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 have to admit, when I read the Presbyterian News Service story, Faith-based investors gain ground with ExxonMobil on climate change, my first thought was that this could be the death knell of fossil fuel divestment. It sounded like the proof that having a seat at the table was the most important thing. However, on closer look, this actually could be a new beginning for the divestment movement.
Let’s look at the proposal itself. The article states that the proposal urges “ExxonMobil to better assess the company’s climate change related risks.” That is true. It goes on to say, “The proposal calls on the oil giant to align itself with the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement asking for a global target of keeping global temperature rise to 2 degrees C or less.” This is not exactly what the proposal calls for. Here is the proposal:
RESOLVED: Shareholders request that beginning in 2018, ExxonMobil publish an annual assessment of the long-term portfolio impacts of technological advances and global climate change policies, at reasonable cost and omitting proprietary information. The assessment can be incorporated into existing reporting and should analyze the impacts on ExxonMobil’s oil and gas reserves and resources under a scenario in which reduction in demand results from carbon restrictions and related rules or commitments adopted by governments consistent with the global agreed upon 2 degrees target. This reporting should assess the resilience of the company’s full portfolio of reserves and resources through 2040 and beyond, and address the financial risks associated with such a scenario.1 (Emphasis the author’s)
This proposal calls on Exxon Mobil to report, not do, not align.
The Presbyterian Church’s Office of Faith Based Investing and Corporate Engagement, and other faith-based investors, must be commended for their work on this issue. They are the ones that kept talking with the company, kept bringing shareholder resolutions. It was this hard work that finally brought the institutional investment management firms, who normally vote with management, to the table to push management to change their ways. But make no mistake, it was the institutional investment management firms that got the vote to the 62%. And the reason the church was behind the proposal is very different from the institutional investors.
The press said that BlackRock voted against management and Vanguard had likely done the same.2 This is how BlackRock and Vanguard make proxy decisions:
BlackRock votes (or refrains from voting) proxies for each Fund for which it has voting authority based on BlackRock’s evaluation of the best long-term economic interests of shareholders.3
Vanguard: The overarching objective in voting is simple: to support proposals and director nominees that maximize the value of a fund’s investments—and those of fund shareholders—over the long term.4
Compare these to the stated purpose of the PCUSA engagement: “We believe Jesus Christ is at the heart of everything we do, and that includes how we invest our money. As ambassadors of the values and ethics of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), MRTI works to ensure that the companies included in the portfolios of the Board of Pensions and Foundation understand the mission goals set by the General Assembly and hopefully work towards aligning their policies and practices to them.”5
Two very different values – maximizing value for shareholders versus maximizing the values of the Jesus we follow.
The big win is this – the large institutional investment management firms are now at the table. They will push ExxonMobil, because at the end of the day it is shareholder value that ExxonMobil will respond to. Where does this leave faith-based investors, including the PCUSA? I believe there is now no room for them at the table. The big boys are seated there now. The PCUSA provided the prophetic witness to get them at the table.
Now it is the time for a new prophetic witness. Let the big boys move ExxonMobil to do the right thing regarding renewable energies. That is the future of shareholder value. The church now needs to raise its moral voice more than ever. The church can no longer invest in the fossil fuels that ruin God’s good creation. In Genesis, “God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’” (Gen. 1:26. NRSV). We were not given dominion over the very fundamentals of creation – air, water, earth, and firmament. It is not OK for us to ruin those very fundamentals.
As followers of Jesus we are called to go out to the ends of the earth. We are not called to sit in the upper room looking at our shareholder value. Remember the words of Paul, “Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 1:13-14, NRSV). The future is renewables. It is time to divest from fossil fuels and strain forward to the future of renewables.
1 ExxonMobil 2017 Proxy Statement, http://ir.exxonmobil.com/phoenix.zhtml?c=115024&p=irol-reportsproxy, accessed June 4, 2017.
2.https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2017/05/31/exxonmobil-is-trying-to-fend-off-a-shareholder-rebellion-over-climate-change/?utm_term=.23eae5c62e6a, accessed June 4, 2017
3 https://www.blackrock.com/corporate/en-br/about-us/investment-stewardship/voting-guidelines-reports-position-papers, accessed June 4, 2017.
