Mary Anne Hitt is a Presbyterian
and the Director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign.
I live in a small town in West Virginia, where I’m a member of a Presbyterian church and married to the son of a retired Presbyterian minister. I won’t claim to be an expert in matters of theology, but I know what keeps me coming back every Sunday. It’s being part of a community with ethics rooted in love - love of creation, justice, peace, neighbors, life - that wrestles every week with how to manifest that love in today’s fraught and polarized world, without succumbing to despair.
That comes in handy all week long, in my job working as the director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, which is working to shift the nation from coal to clean, renewable energy. While I may not be a religious scholar, I’ve spent over a decade witnessing first-hand not only the extreme suffering caused by our reliance on fossil fuels, but also the heroic and soulful work that is moving this nation to clean energy. From Appalachian communities near mining sites with high levels of birth defects and cancer, to Detroit neighborhoods next to coal plants where kids have sky-high rates of asthma, to the world’s poor who will bear the brunt of climate change, the most vulnerable among us pay the ultimate price for dirty energy, every day.
The Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) can’t solve this problem alone, of course, but one of the most important actions we can take as an institution is to divest from fossil fuels. We would be in good company. Some of the smartest money managers in the world, including those at Stanford's endowment, the California pension system, Norway’s $900 billion sovereign fund, and the world’s largest insurance company Allianz, are beginning to divest not only because of the moral imperative, but also because it’s good business. As the price of clean energy continues to fall and the nations of the world move to implement the climate agreement signed in Paris in 2015, the financial prospects for fossil fuels are becoming shakier every day.
In the past five years, coal has fallen from providing 50 percent of US energy to a historic low of 33 percent in 2015, and renewable energy provided the majority of new energy on the grid globally last year, also a historic first. From my vantage point, the biggest force bringing about that transformation has been grassroots campaigns to retire coal plants and replace them with clean energy, and the community leaders who are winning these campaigns are real-life heroes in the struggle for justice. Here in West Virginia, many more everyday heroes are now leading the effort to build an economy beyond coal, one that sustains the generations. As one example, our church (Shepherdstown Presbyterian) went solar in 2014, becoming the largest community-supported solar project in the state and creating an innovative model to bring solar energy to West Virginia that other nonprofits in the state have followed.
These grassroots leaders need us to stand beside them. I hope PCUSA will step forward and join the hundreds of institutions around the world that are divesting from fossil fuels. Our most vulnerable neighbors - from around the corner to around the world - are counting on us.