It was in a breakout session on fossil fuel divestment after a climate rally in Washington D.C. where I uttered the words that have changed my life for the past three years. When asked what group I represented, I blurted out: I’m a Presbyterian.
On returning home to Tennessee, I decided to own that statement. I reached out to Presbyterians across the country who were already engaged in issues of climate change and fossil fuel industry divestment. Somehow I ended up moderating a group of passionate grassroots activists... and today we call ourselves Fossil Free PCUSA.
Together we crafted an overture and by the time we met at the 221st General Assembly in Detroit in June 2014, we had gathered a dozen presbyteries concurring on the need to take a moral stand on investing in fossil fuel companies. As good Presbyterians, General Assembly voted to study the issue, referring it to MRTI (the committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment) for two years of study and a report.
The month after General Assembly, I found myself in Atlanta, one of many testifying before the EPA on what became the Clean Power Plan. While there, I met faithful Presbyterians and creation advocates like Mary Anne Hitt, director of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, and Kate McGregor Moseley, director of Georgia Interfaith Power and Light.
In September 2014 I traveled to New York City, joining Presbyterians and other people of faith in the People’s Climate March with 400,000 other citizens marching for urgent action on our changing climate.
Over the next 15 months I attended five MRTI meetings in Boston, New York, San Francisco, Dallas and New Orleans. I watched as MRTI grappled with the issue of fossil fuel divestment, and I learned much about the wide-ranging and important work they do for our denomination. I listened incredulously in New York as Hess Oil glibly explained that their business plan would lead to 3.6°C of warming. When asked what that might look like, the disingenuous reply was, “No one really knows…” I listened in San Francisco as a climate scientist and Presbyterian from UC Berkeley was asked if he would support divesting from fossil fuels. His answer: an unequivocal “Yes.”
I traveled to Houston last October for a symposium hosted by Faithful Alternatives to Divestment from Fossil Fuels. There I heard Katharine Hayhoe, a renowned climate scientist and evangelical Christian, explain climate change, and why we as Christians should care. She concluded with a paraphrase of 2 Timothy 1:7 which counsels that if a response smells of fear, it is not from God. Later I saw first-hand the distress and cognitive dissonance of fellow Presbyterians whose livelihood and economic well-being are inextricably connected to corporations whose current business plans – if successfully executed – will wreck creation, and I watched as they were coached through the process of developing overtures opposing fossil fuel divestment.
Less than a month later, in Dallas, I listened as MRTI was warned that wealthy Dallas congregations could leave the denomination if fossil fuel divestment was advised.
Meanwhile, through fall, winter and spring, dozens of congregations and presbyteries across the country were discussing and debating and concurring with the prophetic moral call to put our money where our mouth is and stand with the “least of these” against investing in further degradation of God’s good creation. As of this writing, 31 presbyteries in 12 of 16 synods have concurred with the overture to divest from fossil fuel companies.
We are not alone. Last summer Pope Francis’ encyclical called for all Christians to move away from a fossil fuel based economy. In December it was announced that over 500 institutions worldwide with combined assets of more than $3.4 Trillion have committed to some form of fossil fuel divestment. At the same time secular society in the form of 196 nations at COP21 committed to decarbonizing to keep our planet well below 2°C of warming.
As I think about the next steps in this journey to Portland, I recall Earth Day images of delegates from country after country signing the Paris Accord at the UN. I’m struck particularly by the image of John Kerry, our Secretary of State, signing the agreement with his granddaughter on his lap. It’s not about us, today, cocooned in our first-world economic security; it’s about the next generation, and the generation after that, and the developing world; none of whom may have the opportunity to fully develop if we don’t do everything we can as urgently as we can to slow climate change.
On that first Earth Day, 46 years ago, the Grateful Dead sang: “What a long, strange trip it’s been!” The trip isn’t over yet. In many ways it’s only just beginning. Portland awaits, and I remain grateful to be a Presbyterian.