4 https://about.vanguard.com/vanguard-proxy-voting/voting-guidelines/, accessed June 4, 2017.
5 https://www.presbyterianmission.org/story/0617-invest/, accessed June 4, 2017.
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.
Gary Payton has served with Fossil Free PCUSA since its inception in 2013. In mission, he has served as the Coordinator of the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program and a coworker as Regional Liaison for Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. With dozens of others, he advocated for fossil fuel divestment at GA222 in Portland, Oregon.
This piece was also published in the River Journal here.
The instructions Jesus gave to his twelve disciples were explicit. “Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave...If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.” (Matthew 10: 11, 14 NRSV).
Across the landscape of two historic Protestant denominations, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the United Methodist Church, advocates for God’s creation are facing difficult personal choices. In recent weeks, the highest policy making bodies of both denominations rejected calls from the grassroots to divest tens of millions of dollars in fossil fuel holdings (oil, gas, and coal) from their pension boards or foundations. The unwillingness to divest came with decisions to “stay at the table” and try to influence the companies through shareholder engagement – even in the face of the urgency for climate action and the track record of major fossil fuel companies.
The issues and the choices are far from abstract for me. For the last three years, I’ve served on the steering committee of Fossil Free PCUSA journeying in my faith walk with thousands of others who want their religious community “to put their money where their values are.”
My angst from my time at GA222 is framed by conversations with Africans suffering from devastating drought and agricultural disruption, with Filipinos still reeling from the impact of Typhoon Haiyan, and the never ending deaths in the Syrian civil war – all events accelerated by human caused climate change and a fossil fuel industry bent on “drill baby drill.”
Meanwhile, the record is clear. For decades, senior leaders of fossil fuel companies have poured millions of dollars into pseudo think tanks, disinformation campaigns, and political contributions for the purpose of sowing doubt about the science of climate change, delaying effective climate action, and blocking legislation to move the nation toward greater use of renewable energy. As denominations have previously divested from tobacco, alcohol, gambling, and for-profit prison industries, so we’ve judged the time is now to begin divestment from those companies whose very business plans threaten lives and the continued habitation of our planet.
The prayerful soul searching continues. Understanding the urgency of action in the face of climate change, what path will faithful grassroots divestment advocates chose after the decisions of the 222nd General Assembly (PCUSA) and the General Conference 2016 (UMC)? How will they, how will I, wrestle with a deeply moral question?
There are deep ironies in the Presbyterian and Methodist decisions. Both denominations face declining memberships, aging populations, and challenges in attracting young people “into the pews.” I heard it best from an engaged young adult urging fossil fuel divestment. “You say that you respect our voices and want us in the life of the church. I say, first give us something to respect.” And, then the policy making body voted to “stay at the table” with the fossil fuel companies and continue their millions in investment.
But finally, Jesus said, "No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” Matthew 6:24, NIV.
Daniel Pappas was born and raised in Dallas, Texas. He attends Eastminster Presbyterian Church at his home in Dallas in Grace Presbytery through the Synod of the Sun. Daniel graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Film and Media Arts from Southern Methodist University and has constantly pursued his passion for filmmaking. He is currently serving as a Young Adult Volunteer in Peru for Paz y Esperanza in Moyobamba. He gives thanks to God he paid attention in Spanish class cause it's paying off now.
Like any good Texan I'm incredibly proud of where I'm from. I was born and raised in Dallas. I grew up in the Friday Night Lights football culture. The oversized-mums-sweet-tea-and-pecan-pie culture. We're home to Mathew McConaughey, Beyoncé, Owen Wilson, Wes Anderson, and 'Stone Cold' Steve Austin. We invented the margarita machine (you're welcome.) George Bush Jr. spoke at my college graduation ceremony. Whataburger is a State specialty and if you've never been to Bucee's then you've never really seen Texas at it's finest.
