply by sitting in the bank. Google’s emissions were up 111 percent accounting for the new data—that is, their cash produces more carbon than everything else they do.