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Finance, heal thyself: is it time for a Bankers Oath?

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By Christopher Caldwell

· 5 min read

Do no harm.

I’m sure most of us recognise these three words as the solemn vow undertaken by medics the world over: the Hippocratic oath.

Here’s a harder one: can you name a similar oath in the financial sector? Would you recognise the words if you saw them?

Hold that in mind as you read this article. Regardless of whether you know the answer, the difficulty of the question tells us something about the approach of these two great social functions in facing climate change.

Medics find their voice

I thought of this when I read the latest open letter from a coalition of 39 global health institutions – representing 3 million medics – demanding, “world leaders shield global populations from the health emergency.”

The modern medical community has a long history of organising for social impact on a global scale, from the Red Cross to MSF to Doctors for Extinction Rebellion. What is remarkable about health activism around climate today is how strident, political, and explicit the message has become.

“We must end the proliferation of fossil fuels,” this latest letter demands, specifically calling on governments to ban new fossil fuel infrastructure, phase down existing dirty fuels, end subsidies, and invest in renewable energy.

This is more than just hand-wringing. It is a concrete plan of action, delivered with the urgency this “climate health emergency” requires. And it is not a lone example, as anyone who read last year’s call-out on “fossil fuel addiction” in the Lancet will recognise.

This really matters. The medical profession is still invested with a high level of trust. When they speak, people listen – and I applaud the power of the message they have chosen.

A tale of two worldviews

As an ex-banker myself, I naturally want to make a comparison with the financial sector’s climate efforts. Sadly, nowhere do I see them speaking out with the conviction and urgency of medics today. Perhaps that should be no surprise given the different lens through which medicine and finance see the world.

Medics are interested in healing people. That is made harder by our healthcare system having to internalise the social costs of climate change. As the WHO’s Director Maria Neira points out, this is “potentially the greatest health challenge of the twenty-first century.” Fossil-driven air pollution already kills seven million people a year; future climate chaos will only usher in more disease and death.

Conversely, financiers are interested in making money. For the last century, banks have been the places where the unearned “profits” of polluting the atmosphere have appeared in the books. And today, those “profits” are still rolling in.

Banking on climate chaos

This is plain to see in the latest Banking on Climate Chaos Report. Since Paris in 2015, the world’s 60 biggest banks have financed fossil fuels to the tune of $5.5 billion. In 2022, despite fossil firms making a record $4 trillion in profits, financiers still lent them another $673 billion.

Sure, banks now talk a green game. 49 of the 60 have net-zero commitments. But very few actually have rigorous policies to exclude fossil financing. Lending for fracking was up 8% last year. LNG financing grew by a staggering 50%. $150 billion went into exploration for new reserves, making a joke of investment safeguards. Santander’s net-zero ‘ambition’ didn’t stop them from financing drilling in the Amazon. Other banks who restricted Arctic exploration nonetheless funneled money to ConocoPhilips, whose Willow project is the biggest new oil development in the US – and in the Arctic. 

Yes, there are efforts like the Taskforce on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures and the Principles of Responsible Investment. But these are sold on the basis of preserving profit. Climate is just a variable in the risk algorithm; they make no attempt to reshape the ethics of finance itself. Many PRI signatories in asset management, for example, vote against climate proposals when it suits them.

If you have any eyebrows left to raise, we should also be sceptical of the sector marking its own homework. Three of the ‘Dirty Dozen’ worst lenders in the report above – #2 Citigroup, #3 Wells Fargo, #12 Morgan Stanley – actually got ESG upgrades from MSCI last year!

It can be different (I swear)

Bankers understand the problem but remain trapped in a system with deep-rooted ecocidal incentives. Yet increasing numbers of them are genuinely trying to change this system. They just need a little help, and that means shifting the values of the culture that underpins it.

To return to the question I posed at the start, there is only one place in the world that I know of with a banker’s oath: the Netherlands. You can find the text here. Since 2015, tens of thousands of Dutch financiers have sworn to “execute my function ethically and with care; [and] draw a careful balance between the interests of all parties,” which includes “the society in which the business operates.”

This was introduced after the moral bottom dropped out of banking in the 2008 crisis. Unfortunately, despite recommendations from the thinktank ResPublica that British bankers take their own version of the Hippocratic oath, the UK government’s Lambert Report rejected it out of hand.

Perhaps this is an idea worth revisiting again. The voice of the world’s doctors should be an inspiration for bankers who would speak up. To do that they need to talk not just in terms of dollars and cents, but with moral conviction. That requires finance as a whole to rediscover its social role, and the ethical responsibility that comes with it. 

(And stop financing fossil fuels!)

With due respect to the Dutch, I doubt financiers would settle on anything as pithy as ‘do no harm.’ The Greeks had a real first-mover advantage, after all! But the sentiment should be the same. 

Hopefully, in another ten years’ time, the Bankers Oath will be words everyone will recognise. 

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Christopher Caldwell is the CEO of United Renewables, where he employs his past experiences as a corporate lawyer, investment banker, and team leader to lead all aspects of the business. Chris holds a degree in business from Trinity College Dublin, an MBA from London Business School, and is currently reading part-time at the Yale Center for Business & the Environment. 

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