by Emily Mikhail
Emily Mikhail is a Young Adult Volunteer serving in Chicago, IL, as well as an elder ordained in her home church of West Plano Presbyterian Church in Texas.
On June 12th, Fossil Free PCUSA attended part of the June MRTI meeting. What was clear throughout the conversation, and what will hopefully be clear here, was that all groups represented at this meeting are very passionate about doing what’s best for the church and the world. All agreed that climate change is a very real problem facing our world, and that fossil fuels have played a part in this. What was in discussion was not that, but how the process to rectify this should look.
When the group representing FFPCUSA arrived, MRTI was discussing criteria for use of divestment based on the directive they were handed at the 2016 General Assembly. Key to this consideration was a focused engagement process on climate change in all industries, but especially fossil fuels. The challenge as identified by MRTI is how to operationalize this into a good process to know how to figure out significant changes. One part of this process is for MRTI to develop a rubric that includes elements of the directive from GA, and then filtering companies already engaged by MRTI through this to see if they are moving forward or backsliding. With this rubric, MRTI would be able to consider who would be good for engagement versus potential divestment, and if divestment, then how that might look. Also discussed was the recent announcement by ExxonMobil to continue to support the Paris Agreement, and what may have brought about that change. Did shareholder engagement help? Or was it because of the Paris Agreement itself, with all but three countries remaining in? Companies look for predictability - they want things stable and want to be able to plan for the future. The Paris agreement standardized and leveled out the playing field, especially across the Northern/Southern hemispheric divide. Companies must conform to global industry standards to stay competitive, and in this case, low carbon is the way to go. So it may be possible that this decision was made with the best long-term interests of the company in mind, not because of engaged shareholders or for the betterment of the environment.
A recurring question throughout the session was why to focus on the fossil fuel industry as the main industry to combat climate change. While oil, coal, and gas make up the supply side, several MRTI members pointed out industries on the demand side that were large emitters and could equally be complicit in the long lasting environmental damage we are seeing today.
Another consideration was that, since PCUSA already does not invest in “sin stocks” (tobacco, alcohol and gambling companies), it would not be outside the realm of possibility to designate other industries into this position as well. This argument has previously been used as a rationale in divesting from other industries or individual organizations. How long should MRTI continue to engage as shareholders and go back and forth with these companies before making this decision? Within FFPCUSA, there is a belief that God’s call to love all creation directs us to be good stewards of the earth, thus the support for divestment from the fossil fuel industry. The harm that the fossil fuel industry has already done to the earth is not in line with being stewards of our resources.
In response to designating the fossil fuel industry as sinful, a gentleman who had previously worked with Synod of the Sun expressed concern over the implications of such a label. In Synod of the Sun, the fossil fuel industry is a huge employer across many levels. There is a desire to continue to support and respect those who rely on the fossil fuel industry for their livelihood, and a concern that some kind of blanket morality statement with regards to fossil fuels will turn these individuals away, especially in a Synod that already has many churches that are on the way to leaving PCUSA. From this, dialogue was suggested about the concerns expressed about the impact of the fossil fuel industry versus supporting livelihoods. While we hold this to be true, we also want to honor and stand with those communities that have been harmed, sometimes irreparably, by the actions of the fossil fuel industry. A further concern from designating the fossil fuel industry was the concern that this was a conversation stopper, and that assigning morality around the issue would polarize individuals. However, this argument in and of itself seems designed to put a roadblock in the conversation of how best to address the damage the fossil fuel industry has done to the environment.
There are also already some initiatives in place around going fossil free. The Board of Pensions recently introduced a fossil free fund option, which is a great step forward. However, they are unable to advertise this option, so it has been spread largely by word of mouth. Additionally, the Presbyterian Foundation’s subsidiary, New Covenant Trust Company (NCTC),is providing fossil free managed strategies to congregations, as well as individuals. Furthermore, the Foundation has committed to designate 1 percent of its endowments for investments targeting climate change. All of these are positive changes, but FFPCUSA still believes more needs to be done.
MRTI members expressed the importance of maintaining the conversation of their actions with regards to the fossil fuel industry as a both/and conversation, and for MRTI, this means exploring both what it means to continue to engage as shareholders and what might necessitate divestment. FFPCUSA very much respects the work MRTI does, but disagrees as to how the timeframe of the process as it stands now addresses the urgency of the problem at hand, and believes that the underlying moral imperative for the church, in keeping with God’s covenant with all things alive and yet to be born (Genesis 9), is to withdraw its support from companies that profit from destroying creation.