Banking leaders from around the world were told Wednesday in Vancouver that if they want to slow climate change, they must imagine a bold new economic system that works with Indigenous communities, scales up and takes risks.

The Global Alliance on Banking Values, a network of independent banks founded after the 2008 financial crisis to make positive change, held its 2019 summit in Vancouver this week, with Vancity as host.

Sheila Watt-Cloutier, an Inuit author and activist nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for her advocacy work on the impact of global climate change on human rights, spoke about how the Inuit people have been dramatically affected by climate change as the Arctic ice melts earlier each spring.

“The ice is our life source. It is a giving nurturing mother energy. It is our university, it is our supermarket and the ice is about the health and wellbeing of an entire people who live at the top of the world,” she told the gathered bankers.

She spoke of how her people learn patience, courage, resiliency, how not to be impulsive and how to have sound judgment, all from their experience with the ice and the Inuit culture as they hunt for food to feed their families. Ultimately, she said, that experience gives them wisdom.

“This wisdom which is often sourced from the land and the ice is now equally at risk of being lost as the ice itself,” she said, adding that her people now have a high suicide rate in North America and that 60 to 70 per cent of Inuit children are hungry.

She noted the irony that her people, who lived a low-carbon existence for millennia, are now bearing disproportionate effects of climate change.

“If you protect the Arctic, you save the planet,” she said. “What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic. Everything is connected through our common atmosphere, not to mention our common spirit and our common humanity.”

She called on the bankers to reframe debate around climate change away from one simply about economics and into a new approach that looks at the connections between the environment, human rights and the economy. She asked them to imagine a new way of doing business, that aligns its values with the Indigenous world, rather than replicating the values of Western society, which haven’t worked.

She reminded them that the Inuit are not victims — rather they are ingenious and resilient people who can build houses out of snow that are warm enough for a newborn baby.

“We don’t want anyone on a mission to save us … that’s been part of the problem all along,” she said, adding that the focus should be on the resourcefulness of the Inuit people, rather than on extracting resources from the ground, which will only add more emissions.

Watt-Cloutier is hopeful about the future and says young people among the Inuit are emerging as environmental leaders.

There's still hope, but the time to act is now, panel members say

Panel members found reasons for hope, but also urged the bankers to act quickly and with urgency.

Jules Kortenhorst, chief executive officer of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a Colorado-based non-profit organization that helps organizations shift away from fossil fuels, said it is inspiring to see countries like China take on leadership roles in climate change.

“Change is happening faster every day. We are seeing costs of the core technologies coming down at a pace that we have not thought possible,” Kortenhorst said. “This is spreading like wildfire, this is no longer a niche.”

He urged the bankers to be inspired by leaders like Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, 16, whose words have created a mass movement of youth, or Canadian Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England and former governor of the Bank of Canada, who has warned of the devastating impact climate change could have on banks and insurance companies if they don’t disclose their risks.

“Pick a role model and be bold because we can only do this if we take a lot more risk, scale more rapidly and are bold,” he said.

Sandrine Dixson-Declève, co-president the Club of Rome, a Swiss organization of scientists, economists and business people that proposes solutions to global problems, said the world is in a state of emergency and needs to wake up.

“I’m a bridge builder, but I am fed up to a certain degree with the complacency of all of us, me included. (I want to) say to the bankers, this is your goal: being bold is putting your money where your mouth is,” Dixson-Declève said.

Stewart Wallis, executive chairman at the Well-Being Economy Alliance (WE All), a group of organizations that wants to change the economic system to be based in human and ecological well-being, talked about income inequality and said that last year the richest 28 people on the planet had the same wealth as the poorest 3.8 billion and the wealth of the billionaires went up last year, while the wealth of the poorest went down.

“Think of how these crises are interacting and don’t be surprised that our politics is going the way that it is, it’s there for us to see,” Wallis said. “Fundamentally, the economic system we’ve got is broken, it’s dangerous and it’s violent. We’ve got to call it as it is and urge those with imagination to create a different economic system … one that’s got well-being of both the planet and humans that puts regeneration at its heart.”

Paul Thomas, president and CEO of ESAF Small Finance Bank, a bank in India for under-served communities, said his country is highly affected by climate change and that the frequency and severity of natural calamities there has increased, leading to massive economic losses.

His bank has developed loans for clean energy projects, which he says have created a significant reduction in carbon emissions. Not only that, but they’ve made money for the bank, he said.

“It is a good opportunity for banks — we can finance clean energy products,” he said. “It’s only a beginning I know, we have a long way to go.”

Tracy Sherlock writes about B.C. politics for National Observer. Send tips and comments to her at [email protected].

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