I'm proud enough of my heritage to claim ownership of it. By claiming ownership, however, I take responsibility for it's flaws as much as it's perks. That often means I have to explain when news stories pop up featuring discrimination, hate, aggression, or even violence. I have to explain to many people that Texas isn't only what you see in the news. Not all of Texas is represented by it's politicians or it’s businessmen. I have to apologize a lot, but I willingly accept this responsibility.
Michael Crichton once wrote “When we acknowledge a problem we accept responsibility for it.”
By denying a problem exists we aren’t required to address it. That’s exactly the same mindset major corporations prey upon. Climate change naysayers repeat over and over again: “The science is inconclusive.”
Nobody can say oil and gas companies ruin our environment because theynever witness it. News may leak every now and then about a horrific spill, but the daily horrors never get noticed. Like Thomas, we have to touch the wounds with our own hands to believe.
Unlike Thomas, however, many of us have seen, but continue to disbelieve. What can we do about an issue as big as our planet? How can one person contribute to ‘defeating’ environmental degradation? That’s the American mindset.
Peruvians live amongst the catastrophic consequences of unchecked mining, oil, and gas operations. Entire tribes fall sick because of runoff into their water source. Major corporations buy up their land, evict them, and leave them with nothing and nowhere to go. I know. I’ve seen it firsthand. I witnessed the kind of desolation and destruction caused solely by these businesses. However bad I could imagine it; it was significantly worse.
Rev. Jacob Bolton is the Associate Pastor of Huguenot Memorial Church in Pelham, New York. Jacob is a Certified Christian Educator and a GreenFaith Senior Fellow.
I was raised in a small town in rural Michigan. We had forests and fields, we had ice and snow. As a child I would hike through the woods with friends, not needing trails, to take us “there and back again;” just needing our sense of adventure and our canine companions. We would swim, we would sail; I learned through my outdoors familiarity that one could experience, could immerse one’s self in the divine while in nature, for experiencing creation provided me with an opportunity to participate with and praise God, in a fashion that in my formative years seemed pure and true. Now along with hiking, camping and the like, one of my most vivid childhood memories, a memory I have of great bonding, is that we would hop in our family car, drive to the dump, and feed the bears.
Now feeding the bears may sound a tad bizarre, but that is what we did for fun, along with a good portion of our village, on random summer nights. We would order two pizzas from Jim’s Pizza Shop, one for us, one for the bears, drive out to the dump, where we would all have supper together. I vividly remember my dad hand feeding black bears slices of pizza from the front seat of our car.
Of course I was never allowed to feed the bears by hand because I wasn’t old enough; I had to sort of lob slices of pizza toward them. And by the time I was around eleven or twelve, the dump closed so the fun was over. But as I reflect on this fond memory, it has become clear that this was not the greatest of pass times.
Let’s look at the issues; first our town had a dump. Not good. Second, we were infringing on the bears habitat, they were not learning how to hunt, scavenge or act as bears do, and they merely became entertainment. But third, what was the message that was being passed on to younger generations, or the message to new people who moved into town when we showed them that this was a really great time? Who was looking at this situation and saying, “This isn’t right. Enough already.”
Now I am not throwing my parents, or grandparents, or anyone’s forbearers under the bus here. As a father of two, I know the spiritual undertaking of raising children. The holy duty has only deepened my prayer life. But, we are certainly not the first generation of people to realize that there has been a shift in our reality that a new way of thinking has emerged. There is wisdom to share and it is imperative that we seize the moment and act. Sacred texts from all traditions share the wisdom of generations; wisdom that we must interpret and put into practice, as we strive to heal our world and ourselves.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) has played a faithful role in interpreting that wisdom and then applying it to the world. There is no doubt that she has left her mark on the minds and hearts of those who will shortly gather in Portland. And when it comes to caring for creation, it is in fact the Weaver of the Universe that calls us back to protect, to till, and to serve it. And so friends, our time is now. We are called to act upon that wisdom, as a people and community of faith.
Which brings me back to the community feeding bears at the dump. While this may have been a thrilling activity, I certainly can’t look back on that experience without chagrin. This unintentional “eco -tourism” was certainly not healthy, or safe, for either the humans or the bears. This juxtaposition represents a much larger issue that the world faces in relation to the concept of earth care, and that issue is our relationship with fossil fuels.
