by Sue Smith
Sue Smith is the Vice-Moderator of Presbyterians for Earth Care, a member of the First Presbyterian Church of Rumson (NJ), and a GreenFaith Fellow.
I still get emotional thinking about it. On October 14, 2016, the Synod of the Northeast of the Presbyterian Church (USA) overwhelmingly approved a commissioner’s resolution brought by Rick Ufford-Chase and me to divest from fossil fuels. While I am thrilled with the outcome, that is not what makes me emotional. It was the grace-filled conversation that evolved in the course of the debate.
Advocating for the resolution, I tried to address the questions that I consider noise in this debate by using my own divestment decision as an example. We still drive gas-powered automobiles; until there is less oil extracted from the ground and car manufacturers are forced to find other means of powering cars or we build up our public transportation infrastructure, most of us will be driving cars. We lose our seat at the table; look at the history of Exxon’s response to shareholder resolutions, our seat is meaningless. It doesn’t matter, someone else will buy the stock; true, we live in a market economy, anyone can buy any investment they want.
But I am a Christian who loves the awe-filled story of creation in Genesis 1 and the intimate story of creation in Genesis 2, and who takes seriously the call in both of those stories to steward, care for and tend all of creation. In the end, the only question that mattered for me, and the one I posed to the assembly, was, do we fund our futures owning companies that have in their hands the oil & gas reserves that can do great damage to our communities and all of creation?
Rick talked about the history of the grassroots movement for fossil fuel divestment in the Presbyterian Church, and spoke to the inevitability of approval, most likely at the next General Assembly. Rick also answered the other question that always seems to come up: what do we say to our members who work in the fossil fuel industry? His answer spoke to the dichotomies around this issue. If we don’t do this, what are we saying to all the people around the world who are being harmed by the growing use of fossil fuels? And yes, we have to show care for our people whose jobs may be affected by the transition to renewable energy.
But here the conversation changed. Harold Delhagen, the Synod Leader, first made a statement to the effect that it is easy to divest – sell the stock; there are plenty of other stocks to meet investment objectives. It is a one-time event. What do you do afterwards to address the hard questions around the issues raised by climate change and environmental degradation? That became the focus of the conversation - imagining the possibilities of what we could be and do. Divestment was non-contentious. A very different divestment conversation from any that I had been part of previously.
The Synod has a structure that allows for this conversation of possibilities to continue beyond the assembly, Synod Networks. These are “ways people gather together to move our ministry and church forward. They are spaces where we gain strength, share resources and educate ourselves and others.” That night five of us gathered to start the formation of a new network: the Clean Climate Network. Our vision is to be a “Carbon Neutral regional faith community that inspires other faith communities and regions. To support the Synod in becoming a leader in claiming our moral voice to combat climate change.” It was an energy-filled discussion.
I have learned to look at divestment differently through this experience. Divestment is a clear pronouncement that the harm being done to God’s creation by our fossil-fueled economy is an important issue for the church and for individuals. More important is the work that needs to be done afterwards. How are we church in the face of environmental degradation and climate change? How do we minister to the communities that suffer from the results? How do we pastor to people who lose jobs in a changing economy? How do we inspire congregations and individuals to live more lightly on the earth? How are we to be true stewards of all of God’s creation?
by the Rev. Dr. Patricia K. Tull
Environmental advocates on all sides of the PCUSA’s divestment debate at June’s General Assembly meeting were dismayed, if not depressed, by the outcome. We entered the week with one widely supported overture from Fossil Free PCUSA and 31 presbyteries, three well supported overtures from Faithful Alternatives and 9 presbyteries, a report from the committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI), and a thoughtful substitute motion crafted by the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy. These all envisioned substantive ways to grow the church’s action against climate change. But we emerged from a deeply flawed process with only a sliver of what we had collectively brought.
On the positive side, Fossil Free’s efforts gave legs to the church’s historic concern about climate change. Not all Presbyterians agreed with categorical divestment as a strategy. But the urgency of global warming and the commitment to make immediate changes were affirmed across the board. Fossil Free’s energy and vision seem to have sparked other attempts to address the crisis. In addition to MRTI’s process—prioritizing corporate dialogue and making specific demands—other new opportunities are dawning:
In short, the church amassed a great pile of raw materials from which to build a robust movement.
