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.
Caring for Creation NotesGlobal Chorus of Objection to the U.S. Withdrawal from Paris Climate Accord
by Pam McVety
This article originally appeared in the Florida Pelican, the Presbytery of Florida's newsletter.
I knew it was coming, so days before the President withdrew from the Paris Climate Accord, I sent our local newspaper an opinion piece about the dangers of his refusal to participate with the rest of the world in addressing climate change. Nevertheless, on June 1, when the President actually announced his intent to withdraw the U.S. from the accord, I was shaken. A devout and quiet Presbyterian friend, Gary Paton was moved to describe this action as “callous and arrogant” and I agree. We are not alone in our reactions. The world is stunned and at last count, 1,200 states, cities, businesses and universities have stepped forward to reassure the world that Americans are serious about cutting carbon emissions.
Virtually all countries on this planet support cutting carbon emissions and are part of the Paris Climate Accord. A majority of Americans and major companies and businesses support it. American “big” businesses that oppose our withdrawal include Apple, General Electric, Google, Facebook, Goldman Sachs, Tesla, Morgan Stanley, PepsiCo, Walmart and Walt Disney. Even large oil companies such as ExxonMobil and Chevron argue against withdrawal.
Faith groups are also speaking out. Our Church's Stated Clerk, J. Herbert Nelson, issued a statement of disappointment at the President's move, and asked us to continue to work toward an environmentally safe world. The Episcopal Church and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America took an even stronger stand, “denouncing” the President’s actions. Major Jewish, Muslim and Hindu organizations condemned the President’s withdrawal, as did several Catholic leaders.
World leaders, governors, mayors and other elected officials are opposed to the withdrawal and say that they will move forward to cut emissions on their own without the President.
The President by taking this action revealed his intent to support the fossil fuel industry and a couple of well known billionaires over the welfare of you and me, his base of supporters, the coal industry, future generations and the more than seven billion people living on the Earth.
His justification focused on the "costs" of the climate accord, claiming that they were unfair to Americans. He was wrong. The accord is not unfair to Americans: we volunteered our own emission targets, as did every other country. His job numbers and cost figures, as well as his interpretation that a 0.2 degree C cut is a “tiny, tiny” amount, have all been refuted and he completely ignored the benefits that come from tackling climate change. He also ignored the heavy costs and irreparable damage to the planet that will be incurred by business as usual. The President is completely out of sync with the global chorus calling for action to cut carbon emissions.
My Presbyterian friend, Gary Payton, attended the 2015 UN Conference of Parties (COP21) in Paris as an observer for our denomination. He reported, “Paris shook me out of my comfortable American perspective and introduced me personally to the suffering of sisters and brothers happening today from climate change.” One story he shared was from the President of Kiribati, Anote Tong who described the dire circumstance of his Pacific Island nation, which is being consumed by rising ocean water – the destruction of his culture, the disappearance of homes and communities, and the displacement of the entire population. President Tong described their situation as “a disaster that never goes away.” The expectation is that the island nation will completely disappear in the lifetime of its youngest citizens because of sea level rise from warming waters and melting glaciers.
I am upset with the dangerous recklessness of the President, but optimistic that the world will change for the better without him. The big issue is whether it will change fast enough to avoid the worse effects of climate change. Most of the world and significant parts of our country are moving forward to cut emissions and switch to renewable energy and energy efficiency. These alternative forms of clean energy are here to stay. Their costs are dropping dramatically and they employ more people than fossil fuels in nearly every state. Clean energy jobs outnumber fossil fuel jobs by more than 2.5 to 1 according to the Department of Energy.
It is tragic that the President could have done so much good for so many. He could have helped to create more jobs, protect more Americans from fossil fuel pollution and made our economy more competitive on the world stage by supporting and even accelerating our move to clean energy. Instead, he has slowed down the momentum, created confusion in the business community and thrown more people, businesses and homes in harm’s way. He also has exposed American businesses to a possible trade tariff on our exports.
In spite of the President’s injudicious action, we are in the midst of a dramatic change and much is happening that moves us in the right direction. Some watchers are even optimistic that our nation may meet its Paris Climate Accord reduction target despite the President's withdrawal. I don’t know, but I am resolved to remain optimistic.
