The Paris Agreement hammered out in December between 196 nations at the UN Climate Change Conference is anything but an abstract, distant formulation for me. In fact, the process, the agreement, its signing and implementation could not be more personal.
I was privileged to be an official “observer” at the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties (COP21). My participation was enabled by the PC(USA) and Action by Churches Together (ACT) Alliance. I traveled to Paris to be a witness to the historic gathering and share its progress and outcomes before, during, and after the gathering.
But while in Paris, the ongoing climate negotiations became very personal.
The abstract became personal in my conversation with Maryknoll Sister Marvie Misolas from the Philippines. Her ministry today eases the suffering of the thousands still affected by Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013.
The abstract became personal standing with Michael Haduyu, a young adult who took part in the Pan African Cycling Caravan. He was one of dozens of riders who biked 4,500 miles through 9 countries in 71 days to bring demands for climate justice from farms and villages ravaged by drought.
The abstract became personal in the voice of Anote Tong from the low-lying Pacific island nation of Kiribati as he described the immediate threat of sea level rise, powerful storm surges, and imperiled future.
In Paris, the Spirit moved my passion for climate justice from my head to my heart.
On Earth Day 2016, that same sense of personal, human connection to climate change and its impacts came to me in the voice of Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim addressing world leaders at the Paris Agreement signing ceremony at the UN Headquarters. Ms. Ibrahim from the Mbororo community of Chad shared a story of vanishing food, livestock, and pastures among her people. She spoke of climate refugees displaced today by the advance of climate change.
You can imagine, then, the emotions – even the anger – which wells up inside me when I read yet another report of a major fossil fuel company funding climate change deception and denial or bankrolling political campaigns aimed at blocking meaningful environmental or energy legislation.
I believe the negotiators from the world’s nations felt the Spirit move within them when they crafted the Paris Agreement last December. I believe the negotiators heeded the words of Pope Francis who has called us “…to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” It is my prayer, therefore, that the commissioners to the 222nd General Assembly of the PC(USA) feel the Spirit move within them and vote to divest fossil fuel holdings from the portfolios of the Board of Pension and the Presbyterian Foundation. If it is wrong to wreck the planet, then it is wrong to profit from that wreckage.
Supported by Action by Churches Together (ACT),
Gary rallies at COP21 with members of the Pan African Cycling Caravan.
Susan Chamberlain is a Ruling Elder at First Presbyterian Palo Alto. She works as a psychotherapist, loves playing the piano, enjoys being in nature, and is passionate about caring for creation.
Like many good ideas, the vision of asking the Presbyterian church to divest from fossil fuels sprang up in several different places in the spring of 2013. Here’s the story of how this idea took root at First Pres Palo Alto in California.
Our Cool Planet group had been busy with many programs on climate change for six years. We presented a number of speaker series, greened our church facility, advocated for state initiatives to lower carbon emissions, and led a six month challenge to get every household to lower their carbon footprint. We took seriously the overture passed in 2006 urging us to lead carbon neutral lives.
We worked hard.
During that period, the carbon parts per million (ppm) in the atmosphere rose to over 400 ppm, 50 ppm over the safe upper limit, and well over the 280 ppm at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in 1800, where it had been stable for millennia.
It became clear that individual actions were not going to get us to a sustainable planet fast enough. We needed to do something to address the systemic problem.
In October 2012, we heard Bill McKibben speak on his "Do the Math" tour. The science was convincing: We need to leave 80% of fossil fuel reserves in the ground if we are to have any hope of a sustainable future. If we are to slow global warming we have to focus on the companies that are extracting and selling coal, oil, and gas.
We came away from that lecture with a vision and a moral imperative. We would start a campaign to get the PC(USA) to divest from fossil fuels. This seemed an effective way to call attention to the necessity of turning away from our dependence on fossil fuels and of turning toward renewable sources of energy. In the spring of 2013, fueled by a passionate energy we didn't know we had, we wrote an overture calling the PC(USA) to divest from fossil fuels.
Soon we found that there were other Presbyterians across the country in whom the divestment idea had taken root and we joined together in this calling. Thus began a fast growing grassroots movement that brings us, 3 years later, to a second overture, with 29 concurrences, asking the 2016 General Assembly to divest Presbyterian funds from fossil fuels.
By divesting, the PC(USA) will join the chorus of 500 other institutions around the world that have divested from fossil fuels. As our collective voice grows louder the moral arc of the universe will bend toward climate justice.
Above: Cool Planet celebrates the concurrence of OVT 09-01 in San Jose Presbytery together.
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.
For me, divestment from fossil fuels has never just been about money.
It’s about living into our God-given vocation to be ourselves.
As a teaching elder, I often talk with Presbyterians about how the authors of Genesis put forth our original vocation as human beings—to love creation—and that that love for creation is a response to God’s love for us. In the New Testament, Jesus reminds us that the greatest commandment is about love: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength.” (Deuternomy 6:5, Common English Bible)
We have to love God and creation with our whole selves.
I remember when I first fell in love with creation as a child in Northern Illinois and when I first had emotional reactions to the devastation of climate change in Northern California. I remember when I first realized that the destruction is so bad, that we must do and change everything or everything will be lost.
We must change how we treat creation, with all our hearts, all our being, all our strength… and for us in the United States, a great symbol of that is our wallets.
Where we put our money defines us and has great power. That power is why it matters what we buy at the supermarket (buying organic and local food creates greater demand for more organic and local food), why it matters what kinds of cars we buy (buying less gas for a hybrid vehicle creates less demand for fossil fuels), and why it matters what products we fill our lives with (even changing to recycled toilet paper changes demand for paper!) Where we put our money shows where our hearts are.
And so it matters where we put our investments—how we make money is a symbol for who we are as people who follow Jesus, people who are called love with our whole selves. If we make money from fossil fuel companies, it doesn’t matter if we put that money back into local food or hybrid cars or recycled paper—it’s money that comes from companies that burn fossil fuels and wreak havoc on the planet.
But again, it’s more than just about money. Money is symbol of where our hearts are.
We’ve forgotten our hearts and being and strength as people of faith—we’ve forgotten that we do have power to make change and to protect the earth. We have to change everything—we have to do everything—as individuals and as a denomination—to change the world we’re called to love.
With courage and God’s grace, we may still have a chance.