by abby mohaupt
Moderator of FFPCUSA
I went to Houston on October 9 to meet with Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI), the denominational committee that does shareholder engagement with publicly traded companies in which the Presbyterian Church (USA) holds stock.
As a committee, they have repeatedly resisted categorical divestment from the fossil fuel industry for several reasons, even as they believe that climate change is real. In broad strokes, there is a sense on MRTI that they must be careful to follow their mandate from General Assembly. Some members of the committee think we can’t lump the worst actors in the industry in the same category as companies who are “better.” If we divest categorically from the fossil fuel industry, some members of MRTI say, we will be shaming members of the PCUSA who work for the industry, and other members and friends of MRTI have said we might push wealthy congregations in Texas (only Texas?) out of the denomination.
This was my fourth or fifth time attending an MRTI meeting, and I was prepared for at least a deep and complicated conversation that could pit us against each other—and I was exhausted just thinking about it. In the cab to the airport after my early morning flight, I could already feel my need for more coffee growing. I said a prayer to be open-hearted.
But then I stuck my head into the room at the church where the committee was meeting, and my heart leapt. I saw the faces of the people gathered around the table, and I remembered that we each had come to the table with a deep faith in Jesus, a deep hope in the church, and a deep call to respond to climate change.
Members of Faithful Action and I joined members of MRTI at the table. A member of MRTI asked me to talk more about FFPCUSA’s recent joining with Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, and I talked about our commitment to working in solidarity with people on the front lines of climate change. A member of MRTI wondered if categorical divestment from the fossil fuel industry would cause another painful schism in the denomination in which wealthy donors (and faithful Presbyterians) would leave, and I wondered if we could serve both God and money. We talked about the metrics for engaging with companies in the 2017-2018 engagement year, and I said I love them and that I wished they meant MRTI would recommend at least a few companies for divestment at the 2018 General Assembly. (Instead, MRTI believes they need to give companies a chance to see the metrics and respond to them.) We talked a little bit about why individual action to respond to climate change isn’t enough, and that we need to raise our collective voices in addition to doing all the things that the denomination already promotes for caring for creation. (If you want to see why your own personal actions aren’t enough, go fill out a carbon footprint calculator like this one, put in all the most eco-friendly options, and see how many earths you still use.) I talked about who we’re accountable to as a church—that we must be accountable to the lives of people who are already suffering because of climate change.
After the roundtable, we heard from staff at Conoco Philips (including about their climate change policy)… and I wondered aloud just how little time we have left to respond to climate change. A member of MRTI wondered aloud how long it would take us to wake up and realize that we belong to each other.
It is urgent that we remember that we belong to each other—that we are called by God to love each other and to speak out on behalf of people who suffer. We have so little time to respond, so little time to wait for the fossil fuel industry to change their policies and business model.
As I hugged members of MRTI and Faithful Action goodbye, I said a prayer of gratitude for our shared commitment to work to respond to climate change. And then I said a prayer for courage for our denomination—that we would divest from an industry that has supplied our addiction to fossil fuels.
The time is now.
At Fossil Free PCUSA, we are accountable to communities on the front line of climate change devastation. We acknowledge that the devastation of Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria (which was intensified by the reality of climate change) is made worse by systems of oppression like capitalism and white privilege. At this time--because Puerto Ricans are still largely without power and other necessities of survival--we are lifting up a voice from Florida. We recommend, however this piece from "Mother Jones" that shares how Puerto Ricans are talking about climate change, as well as this piece by Alejandra Rosa. We will amplify their voices in the days, weeks, and months to come.
To Members of the MRTI Committee and Rob Fohr
From: Pam McVety, Elder, First Presbyterian Church Tallahassee & Caring for Creation Enabler, Florida
Presbytery, Member, Fossil Free PCUSA
Re: Request to MRTI Regarding Its Work to Address Climate Change
Objective: In light of the growing number of brutal climate enhanced disasters and the short time left for us to cut carbon emissions, I believe the MRTI Committee has strong justification to bring the following recommendation to the 2018 General Assembly along with its required report:
Escalating Extreme Weather Events and Human Suffering: After nearly two decades of work for our denomination on climate change, I became a climate change victim. I was terrorized for a week by Hurricane Irma which, because of the ocean's warming waters, was a record monster storm with wind speeds around 185 mph. Irma killed at least 68 people, destroyed homes and entire communities, and costing all of us billions of dollars. The terror of the long wait as Irma approached and the destruction and suffering the hurricane left in its wake will never be forgotten.