The way we destroy the foundations of the earth, rip apart the birdsong canopy, and suck dry the underground oceans of carbon that fuel our lifestyle is wearing away at our collective souls. Not only are we depleting our resources viciously fast, but people are benefiting from the complete exploitation of entire communities. Neighborhoods are raising a generation of children who suffer from asthma due to intense smog. Watersheds are being destroyed. Multi-year droughts are happening right now. As a people of God, as a denomination, we are at that time when someone must stand up and say, “Enough, this isn’t right. There has to be a better way.”
And so PC(USA) it is time to stop feeding the bears at the dump. I say this as a pastor in a community that is still emerging from Hurricane Sandy and the devastation it caused. I say this as we continue to experience the hottest years ever recorded. We need to divest from fossil fuels, and join the anthemic chorus of denominations, schools, municipalities, and institutions that are boldly proclaiming the time is now. We are all pilgrims along the journey of faith, and if the intention is to apply the sacred wisdom found in our sacred text, if we want to appreciate creation, in all her beauty and mystique, we must learn that we can no longer feed the bears. For the bears in my story were the harmless, oppressed members of God’s great Web of Life, but the bears we are feeding now are savage, and have already bitten us back. They have bitten us back in cycles that are incredibly difficult to escape, in cycles that perpetuate dependence and over consumption, and cycles that cast aside, “the least of these.”
The time is now. There has to be a better way. It is time to stop feeding the bears.
by Ben Heimach-Snipes
Discerning a faithful path for our financial relationship to the fossil fuel industry has been a major part of my experience as a leader in the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship. As a new leader, I relied heavily on the wisdom of my elders who built the PPF endowment to maintain the work of peacemaking for future generations. Like all forms of divestment, there were questions about ethics, about the bottom line, and about our relationships to corporations and employees who would be affected. We took time to discern our answers to all these questions and found new ones too!
Finding a Foundation
I got excited about fossil fuel divestment at the 2014 General Assembly when I first found out about Fossil Free PCUSA. I supported their message as an advocate for the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship. There was obvious overlap between peacemaking and environmental justice, however this was a new issue to PPF, and our focus was on supporting divestment from three companies profiting from the occupation of Palestine. When the fossil fuel overture failed to pass, it still made waves within our group.
This became very personal for me as I spent the August 2014 in the farming communities of central Colombia where the oil industry has had a tremendous impact on local communities. My wife, Abbi, and I were part of a Christian Peacemaker Teams delegation. We learned there was a direct geographical correlation between access to oil and incidence of violence. I learned from these communities that if their land becomes valuable because of a natural resource like oil, they are violently forced to leave, and there is no legal system to protect them. Many don’t survive. Abbi and I brought these stories back with us from Colombia.
Questioning Our Investments
In September, we flew to Stony Point in New York for the National Committee Meeting of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship. On the first day we had breakout sessions to discuss organizational issues in greater depth. Abbi and I had our experience of Colombia fresh on our minds. As people spoke up to form groups I felt my heart start to race as my face got hot. “God, what does this mean?!” I thought. I needed to say something, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. At the last second before the groups split up, I raised my hand and said, “I need to say something about how we invest our money. We have divested from the occupation of Palestine, so what is next?” Somehow people spoke up and we formed a group.
I have experienced PPF as an older organization that is intentionally inviting and embracing my generation in its work and leadership. The National Committee had nominated my wife, Abbi, and me to join the leadership before either of us had a reputation for peace activism. We were quickly trusted and given authority to run with new projects. So, I was excited to gather in the empty Stony Point cafeteria with four other young adults in awe of our task to discuss the investment practices of our PPF family. After our conversation, Aric Clark wrote, “We believe it is time for us to commit to applying the logic of nonviolence thoroughly and sensitively to our finances… We envision this not as a once and for all event, but as a perpetual process tied to the liturgical structure of confession and repentance.” We were not seeking purity, but moral transparency. My generation of PPF leaders were enthusiastically affirmed by the National Committee who voted to take up this challenge starting with a closer look at the issue of Fossil Fuels.