Something more is happening, something hardly to be expected last June. Mike Cole (general presbyter of New Covenant Presbytery and a Faithful Alternatives member), Abby Mohaupt (Fossil Free moderator and a Presbyterians for Earth Care member), and Rob Fohr (lead staff person for MRTI), have assembled folks from the three groups and others to collaborate on our shared concerns.
At the invitation of Austin Seminary’s president Ted Wardlaw, a small group met on campus in mid-October to discuss MRTI’s role and other initiatives we might pursue together. In addition to representatives from Fossil Free, Faithful Alternatives, and MRTI, the meeting was attended by Rebecca Barnes from Environmental Ministries of the Presbyterian Hunger Program, Rick Young from the Texas Presbyterian Foundation, representatives from the Board of Pensions, and others deeply concerned about the PCUSA’s role in addressing climate change, including myself.
We heard various reflections, most strikingly from Austin Seminary’s dean David Jensen, who laid out a Reformed approach to social and economic engagement, and Rob Fohr and other MRTI members, who reviewed the history of corporate engagement and phased selective divestment. We carried out several guided conversations around these points.
And then, recognizing that MRTI’s work is a “necessary but insufficient” tool, we discussed what else the church can foster, starting with the forty presbyteries that concurred with the Fossil Free or Faithful Alternatives overtures.
This was a huge agenda for a single day: former rivals around a single table, seeking to collaborate on realities that both unite and divide us.
The conversation reminded me of a day thirty years ago when I was an Austin Seminary student. We were given an exercise in decision-making: choosing survival tools for a hypothetical space expedition. No one had come to class that day expecting to make decisions lying well outside our experience and expertise. We worked alone first, and then in groups. We sallied forth with more confidence in our own judgment than in the thoughts of classmates we were thrown together with. But according to NASA’s scorecard, every single “committee” came up with a better outcome than any individuals had. I learned that day that collaboration is difficult; it requires humility; it demands give and take; and it works.
It was clear in this meeting as well that individuals came with diverse tools, priorities, and experience, as well as diverse trust and diverse propensities to humility and shared leadership. There were more men than women by far, more Faithful Alternatives, and more Texans (including myself). Yet I for one found hope in the dedication to work toward shared solutions that Mike, Abby, and Rob modeled for us.
Given historic and ongoing ties between some petroleum companies and climate denial, I am not optimistic that enlightening CEOs is possible for us, even in concert with other faith groups. But since we have never done this before with fossil fuel, I can’t say whether blanket divestment, selective divestment, or corporate engagement is the silver bullet we’re looking for. As tools, both divestment and shareholder activism have merits.
Perhaps one way to diversify the effort is for individuals, congregations, and presbyteries who know they don’t have resources for engagement to choose divestment—both because of the threat of stranded assets and, more importantly, because it’s our ethic to invest in what benefits society—and let MRTI continue its process to encourage good corporate citizenship, reveal the worst players, and act accordingly. As an individual, for example, I won’t be attending shareholder meetings, so I had already diverted my retirement savings to fossil-free Parnassus and Paxworld funds. Some churches and bodies, such as the Synod of the Northeast, are also divesting. The Presbyterian Foundation’s new fossil free instruments make this even easier.
More crucially, I hope to see the Presbyterian grassroots put its money, and time, where its mouth is. We are very practiced at theologizing, but lofty words, no matter how righteous, cannot directly change atmospheric carbon content. Only our actions can do that.
Over the past five years, First Presbyterian Church in Jeffersonville—the only church situated geographically between the PCUSA building and the Foundation—has worked hard to lower its energy demand. According to the EPA’s portfolio manager, since 2011 we have reduced our greenhouse gas emissions by 21.3% and our annual bills by 31.2% (nearly $4000). Part of this is through solar panels we installed last year with help from Hoosier Interfaith Power & Light. But most is through energy conservation. In coming weeks we expect to do more, changing fluorescent fixtures to LEDs, updating appliances, and installing another solar array.
We can’t talk our way there. We’ve had to do hard tasks we didn’t come expecting to do at church: monitor bills; open 2x4 troffers and disconnect wires; watchdog thermostats; call the insulation folks; shut down wasteful stoves; close doors between zones; raise awareness and money. At the same time, we’ve had a lot of help not only through utility rebates and the EPA, but also through energy conservation workshops, through members with relevant skills and convictions, through years of cultivating Earth Care values in the leadership and congregation.
Throughout the PCUSA there are many churches like ours—in fact, another 190 who are certified Earth Care Congregations—who can help lead the way. It’s time to encourage a much broader movement—solar panels on every church roof, or at least deep cuts in every church’s carbon pollution.
