• August 31, 2023
  • Staff
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Climate activists targeted one of the world’s most important economic symposiums last week, urging finance experts and regulators to take the devastating impacts of continued fossil fuel investments seriously.

About 10 activists with Climate Defiance, a new youth-led organization dedicated to resisting fossil fuels through non-violent direct action, attempted to crash an event at the Jackson Hole Economic Symposium—an annual gathering of some of the world’s top economists, central bankers and policymakers—on Thursday, Aug. 24. They were met with violence from security, who forcibly tackled three protesters and held them to the ground. 

The action was one of several at the symposium by activists who throughout the weekend demanded that U.S. Federal Reserve Board Chair Jerome Powell and other international finance leaders address climate change and the escalating risks of fossil fuel investments.

“It’s beyond shocking that a body like the Federal Reserve, whose stated mandate is ensuring stability, is totally MIA on the greatest destabilizing force of our time,” said Michael Greenberg, co-founder of Climate Defiance. “We turned up to Jackson Hole to protest their inaction and demand that they act in the boldness that we know we desperately need.”

Climate-related extreme weather and disasters are already costing hundreds of billions of dollars, contributing to debt crises in nations around the world and displacing millions. Last year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated costs for major disasters in the U.S. alone reached $165 billion. As insurance companies increasingly exploit crises to spike rates and retreat from climate-vulnerable zones, more communities are at risk of financial peril.

Central banks like the Federal Reserve are tasked with creating nations’ monetary policy, setting interest rates and inflation targets, regulating money circulation and monitoring commercial banks’ management of risks.  

The weekend’s actions fit into a global movement pushing central banks to regulate investments in fossil fuels, claiming current economic models are ill-equipped to address the accelerating humanitarian and financial risks of climate change. 

On Friday, the second day of the Jackson Hole symposium, the nongovernmental organization Ekō delivered a petition with over 57,000 signatures, outlining demands for international central banks to center climate action. Meanwhile, 71 organizations—including Ekō—co-signed an open letter to symposium attendees. 

“Just by adjusting how we understand risk, how we calculate risk around certain investments, we can steer the finance sector away from fossil fuels once and for all,” said Eren Ileri, a policy advocate with Stop the Money Pipeline, a corporate accountability coalition with more than 200 member organizations, some of which signed the open letter.

Persistent Activists and a Forceful Response

At the Jackson Hole Economic Policy Symposium, surrounded by the magnificent vistas of Grand Teton National Park and a community rife with economic inequality, the world’s leading regulators and monetary policy wonks discuss the economic issues of the day. The symposium has had tangible impacts on stock markets and currencies.

As the activists attempted to enter Jackson Lake Lodge, where the symposium took place, security tackled 25-year-old organizer Teddy Ogborn and held him, face down with a guard’s knee on his back, before handcuffing and removing him from the lodge. 

After the action, Jackie Fielder, founder of Stop the Money Pipeline, condemned security’s violent response, calling it “horrible.”

“These are young people that are peacefully protesting people that are in power to do something about the climate,” she said. “We should be embracing that as a country that prides itself on protecting the First Amendment.”

Climate Defiance formed this spring with a hyper-focused mission to target the financially and politically powerful in the U.S. for their failure to curb the use of fossil fuels, using boldly disruptive, nonviolent direct action. In the few months since its founding, the organization has blockaded the White House Correspondents’ Association’s annual dinner, crashed a congressional softball match, shut down high-profile political fundraisers and targeted top Democrats, including President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.

At a recent protest at a fundraiser hosted by Democratic Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey, who has prioritized climate but who activists were urging to ban new fossil fuel projects in-state, one donor told the young activists, “I don’t mind if you die.”  

The “intense reactions from the people that are supposed to be fighting on our side [really show] where the democratic priorities are,” said Martin Gioannetti, one of the activists who organized the Healey action.

Both actions took place just days before rangers drove into an environmental protest at the Burning Man festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert Sunday, tackling and pulling a gun on protesters who were screaming, “we’re nonviolent.”

Daphne Cronin, a climate finance campaigner at Ekō, said security’s reaction at the Jackson Hole symposium exemplifies increased criminalization of climate protests. 

“Climate activists are increasingly being brutalized, intimidated and harassed and being treated like criminals,” Cronin said. “The focus should be on the fossil fuel industry, and institutions that allow it to keep being violent against, especially, communities of color.”

The group said Ogborn is facing federal charges for attempting to enter the symposium, while the other protesters mostly received pink slips banning them from the Jackson Lake Lodge for a year. But as responses to climate protests grow more aggressive, Climate Defiance is pushing harder on the political and financial levers of power that protect the fossil fuel industry. 

Throughout the weekend, Climate Defiance continued to take action at and around the symposium, including attempting to birddog Powell. 

“We can’t end fossil fuels as long as there [are] massive financial parachutes and safety nets and encouragement to continue investing in them,” Ogborn said. “Even though that counters [the] physical reality of our world, the ethical reality of our world, and economic sensibility.” 

