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PC(USA): Divest from Fossil Fuels

July 26, 2017

On Tuesday, July 25, the Hudson River Presbytery voted unanimously and with our ‘outdoor voices’ to overture the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to divest from fossil fuels and invest in renewable energy. Here is what I said before we took the vote.

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At 7:00 this morning I was at my church when a large crane arrived, its long arm able to reach the top of our education building. Up and down it went, moving heavy pallets from a truck. I spent the rest of the morning on the roof of my church with the team that is installing solar panels, unloading the racks, the ballast and the panels. By next month we will no longer be purchasing electricity, but generating our own. There is an impressive transition taking place right now toward renewable energy sources, a change taking place despite the United States withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords. The waiting list for the new low-cost Tesla electric car outstripped all expectations.  And the PC(USA) has set up a fund that is fossil-fuel free to which churches can move their investments.

But this transition by congregations and individuals is not, and will not be fast enough, alone, to stop climate catastrophe.

The companies and countries that make up the fossil fuel industry hold assets ‘in the ground’.  Eighty percent of these known fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground if we are to have any chance whatsoever of keeping our atmosphere from warming more than two degrees. And two degrees is all it takes to push us into planet-wide climate catastrophe.  But the problem is that eighty percent in the ground is not an asset that the fossil fuel industry is prepared to leave untouched.  There’s simply too much profit to be made.  

So instead, the industry denies the science and is searching out ever new forms of fuel to exploit, dirtier fuels like the Athabasca Tar Sands in Canada (XL Pipeline), new fields exposed by the thawing tundra, and fracked gas from the Bakken Shale which is being transported by the Dakota Access Pipeline through sacred lands of the Standing Rock Sioux.  

While there are uncertainties in climate science, they pertain to questions like when will we reach the point of no-return on melting ice, acidifying oceans, and spreading deserts? Not whether these things will happen. And current corporate action is accelerating this catastrophe at an alarming rate.

How do we change it?  How do we stop those companies from doing what they’ve always done?  And how do we stop our government and those of other countries from allowing these corporations to do harm to our planet and its people today and tomorrow?

I will be frank.  Divestment alone will not be enough.  But it is a crucial tool within a larger global effort to push both corporations and governments to respond to their people’s cries for change.

Divesting from fossil fuels does three principal things. 

  • First, it strips legitimacy from an industry whose business plan means suicide for the planet. 
  • Second, it frees up funds for investing in other forms of energy. 
  • Third, it builds momentum for other actions including pressure on governments to do what only governments can do – like enforcing international accords on Climate Change or raising emissions standards or protecting preserves and other natural resources from exploitation.

The last, crucial thing that divestment does, is require our own denomination, the PC(USA) to use its voice and power seriously in this global effort.  At the last two General Assemblies, Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) has blocked the PC(USA) divestment effort which, at the last assembly, was supported by more than 30 presbyteries, saying that they prefer to talk with corporations and that they want to honor people whose livelihood depends on this industry.  But in doing so, they have privileged certain people over others – they have privileged the well-being of corporations, the well-being of executives, and the well-being of well-paid individuals who work for the fossil fuel industry OVER the lives and livelihoods of the poorest people on our planet who are losing their lands, who are losing their lives to the encroaching disaster.  Some of these people are our churches own mission partners – like in Peru and Madagascar.[i]  

Meanwhile, the world is not waiting for the PC(USA) to lead the charge. By the end of 2016 a total of 688 institutions and more than 58,000 individuals have withdrawn investment from coal, oil, and gas companies in order to tackle the extractive industries that are killing our planet. These include governments, cities, pension funds, philanthropies, universities, as well as the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and the United Church of Christ. We’re late. To date these withdrawn funds amount to over 5.5 trillion dollars, making those same funds available instead for much needed investment in clean energy and renewable resources.

Universities, NGOs, pension funds and banks – including Amalgamated Bank, the first US bank to divest from fossil fuels – explain their reasons for divesting saying,

  1. First, the moral argument for divestment compels us to recognize that it’s wrong to profit from companies destroying the planet. By moving their money, people and institutions help revoke fossil fuel companies’ social license to operate, shining a light on their unsustainable business models.
  2. Second, the financial argument for divestment demonstrates that fossil fuel-free portfolios are regularly matching or outperforming standard benchmarks. People and institutions grounded in market data and trends are getting out of fossil fuels before the carbon bubble bursts and assets are stranded.
  3. Third, by calling for both divest and invest, institutional and individual investors shift capital flows away from problem industries and accelerate the transition to a global economy fueled by sun, wind and water. The Divest Invest movement brings individuals, family offices, and institutions from across civil society to send a clear and compelling mandate to governments, financial professionals and other businesses to shift the power away from fossil fuel companies and make the changes we need for a low carbon future.[ii]

The White Plains Presbyterian Church voted two years ago to divest ourselves of stock in fossil fuel companies, and to reinvest that same money in renewable energy. We did it understanding ourselves to be stewards of God’s creation.  We did it to send an unmistakable message to our mission partners in Peru and Madagascar and around the world:  we will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with you. We did it for our children and their children’s children who will reap what we sow now.

Therefore, with urgency and hope I stand before you this afternoon, representing the Council of my congregation, to advocate the presbytery’s support for this overture for the PC(USA) to divest itself from fossil fuels – now.  

 

 

[i] Three members of the congregation I serve visited Peru three years ago as part of delegation from Hudson River Presbytery. There they witnessed first-hand the effects of climate change on lives and on the land.

[ii] From the website of Divest-Invest.org.

 

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Grantham Thomas permalink
    July 26, 2017 7:03 pm

    Powerful statement made at presbytery meeting. Lucid and compelling. Thanks for speaking out for us all.

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