Achieving carbon neutrality and a safe future will require changes in national policy and corporate behavior. It also requires local conservation. I hope every individual, congregation, and presbytery who spoke up about climate change this year will help grow the grassroots movement to transform the energy—both social and environmental—that powers our beloved denomination.
Lisa Gray was a Ruling Elder Commissioner to the 222nd General Assembly and a member of Committee 9, Environment and Immigration. Here she shares her thoughts on her visit to Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI)'s committee meeting at the beginning of October.
I am fortunate (if you like big cities) to live within driving distance of Manhattan. So when I read an e-mail from the new moderator of FFPCUSA Abby Mohaupt “inviting YOU (me) to join us (her) in their work," which included attending the quarterly meeting of MRTI at Madison Avenue Church in NYC, I accepted the call.
It is indeed a call that started with my being a Ruling Elder Commissioner at the 222nd General Assembly this past summer. I was on Committee 9, Environmental and Immigration. I voted for divestment, but the Minority Report with a more moderate approach was approved by the body of General Assembly.
The body of General Assembly agreed to:
Direct MRTI to pursue its focused engagement process on climate change issues with all corporations, particularly with those in the oil, gas, and coal sectors, and report back to the 223rd General Assembly (2018) with recommendations, including possible selective divestment if significant changes in governance, strategy, implementation, transparency and disclosure, and public policy are not instituted by the corporations during the engagements of MRTI and ecumenical partners.
Looking back at this decision, I was disappointed because this issue needs immediate action. However, I did want to find out how MRTI was going to plan on following this directive. I wanted to represent Committee 9 who wrestled with the overtures relating to fossil fuel. I wanted MRTI to see a presence.
What I did find was:
Here is some basic information I found to get me up to speed on MRTI and the Paris Agreement.
From PCUSA Web-site (excerpts) Mission Responsibility Through Investment:
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) believes that church investment is more than a practical question. It is also “an instrument of mission and includes theological, social and economic considerations” (183rd General Assembly, UPCUSA, 1971). Through dialogue and meetings with company management, shareholders try to directly encourage more responsible levels of corporate citizenship. If initial attempts at dialogue or communication with a company fail, institutions or individuals can file a shareholder proposal, to be voted on at that company’s annual shareholder meeting. A shareholder proposal is a recommendation or request that a company and/or its board of directors take a particular action relevant to company policy. MRTI is involved in shareholder advocacy to encourage companies to protect the most vulnerable, care for creation, and promote peace.
The Paris agreement (from WHO)
The Paris Agreement, adopted on 12 December 2015, marks the beginning of a new era in the global response to climate change. The world now has a global climate agreement - that will have a major public health policy impact as countries take action. As stated in the agreement, “the right to health”, will be central to the actions taken.
The Agreement not only sets ambitious aims to curb greenhouse gas emissions to keep global warming well below 2°C, it also commits countries to strengthen adaptation. This includes implementing plans that should protect human health from the worst impacts of climate change, such as air pollution, heat waves, floods and droughts, and the ongoing degradation of water resources and food security. It commits countries to finance clean and resilient futures in the most vulnerable countries.
Through monitoring and revision of national contributions every five years, the world will begin to see improvements not only in the environment, but also in health, including reductions in the more than 7 million deaths worldwide that are attributed to air pollution every year.
To build on this historic opportunity, WHO, and the Government of France, holding the Presidency of the Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, will jointly host the Second Global Conference on Health and Climate: “Building Healthier Societies through implementation of the Paris Agreement." (This was held this past July.)
My overall impression of the meeting was that as well-intentioned as every committee member was and no matter how much hard they will work in the next two years the report to the 223rd General Assembly will show little progress.
Yes we need to take personal and corporate responsibility for our over consumption and encourage others to do so also but this is a complex issue. Until governments make the appropriate laws to safeguard our environment and retrain our workforce, I don’t see the energy industry changing much.
GA 222 did approve reading and studying “Laudato Si, On Care for our Common Home”, the encyclical letter of Pope Francis which I will conclude with a quote from: “We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels-especially coal, but also oil and to a lesser degree, gas-need to be progressive replaced without delay…..Politics and business have been slow to react in a way commensurate with the urgency of the challenges facing our world.”
Time for strong action to move politicians and business is now. Divestment would make an enormous statement that PCUSA can’t in good conscience profit from fossil fuels.