The activists also held demonstrations around Jackson Hole to call out the community’s severe wealth gap and the outsized role of wealth in fueling the climate crisis.

Concrete Demands

Climate Defiance activists demonstrated in support of four demands outlined in Ekō’s petition. 

First, they call for a one-for-one capital requirement for fossil fuel projects—for every dollar invested in fossil fuel projects, investors would be required to put up another dollar to cover any future losses, essentially doubling up-front costs. Second, to uphold local and Indigenous communities’ right to deny fossil fuel extraction on their land. Third, to ban financing of industrial development in critical ecosystems. And fourth, they urge regulators to pressure finance ministers of wealthy countries to help secure “a just and resilient financial system” that resolves Global South debt issues and provides funding for losses and damages caused by fossil fuels. 

The petition was launched in June and delivered to the Bank for International Settlements’ annual conference in Basel, Switzerland, Cronin said. 

She said reaching U.S. regulators is particularly important, due to their large influence and inaction on climate.

“U.S. regulators have been peddling really dangerous anti-climate rhetoric,” Cronin said, mentioning comments from Federal Reserve Board of Governors member Christopher Waller in May, when he said climate-related financial risks don’t outweigh other categories of risk. 

Climate Defiance protesters held banners outside of the Jackson Lake Lodge calling for a one-for-one capital requirement in the financing of fossil fuel projects. Credit: Climate Defiance

The open letter described the symposium as a “policy solutions incubator for tackling global economic challenges,” and cited growing costs of climate-related damages—over $595 billion in the U.S. over the last five years for billion-dollar disasters alone—and global insurance gaps as evidence of climate-related financial risk. The letter also noted that the banking sector continues to pour money into fossil fuels despite clear scientific evidence that the opposite is required to rein in the damages from climate change. 

The letter urged symposium attendees to use their influence to push for a precautionary approach to climate-related hazards and for the implementation of capital requirements and other methods to curb fossil fuel projects, as well as to help financial institutions plan transitions to net zero emissions models.

Fridays for Future Uganda activist Patience Nabukalu, who helped deliver Ekō’s petition in Basel, said after this week’s actions that financial regulators in the Global North need to pressure banks to stop financing fossil fuel projects that devastate communities in the Global South. Nabukalu pointed to international financing of the East African Crude Oil Pipeline, which would displace an estimated 100,000 people and generate 34 million tons of carbon emissions each year. 

Commitments to climate action from political and financial leaders in the Global North are empty as long as they continue financing fossil fuels, Nabukalu said.

“The Global North is full of hypocrisy,” she said. “Banks have a big role to play. They should defund companies that are really devastating human lives.”

Disagreement on the Role of Financial Regulators 

This year, the symposium’s theme was “Structural Shifts in the Global Economy,” but climate change was absent from the news release and agenda summary posted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, and from Powell’s speech, which focused on inflation. In January, he stated that the Fed “will not be a ‘climate policymaker,’” and he has held that the responsibility to address climate change lies with elected officials, not central banks. 

But according to Fielder of Stop the Money Pipeline, as the regulators of Wall Street banks and other financial institutions, the Fed has a clear role to play in addressing the financial risks of investing in the fossil fuel industry.

“This isn’t about making the Fed a climate policy maker, it’s mitigating risk,” she said. 

Powell said in January that the Fed’s narrow role in climate-related risk does include requiring banks to understand and manage risks—though he maintained that without legislative mandate, its jurisdiction would end there—and the Fed has taken steps in that direction. At the end of last year, it proposed principles for climate-related risk management at large financial institutions. This year, the Fed also launched a Climate Scenario Analysis (CSA) exercise to gather qualitative and quantitative information about the existing climate risk-management practices of large banking organizations.

The Federal Reserve Board and the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City declined requests to comment for this story.

David Arkush, director of Public Citizen’s climate program, said these guidelines are a good start but that they need to be quickly finalized and followed up on. Central banking officials supervise banks, reviewing their books and policies to stop excessive risk-taking, he said, so stopping banks from engaging in risky behavior related to climate should be core to the Fed’s mission.

“It is an unsafe and unsound practice to finance fossil fuels wildly in excess of science based targets,” Arkush said. “By financing extreme global heating, banks are contributing to massive threats to financial stability.”

Ileri said that the U.S. is falling behind its peers in terms of climate-risk mitigation, pointing out a scorecard by the Green Central Banking research project that ranked the U.S. 16th out of the G20 countries for green policies and initiatives in central banking. 

In a report last month for Carbon Tracker—an independent financial think tank focused on the energy transition—University College London economist Steve Keen, Ph.D, argued that central banks, financial regulators and pension funds aren’t taking climate risks seriously enough, relying on economic models that don’t line up with science. 

“All the numbers that economists make up imply trivial damages, and therefore policymakers, including central banks, are preparing for climate change to be a trivial challenge that doesn’t reserve any more focus than any other potential challenge,” Keen said. “They’re completely wrong.”

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