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‘Can it really be this bad?’: The one-man vigil protesting the climate record of Barclays bank

His eyes opened by Don’t Look Up, Joe has been protesting Barclays complicity in the climate crisis at its Sheffield branch every Thursday since January. 

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'Joe' outside the Barclays branch in Sheffield city centre.

Kit Ryall

Last month saw a national Better Without Barclays campaign, initiated by Extinction Rebellion and conducted at branches across the country, including Sheffield, where people protested about the bank’s continued investment in fossil fuels and human rights violations. For one Sheffield man who has been carrying out weekly one-person vigils since his eyes were opened to the extent of the climate crisis over Christmas, it was just another week.

Joe (as I will call him in this article) was up late on New Year’s Day. The house was quiet and his wife and son were peacefully asleep when he pressed play. He knew the movie was an allegory for the climate crisis, but he wasn’t prepared for it to change his life.

Don’t Look Up – directed by Adam McKay and starring Leonardo Di Caprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep and Timothee Chalamet – broke records when it was released on Netflix in December, attracting the most viewing hours for a single week in the streaming service’s history.

The plot follows two astronomers (Lawrence and Di Caprio) who are trying to convince the government, media and mankind of impending catastrophe after discovering a planet-killing comet that is heading for earth.

“I wasn’t far into the movie, not long after the part where they told the President of the United States of America of this threat to all of mankind and they get the ‘we need to sit tight and assess’ response,” Joe tells me.

“Knowing the movie was meant to mirror the climate situation, I started thinking, ‘Can it really be this bad? Is the climate situation actually threatening the planet?’ I paused the film and started googling, and couldn’t believe what I found.”

Joe read a number of news reports, including coverage about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report last August, which generated the ‘code red for humanity’ headlines. He watched videos from climate activists like Rupert Read, and speeches and pleas from national treasure David Attenborough.

“I didn’t get much sleep that night,” Joe says.“I went between the movie and the internet, thinking more and more about how art was imitating life.

“In Don’t Look Up the media downplay and trivialise the seriousness of what scientists are warning about. The impact of the comet becomes a matter of opinion and perspective, rather than a view based on fact.”

After reading up on all the parallels with “how dire the climate crisis is” and, crucially, himself having a young son, Joe says: “I had to act.”

His attention was drawn to the Banking on Climate Chaos report, which details the harm caused by the banking industry. It found that Barclays was the number one fossil fuel investor in Europe, providing billions in environmentally destructive projects including pipelines, tar sand mining and gas projects.

Research conducted by the WWF and Greenpeace recently found that if the UK financial institutions considered in its study were a country, that country would have the ninth largest emissions in the world (805 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent) – larger than Germany’s (776 million tonnes CO2 e) and Canada’s domestic emissions (763 million tonnes CO2 e).

The UK’s financial institutions are not currently regulated in the same way as other high-carbon sectors, and therefore they are not legally required to align their financing activities with the climate commitments made by the UK, or with anything agreed globally.

In a press statement responding to XR's Better Without Barclays protests, Barclays said it will become a “net zero bank” by 2050 and that it is “significantly scaling up green financing.” For XR and for Joe, that pace is far too slow.

Joe says, quite simply, that banks like Barclays are driving the climate crisis. “There should be massive financial investment in transitioning from a fossil fuel economy to a green and sustainable economy, but banks are getting a free pass to make money from industries which are killing the planet. If they really wanted to be a net zero bank then they wouldn’t also be the largest investor in fossil fuel in Europe. It is greenwashing, plain and simple.”

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Kit Ryall

Just a few short days after he watched Don’t Look Up, Joe sat down on the pavement outside Barclays bank in Sheffield with a sheet of A3 paper reading, ‘Barclays Has Blood On Its Hands’. His sign referred to the tens of thousands of deaths already happening across the globe which are a direct result of catastrophic climate change. Just last week the IPCC released another report about the impacts and risks of climate breakdown for more than three billion people globally.

Whilst Joe started his protest as a silent vigil, people’s interest has meant that he often ends up chatting to them about what he’s doing and why.

“It starts a conversation about the role of Barclays, and banks more generally, in fuelling the climate crisis. Most people I speak to aren’t aware. Many people care about the climate crisis but aren’t sure what to do. Switching banks, or asking their bank why they are still investing in fossil fuels when we need to reduce carbon, is a relatively simple way to take action.”

Since his first individual protest at the beginning of January, Joe, a Christian who works at a church in the city region, has joined the Christian Climate Alliance and Extinction Rebellion. He has been out in all weather for his Thursday vigil, including a raging hailstorm in mid February, when he took part in the Better Without Barclays week-long protest, which was inspired by his actions. He feels he has to keep his identity hidden because of disapproval from his employers.

He told me he thinks the church has a reputation for “supporting the status quo and not challenging government and institutions.”

“But as Christians, I believe we should be protecting God’s creation – Earth – and all the people on it. There are already many people and countries suffering and dying now, as well as the risks for us and our children in terms of crop failures, food security issues, mass climate-induced migration and resource conflicts.

“We need to demand a different system which doesn’t put profit before planet and people. Until then, I’ll keep trying to raise awareness— one conversation at a time.”

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