“For all their energy and intelligence and idealism, young people lack the structural power to make change on the scale we need in the time that we have,” said Mr. McKibben, who is 62, chatting early Tuesday before an anti-big bank climate rally in Washington’s Franklin Park. “We all vote, we ended up with most of the resources in our society. If we’re going to make Washington and Wall Street change, it’ll take a few people with hairlines like mine.”
The protests came on the heels of the latest dire report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which forecast that within the next decade, average global temperatures are likely to increase by 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, compared to preindustrial levels and making catastrophic weather events harder for human and other life-forms to bear. To ward off the worst, nations must cut greenhouse gasses by half by 2030, the report said, and stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by the early 2050s.
Yet in 2022, carbon emissions hit record highs and the top oil producers reaped a record-breaking $220 billion in profits.
And though major oil-funding banks are also investing in renewable energy sources, several protesters dismissed such efforts as greenwashing. “They’re running ads on TV, a lot of the big oil companies, about how they’re doing all these environmentally friendly things, but they’re doing record oil exploration,” said Fred Solowey, 71. “And then these phony offsets that they use a lot, to pretend that they’re going to be carbon neutral. It’s hogwash.”
For the rockers, the goal was to urge people to pull their money out of the oil-funding banks, and to goose the consciences of bank executives.
“I think anybody is complicit that is not trying to do anything,” said Pam Murphy, 64, as she sat outside the Chase branch early Tuesday, in front of a sign that read “This bank funds climate chaos.” One rocking chair over sat Susan Flashman, 68, a retired electrician who lives in Mount Rainier, Md. “We’re the activists, we’re the boomers,” Ms. Flashman said. “People our age, we’re just incensed that no nobody’s doing anything. So here we are.”
Most of the rocking chair activists were from the Washington metropolitan area, and sat in three-hour blocks throughout Monday night, though Ellen Barfield, 66, opted to sit multiple shifts from Monday evening until 5 a.m. Tuesday. She was a night owl anyhow, she said, and still up for the occasional all-nighter. “It’s better than a camp chair,” she said, of the seating arrangement, “And it’s poetic.”
“I mean, our climate is getting worse and worse,” Ms. Barfield continued. “We are far from doing what we need to do about it. And these banks are a big part of why, because they keep pouring money into this horrendous industry. And that has got to change, right?”
Most of the rocking chairs (there were about 50 in all) had been gathered by Lisa Finn, 57, and her husband, who live outside of Alexandria, Va., and hosted a rocking chair painting party before driving the chairs up in a U-Haul.
Along with the rally at Franklin Park (speakers included Ebony Twilley Martin, the co-executive director of Greenpeace USA; and Ben Jealous, executive director of the Sierra Club) there were marches featuring banners, outsize puppets and at least one shofar, and the blockading, with even more rocking chairs, of Wells Fargo and Chase. One protester was arrested after using paint on the street, organizers said.
Before addressing the rally, Mr. Jealous said pressure from older activists ought to make the banks take notice.
“For the banks, this is a very worrisome signal,” he said. “They can write off young people, they don’t see them as having a whole lot of money right now. They know these folks do.”
For his part, Mr. McKibben conceded that closing personal accounts in oil-funding banks was not likely to impose enough financial harm to force change, but said that merely underscored the urgent need to do more.
“We can put serious pressure on their reputations, their images, their brands, and their sense of themselves,” he said. “Right now, the most powerful people in the world are deeply complicit in the gravest crisis that the world has ever experienced. So part of today is an attempt to rouse these guys to some kind of sense of their place in history.”