Discerning Our Call
Our discussion group was recruited onto the endowment committee and by winter time, the committee had committed to six months of discernment around investments in fossil fuels. Our committee became a reading group. Colleen Earp brought PCUSA documents on fossil fuels as well as articles from Market Watch and even Rolling Stone to grasp what environmentalists and investors alike were saying about fossil fuel divestment. Terra Winston brought her experiences with Christian Peacemaker Teams in Colombia, Canada and Iraqi Kurdistan which have each experienced violence influenced by the fossil fuel industry. We discussed the long term impacts of global warming and the current impacts of the fossil fuel industries on vulnerable communities. Some of us had spent time in Colombia as accompaniers with internally displaced people in congregations of the Presbyterian Church of Colombia. Violence and displacement caused by land grabbing corporations was not a new concept for the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship. However, shifting our divestment approach from limited geographic boundaries, as in occupied Palestine, to global industry categories such as fossil fuels was a significant step to take.
Jan Orr-Harter articulated our main concern: divesting from the industry removed our influence as stake holders to demand change from fossil fuel companies. The problem with maintaining this form of influence, as Abby Mohaupt expressed to our group in the spring, was that demanding fossil fuel companies stop extracting, processing and selling fossil fuels is as futile as asking a beaver to stop damming up the river. That’s just what they do. It’s in the name of their industry. Stepping away from the industry does not make it more difficult to invest in sustainable energy companies. It allows us to move our investing closer to our ethical mandate as Christians and remove confidence from a violent industry.
This was especially evident as we looked into the technical process of divesting from fossil fuel companies. Our endowment is held with the New Covenant Trust Company, which came out of the Presbyterian Foundation and engages the values of the PC(USA). When we asked about divesting from fossil fuels, our investment manager gave us a Sustainability Survey where one of the many options was to divest from the top 200 fossil fuel companies. This was informed by the Carbon Tracker Initiative which creates an annual list of 200 companies with the largest reserves of fossil fuels in the world. This is the same research-informed list that Fossil Free PC(USA) is advocating for. By checking the box on this survey, we were able to divest from the companies that have the greatest influence on current and future violence related to fossil fuel extraction and pollution. They really made it that simple! Our committee agreed to recommend the divestment action for PPF.
In the Fall of 2015, the Activist Council met for the first time as the new governing body of PPF. The first action of the council was to divest from fossil fuels! Co-Director Emily Brewer said, “For our children, grandchildren and those who come after them, unmitigated climate change will lead to a future of war and violence… On this most complex issue, we act out of faith in a creator God and a love for creation itself.” One major aspect of this action was to promote alternative energy industries to counter act jobs lost in the fossil fuel industry.
Love for the earth does not make me stand against job creation. I believe in a world where there is enough creativity with God to create new jobs in old places, to protect our families with wind farms rather than warfare. I am proud of the work of PPF to divest from the Carbon Tracker 200 and will continue to seek ways to diminish fossil fuel use in my personal and institutional life. It is an affirmation of God’s gift of life to me.
Ben Heimach-Snipes is a resident chaplain at Rush University Medical Center and a candidate for ministry in Whitewater Valley Presbytery. He is now serving as the assistant treasurer of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship. He lives in Chicago with his wife Abbi.
Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, reminds us that we can use our moral authority to send a message to the fossil fuel industry. The time is now.
Robin Blakeman (center, with her mother and daughter) is an ordained PCUSA Teaching Elder, a mother, and an 8th Generation West Virginia Resident. She is currently employed by the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and does volunteer work within the Presbytery of West Virginia. She is also a member of the steering committee for the newly formed WV Chapter of Interfaith Power and Light.
There’s a story in my family about my Great-Grandfather, Silas M. “Bud” Javins, that goes something like this: Sometime (in the late 1800’s) after building his own sawmill and house on a piece of Boone County, WV land he owned (which had been in the family since the late 1700’s), he encountered “Rockefeller agents” who wanted to buy his mineral rights. He didn’t want to sell and tried to tell them politely to leave, but they wouldn’t listen, so the dialogue got rather heated. The legend goes that he actually had to chase those land grabbing agents off his property with a gun!