As a life-long Florida resident, I have experienced a lot of hurricanes, but I’ve never experienced anything even approaching the ferocity of Irma. It is clear that living in Florida today constitutes a risk that never existed before in my life. Science confirms that it is undeniably the result of climate change.
Irma was only one of several horrendous weather events this summer. We had four destructive hurricanes, record-breaking floods in southeast Asia and Nigeria that affected 41 million people, and more than 100 fires in the U.S. northwest that burned more than a million acres filling the air with suffocating smoke and ash. Hurricane Maria literally destroyed Puerto Rico. The damages in the U.S. alone will probably top 200 billion dollars, another record. For millions, it seems like the “end-times” as prophesized in the Bible.
We all watched Houstonians wade through sewage tainted waters and later carry the contents of their homes to the streets. We watched in horror as houses out west burned down, taking with them a lifetime of treasures and memories. We saw farmers weeping in Puerto Rico, because every coconut tree, plantain tree and cow is gone. We feel the pain of every parent in Puerto Rico agonizing how they will feed and clothe their children, send them to school and, keep them safe at home, when there is no home, no school or store.
Decreasing Time to Respond: As climate change impacts worsen, the time to act is growing exceedingly short. A September 15, Scientific American article, “The Window is Closing to Avoid Dangerous Global Warming,” says our global climate emissions have to peak by 2020 -- that is, in less than three years -- to avoid locking in a catastrophic multitude of climate change impacts.
Focusing on the Real Victims: It seemed to me at the last General Assembly (GA) that MRTI’s position on divestment was partially motivated by wanting to keep peace in the church and not lose any more members. Development of criteria to evaluate each fossil fuel company for possible divestment was adopted as a safe middle ground. Fossil fuel divestment over a three-year period was considered disruptive to maintaining membership and peace in the church. The decision to push for evaluation criteria over divestment felt to me like a response tilted towards the loud voices of the fossil fuel industry that positioned themselves as “victims.” The GA action calmed them, but did not respond to the real victims, the millions of people being slammed by climate change over and over.
Availability of Fossil Free Funding Options: Tim Clark, CEO of New Covenant Funds visited our church, First Presbyterian of Tallahassee recently. He went over our investments and was full of praise for our role in setting up the Fossil-free common fund. The fund now amounts to more than three million dollars of which 60% currently consists of our own investments. It continues to grow, with more churches and individuals buying in. We are pleased with the returns and grateful for the availability of this fund. It is a model which the greater church could emulate for its funds.
Healing the Church by Divesting: We must heal ourselves before we can heal creation. Divestment begins this process. As people of faith, we must do everything we can to not make the climate crisis worse. Further, when we divest from fossil fuels, it aligns us with a movement that can put global pressure on these companies. As of December 2016, that movement encompassed 688 institutions and $5.5 trillion in global assets. As the church, we need to heal and be part of this powerful world-wide call for justice and accountability by the fossil fuel companies.
My request: Bring your report on the divestment criteria (June 2017, MRTI Company Metrics) to the 2018 GA as directed by the 2016 GA but also bring a recommendation to completely divest from the denomination’s fossil fuel holdings over the next two years. The authority to do this is included in MRTI’s assigned functions in the Presbyterian Mission Agency Manual of Operations. The justification is outlined above.
With your leadership and support, divestment would have a strong chance of being approved by the 2018 General Assembly. Your recommendations, as I observed during the 2014 and 2016 GA’s, exert great influence on how commissioners vote. You are an intelligent, caring and experienced committee, and I know you are not indifferent to the devastating impacts of unmitigated climate change. Please look carefully and prayerfully at the wisdom of prolonging the status quo of our denomination’s fossil fuel investments in light of the brutal experiences so many millions are experiencing from climate enhanced disasters.
We must heal ourselves before we can heal creation and we can do this by divesting.
** endnote: this letter was emailed to MRTI and they are discussing it at their next meeting, on October 9 in Houston.