What I do know is that not participating in the global effort to cut carbon emissions hurts real people in very serious ways. We need to pray for our President, speak out, demand better and act wisely.
by abby mohaupt
The Reverend abby mohaupt is the moderator of Fossil Free PCUSA. She is a PhD student in the Religion, Culture, and Ecology program at Drew Theological School in Madison, NJ.
I’m sitting now in a café, drinking café Americano, after talking with one of the teachers at the Spanish school I’m attending. To say that our conversation about future tense went off track would be an understatement. At some point, we began to talk about climate change. We talked about how some people don’t believe in it and that we are afraid about the future.
And then I asked her about the Paris Accords, and how people in the United States talk about how Nicaragua also didn’t sign, but because it believes the Accords weren’t strong enough.
She asked me about the power of money—and if I believed in it.
She asked me if I believed that a country like Nicaragua—ready to sell itself to China for a canal in its big fresh water lake—really was better than any other country, with higher standards for climate change.
She asked me if I remembered that they’ve had the same president for decades, and that while my president will do dumb things, we can get rid of him in four years if we want to. They won’t.
She wondered why Nicaragua—a small country (her words)—couldn’t just sign the document with all the other countries. What would it hurt to work with the rest of the world in the face of global crisis?
We sat together, pondering those questions, looking for hope.
So, that’s the perspective of one person from Nicaragua, telling her own story about her country and climate change. It's a perspective that challenges my perspective and how I tell the story as an American, and I'm grateful.
From June 16:
Tomorrow I will board a plane to travel to Nicaragua for the third time in three years. The first two trips were part of a class I co-taught at Stanford University on Liberation Theology. My colleagues and I took about ten students each trip to visit with Christian base communities and to hear their stories. We also met with eco-activists and went to visit Lake Nicaragua, which has been threatened with a canal that would destroy the ecosystems dependent on the lake.
There are two stories from those trips that have stuck with me and emphasize some of the environmental issues in the country.
The first is from one of the base communities in a small town. The community told us about how they’ve been there since the revolution (which led to land reform and access to land for people who are poor) but that they have struggled to access clean water. There was a pipeline to a water tank, but the owner of the water tank refused to give the community access to the water despite years of negotiations. Instead, he blew up the tank. Sitting with the community as they told this story, I was struck by the hospitality and care the community showed us, even as they struggled for something as necessary to life as water. What would my mentality be if I were struggling for life?
The second story is from our visit to Lake Nicaragua our second year. One of our master’s level students was interested in doing her thesis on the canal, and so had done a lot of additional research on the efforts to save the lake. She was prepared to see the beautiful lakeside, a place that had inspired environmental activism. On our trip, we drove to the lake via the highway and entered a park where there were many families gathered to picnic. We went on a boat ride and swam in the lake, but when I turned to look at this particular student, she was crying. “I thought it would be pristine,” she said. “But there’s litter here too. I wanted it to be perfect.” Together we reflected on how the lake was worth fighting for even if people littered the land around it and perhaps because the place was well-worn. Still, her tears and her hopes for a place worth saving have stayed with me. I have wondered what it means to care for a place.
My trip to Nicaragua this year is on the heels of a U.S. Presidential decision that connects these two countries. The United States joined Syria and Nicaragua as the only three countries who will not be part of the Paris Accords.
Nicaragua did not sign the Paris Accords because its government felt that agreement was not strict enough, and that the agreement did not hold governments in the developed world accountable for their disproportionate contributions to climate change.
Climate change has created sacrifice zones, areas that will be destroyed or altered as temperatures and sea levels rise. In her book This Changes Everything Naomi Klein describes sacrifice zones as isolated, poor places where “residents lack political power, usually having to do with some combination of race, language and class.” These are places and people that have been written off by privileged people. This dismissal is what the Nicaraguan government believes the Paris Accords continue.