This story illustrates how hard working entrepreneurial Central Appalachians were challenged with increasing levels of force to give up their land and/or mineral rights. Many sold out for the much needed cash they were being offered, not really understanding what they were signing. Some shady dealings were happening, too – several county court houses in southern WV suffered mysterious fires during that era, and land records were destroyed or altered subsequently. I’m one of the lucky ones who still has my family land – the very farm where my great-grandfather built a house and a sawmill – and some of our mineral rights intact. I am very aware, however, that it was during that post-civil war early industrial period when West Virginia (a state forged out of the Civil War) and much of Central Appalachia became essentially a resource colony for the rest of the nation, and has been exploited ever since.
Fast forward to today where current statistics tell us these facts: West Virginia has a county (McDowell) that is both a major exporter of coal AND has the lowest lifespan for its adult residents. A woman of childbearing age can anticipate that her unborn baby will have a 40% greater likelihood of developing a serious birth defect if she lives near a mountaintop removal coal mining operation. Many of our retired, disabled and deceased miners and their families now struggle with the fact their health, retirement, disability and survivor benefits are being terminated due to bankruptcy agreements that allow corporate executives to retain their salaries & benefits, and the miners lose all their promised benefits. Yet, our state’s elected leaders continue to speak with near unanimous voice about the need to “protect coal."
What I can see, from my perspective as both an 8th generation WV resident, and with a faith-filled and social justice informed reader of current events, is that this is at the very least a foolish allegiance to an industry which is soon going to be just as by-gone as the horse-drawn buggy makers of the past. At worst, there is a form of idolatry on the loose in the voices of those who claim that we must protect our “coal jobs” at all cost, when – in fact – the coal industry has been in a labor reduction mode since the mid part of the twentieth century, when mechanization of mining practices became widespread, increasing in size and capacity up to the modern “drag line” that literally rips mountains apart at their seams in the process of mountaintop removal coal mining.
Now, there are much bigger things at stake than just my (or anyone else’s) family farm. There is the fact that the headwaters of much of the East coast’s watersheds are at risk from mountaintop removal coal mining and gas fracking – which is becoming very widespread in Central Appalachia. This is the location of headwater streams for the Ohio, the Potomac, the James Rivers, and many others. There are reports of dramatic and increasing signs of Climate Change, which we truly must address as quickly as possible if we want to avoid all of our coastal cities going underwater due to sea level rise. There are droughts and unbelievably high temperatures in India and other countries that are causing deaths and disease in catastrophic numbers. There are floods and wildfires on our own continent that we can no longer ignore. There is increasing melt of glaciers, permafrost and polar ice caps.
The central question for me is this: what kind of world do I want to leave to my daughter and her descendants?
In answering that question, I am aware of both the global problems of Climate Change, and of shortfalls to my state’s budget due to loss of coal revenues – all of which may impact her job prospects when she graduates next year from college. For her sake and for the sake of her yet-to-be-conceived or adopted children, I am aware of how urgently we need to develop alternative economic industry and truly renewable energy resources in order to fill in those budget gaps (some would say we need to focus on “preserving coal” but I strongly disagree). To spur this kind of development, we need a message about the morality and justice of continued economic dependence on fossil fuel resources, and we need it loudly and rapidly delivered, even though there will be opposition to that message.
The thing that gives me the most hope is that there are some nearby job training programs that are actively training solar installers. This is a growing industry in West Virginia! If we can do this here, it can be done anywhere.
My hope is this: instead of squashing entrepreneurial initiatives (as was done in the past in West Virginia), that Wisdom will prevail and programs like Coalfield Development (http://www.coalfield-development.org/) and Solar Holler (http://www.solarholler.com/) will become the model for increasing diversification of our workforce and energy generation. We need messages sent to our elected leaders and energy providers about the critical need to transition away from dependence on fossil fuels. To help this transition happen, I have supported the work of Fossil Free PCUSA for the past three years. The work being done on the divestment front is another bright and shining beacon of hope – not only for Central Appalachia, but for our entire world.