Since 2009, Planting Justice has built over 550 edible permaculture gardens in the Bay Area. Credit: Planting Justice

Sign up for our free newsletter

Free Oakland news, written by Oaklanders, delivered straight to your inbox.

This article is sponsored by Beneficial State Bank.

This Earth Day, President Biden hosted a global climate change summit attended by 40 leaders from around the world. While the U.S. committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by around 50% by 2030 (relative to 2005 levels), this bold action alone won’t be enough to stem the tide of climate change. Such a wide-reaching global challenge requires more comprehensive solutions.

But solutions to big problems can have humble beginnings. Starting, for example with where we choose to spend and keep our money. 

“We need to be better educated about the actions and impact of the institutions we patronize and support, and influence those institutions to be more responsive to the needs of the community,” said Jean Hamerman, acting executive director of Oakland-based Center for Creative Land Recycling. “Creating a safe and healthy environment to improve quality of life should be a top priority.” 

Each of us wields power. We vote every day with our choices and our wallets. Spending and banking decisions are akin to economic votes, and the way we cast those votes impacts the people and issues we value, or neglect. The more we value environmental sustainability, the more meaningful change we’ll see. 

Right here in Oakland, we can see both the impact and the limits of current climate action. California is a national climate leader. Among other things, we helped get much cleaner cars on the road nationwide. Despite this, our cities rank among the most polluted in the country. According to the Sierra Club, “because of the unique characteristics of California…combined with consecutive years of drought and historic wildfire seasons brought on by a warming climate, residents of the state continue to breathe the most polluted air in the country.” Even worse, the impacts of climate change are inextricably tied with racial inequities. Studies have shown that, on average, Black and Latinx communities breathe in about 40% more vehicle exhaust pollution than predominantly white communities in California.

Indeed, more than 50,000 Oakland residents live in neighborhoods listed in the top 20% of California census tracts for cumulative environmental impact across the state, according to CalEnviroScreen, the environmental health screening tool developed by the California Environmental Protection Agency.

The environmental justice movement has long advocated for changes to our financial system. Almost a decade ago, student activists led the first fossil fuel divestment campaigns on college campuses. As consumers, it’s vital we understand that where you put your money matters—and advocate that your bank invests it in ways that align with your values. That includes not only divesting from environmentally harmful industries, but also actively channeling money into environmentally friendly investments. 

In Oakland, Beneficial State Bank partners with organizations committed to building a greener future, like the Center for Creative Land Recycling (CCLR). Working with local communities, CCLR repurposes abandoned properties, transforming them into assets that benefit the neighborhood. They have supported organizations like the Tiny House Village and Planting Justice. Contaminated and underutilized land is at the root of many environmental, social, and economic issues. CCLR assists municipalities and community groups to conduct environmental site assessments and develop a pathway to reuse these properties. The result is that an abandoned gas station or a fenced-up industrial site can become affordable housing, grocery stores, open space, or other community assets.

Hamerman, CCLR’s acting executive director, understands the importance of values-based banking—which is why she chose to bank with Beneficial State Bank. “As an ex-banker myself, I understand the need for nonprofits to match their investments with their values. At CCLR, we are passionate about creating healthy neighborhoods.”

Another organization connecting the dots between climate change and the financial industry is the Climate Museum, the first and only museum in the country dedicated to the climate crisis. While the museum is based in New York, and believes strongly in utilizing local resources as much as possible, leadership chose to move their money from a large commercial bank still invested in the fossil fuel industry to a more mission-driven financial institution. The one best suited to its needs was Oakland-based Beneficial State. 

“We’re an activist museum, and we strive to act on what we believe. We see both the damage done by fossil fuel investment and the transformative potential of mission-driven banking,” said Miranda Massie, the Climate Museum’s founder and director. “We also want to inspire people who are worried about the climate crisis but unsure how to take meaningful action.” 

One of those actions is to “call your bank” to find out more about how they use your money—and, just like the Climate Museum did, to move your money if your current bank doesn’t fit your values.

We can all walk the talk when it comes to climate action. Here are three easy ways to get started:

  1. Educate yourself on how banks use your money. If you already have a bank, you can check its website or ask where the bank invests your money and how it actively supports local communities. Good sources of information include: Mighty Deposits, Green America, Bank Green, and Rainforest Action Network
  2. Select a bank that invests in doing good. Values-based banks demonstrate that a bank can generate positive social and environmental impact while remaining financially sustainable. 
  3. Encourage friends and family to put their money to good use. Let them know that where they bank matters—their money can be used to help, or harm.  Beneficial State has resources here, and Stop the Money Pipeline has a useful checklist, as well. 

Stemming the impacts of climate change will require collective action from all of us. It’s a daunting challenge, but through the force of our votes, our actions, and our money, we can bank with purpose and build a greener future together.