There have been some efforts at responding to the inequity and to creating a solution. The Greenhouse Development Rights were created to “recognize the West’s greater responsibility for climate change.” Such a treaty understands the lighter responsibility of countries that are not in the developed West and begins to balance the political scales of global power. It and other economic endeavors like the “Marshall Plan for the Earth” also seek to address the injustice of how industrializing countries “whose people have contributed little to the climate crisis” must give up future development in the reality of climate change. This concept of climate debt is intimately connected with global economic and political power. Naomi Klein describes it as such:
The climate is changing as a result of two-hundred-odd years of accumulated emissions, that means that the countries that have been powering their economics with fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution have done far more to cause temperatures to rise than those that just to in on the globalization game.
Understanding the difference in responsibility for climate change requires recognizing and listening to contexts and the people in them. It also requires a willingness to understand global power and assumption.
This trip to Nicaragua, I will spend the bulk of my time in language school, so that I can better listen to the stories of the people. But I’ll also be exploring a variety of industries and interviewing several people who dream of a world that is more just. I’ll spend time learning more about a place in this world that is worth protecting—as this whole planet is.
 Naomi Klein. This Changes Everything (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2014) 310.
 Klein 417.
 Klein 409.
by Gary Payton
On Thursday, June 1st, the car I was traveling in was T-boned at an intersection by an extraordinarily reckless driver. The vehicle was damaged but drivable, and I’ve moved on from the scene of the accident with greater wisdom and resolve. The vehicle? The global climate movement. The other driver? Well, let’s just say he used to be in real estate.
The details of President Trump’s Paris Agreement withdrawal announcement are now all too well known to us. So, in the days since the Rose Garden “car wreck” I’ve reflected deeply on my own climate movement journey and where I go from here.
In December 2015, I attended the UN Conference of the Parties (COP21) as an official “observer” with the support of the PCUSA’s Office of Environmental Ministries. My goal was to “bear witness” to the critical negotiations and share that story via the PCUSA’s Eco-Justice Journey blog, the Idaho Conservation League, and public presentations. As an environmental advocate, for months I’d prepared “in my head” – studying the UN processes, absorbing the environmental positions of multiple nation states, and deepening my knowledge of the impacts of climate change.
The reality of Paris, however, changed my outlook forever. It was the “in the heart” experiences which took me to a different place. For years, I’d written and spoken in future tense of climate change and its impacts. I regularly framed remarks in the context of my two grandchildren and the world they’d experience in decades to come. My days at COP21 radically altered that framework. Paris shook me out of my comfortable American perspective and introduced me personally to the suffering of sisters and brothers happening today from climate change.
Over a modest lunch with a Maryknoll sister from the Philippines, I heard her personal story of on-going ministry with the victims of Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. The most violent cyclone or hurricane to ever hit landmass killed over 6,000 men, women, and children; destroyed whole communities; and, injured and displaced tens of thousands more. Haiyan’s strength came from warmer waters in the Northwest Pacific exacerbated by climate change.
Standing in a circle of young activists from Southern Africa, I spoke with Michael Haduyu who was part of a team which had bicycled 8,000 kilometers through 8 countries carrying the message of climate change impacts. All along the route, he and team members urged the nations’ negotiators to remember the common people displaced by crop failure, drying rivers, and altered rain patterns – impacts directly affecting the lives of people who in no way were major contributors to the greenhouse gas emissions changing our world.
I listened respectfully to Anote Tong, the President of Kiribati, as he described the dire circumstance of his Pacific island nation being consumed by rising ocean water – the destruction of culture, the disappearance of homes and communities, and the displacement of an entire population. Described as “a disaster that never goes away,” the expectation is that the island nation will completely disappear in the lifetime of its youngest citizens. Sea level rise: a direct result of climate change advanced by melting polar and glacial ice worldwide.
What distressed me most in the Rose Garden announcement was the total disregard for the fate of citizens of the world, anyone outside the United States. I found the callousness, the arrogance, to be overwhelming. In the name of jobs and American industry we would willing withdraw from the Agreement, further alienate tens of millions of global citizens, and risk accelerating some of the worst coming impacts of climate change?
I said I’d walked away from last week’s “car wreck” with greater resolve and wisdom. My reflections come in the form of questions which you may be asking yourself.
May we each go from the shock of June 1st with greater wisdom and resolve as we heed “the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”
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.