Fossil Free PC(USA) divestment movement gains momentum

February 18, 2014
By Leslie Scanlon
The Presbyterian Outlook

Concerned about the impact of climate change, Presbyterians are asking the 2014 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to take a stand — to instruct the Board of Pensions and Presbyterian Foundation to immediately stop any new investment in fossil fuel companies — and over the next five years to divest any assets the denomination already has placed in oil, gas and coal firms.

With concerns about global warming increasing, the Fossil Free divestment movement is gaining momentum across the United States — making allies out of church-going retirees and college students, bringing secular environmental groups such as in alignment with faith-based advocates, some of whom see stopping the progression of climate change as a moral issue.

Critics contend such initiatives could have a steep economic price, costing jobs and putting pressure on corporate targets ahead of consumers changing their own energy consumption. Advocates draw strength from the success of previous divestment campaigns — including pressure brought to end apartheid in South Africa — and argue that big differences in carbon usage won’t be made unless more fossil fuel resources remain untapped, forcing companies to develop and support alternate energy sources.

Environmental activists and some investment analysts cite the “two degree” target — the goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), endorsed by many governments. To achieve that, they contend, about 80 percent of the oil, gas and coal reserves need to stay in the ground.

Some Presbyterians also make an argument based on justice — saying the economic and environmental impact of climate change falls disproportionately on the poor in underdeveloped countries.

“I definitely view it as a huge concern for my life,” said Joy Gresham, a high school senior and a youth elder at St. Luke Presbyterian Church in Wayzata, Minn. “It’s something I find not as a future concern, but as a now concern” — she wants to have children, but worries about badly the planet will be damaged during the course of their lives.

Gresham also contends that people of faith have a responsibility to speak up for people in undeveloped countries whose land and ways of making a living are taking a hit from global warming. “It’s affecting especially the least of these,” she said. “People in the poorest countries are being devastated by superstorms and floods. If we’re going to live by the words of Jesus, then we need to do something about it.”

Responding to concerns such as these, Presbyterians have organized a group called Fossil Free PC(USA) and hope to convince the 2014 General Assembly to use divestment as a tool to pressure oil, gas and coal companies to leave fossil fuel resources in the ground. The Presbytery of Boston passed the first fossil fuel divestment overture last September, with a concurrence from the Presbytery of San Jose — that’s enough to get the issue on the General Assembly docket in Detroit in June. The Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area passed an overture in January, and votes are expected in more presbyteries later this spring.

At St. Luke Presbyterian, the youth group pushed the adults to take a stand — convincing the session to send an overture to Twin Cities Area presbytery (as did another congregation, Church of the Apostles in Burnsville, Minn.)

Cody Kirk, a high school senior, spoke at the presbytery meeting in favor of the overture. Kirk’s passion for environmental concerns was sparked in part by a backpacking trip he took last summer in the Yellowstone Mountains, where he realized “how quickly the consequences of our actions are going to catch up with us,” unless something changes.

“This has really become a moral issue of what do we as individuals and a community, as a church and a presbytery, want to do with the earth that we are given by God? It’s more than just trying to take a political stand. It’s doing as I like to think of it as Jesus would do, taking action against things we know are immoral and destroying the planet.”

The adults listened to the teenagers’ passion, said Karen Larson, who was recently ordained as a teaching elder and is Gresham’s mother. “There’s been kind of a feeling of hopelessness around climate change that keeps people from being able to do anything,” Larson said. “Somehow, the kids broke through that.” 

Opposition. Not everyone buys the divestment argument. Some academic institutions, including Harvard and Middlebury College, have decided not to divest — worried that the issue might polarize their campuses and that divestment might ultimately not make much difference in pressuring the fossil fuel companies or slowing global warming. 

Harvard’s president, Drew Faust, wrote in an open letter in Oct. 2013 that if Harvard divested, other “willing buyers” would purchase the shares, and the decision would have would “negligible impact” on the firms and could “diminish the influence or voice we might have.”

Faust also wrote that she finds “a troubling inconsistency in the notion that, as an investor, we should boycott a whole class of companies at the same time that, as individuals and as a community, we are extensively relying on those companies’ products and services for so much of what we do every day.”

Some presbyteries have voted no — in the Presbytery of East Tennessee, a fossil fuel divestment proposal lost by a vote of 53-50. In presbytery debates, some have raised questions about the impact divestment might have on retirement income for Presbyterian pastors; about whether jobs would be lost in areas that depend on coal mining or other fossil fuel industries. Some also raise concerns about hypocrisy — about why divestment makes sense when Presbyterians continue to fill their cars with gasoline and run their air conditioning in the summer.

Dan Terpstra, who works in supercomputing and is a ruling elder at First Presbyterian Church in Oak Ridge, Tenn., got involved with Fossil Free PC(USA) after attending a climate change rally in Washington D.C. in February 2013, where the environmentalist Bill McKibben was one of the speakers.

Responding to the hypocrisy argument, McKibben makes the analogy that “when we get in our cars in the mornings and drive to work, we care about getting to work — we don’t necessarily care about using gasoline,” Terpstra said. “If we had viable options fueled by anything else, that would be perfectly fine.”

The companies that produce fossil fuels “have shown no interest or willingness in investing significantly in renewable energy sources,” Terpstra said. “We don’t have a choice to use other technologies easily because the entire market is being controlled by the fossil fuel industries. They’ve got enough money to be able to control the conversation.”

The Fossil Free PC(USA) organizers also are aware that divestment in other contexts has been controversial for past General Assemblies — and likely will be this year too, if the assembly considers another recommendation from the Mission Responsibility Through Investment committee to divest in three companies said to be involved in non-peaceful pursuits in Israel-Palestine.

“We know the word ‘divestment’ is a really touchy word and has a lot of sensitivity, especially from the last General Assembly,” said Rob Mark, pastor of the Church of the Covenant in Boston, whose session sent the fossil fuel divestment overture to Boston presbytery. “The word is big. We’re aware of it. It could be problematic. It could be hopeful,” as Presbyterians link to a wider fossil fuel divestment movement drawing strength from students and environmental activists.

In July 2013, the United Church of Christ became the first U.S. religious denomination to take steps fossil fuel divestment, starting with increased shareholder engagement and moving towards the creation by 2015 of a list of “best in class” fossil fuel companies. Mark said he’s seen the climate change issue cut across some of the traditional divisions between progressives and evangelicals within religious groups — and become a place of common ground between people of faith and the “nones” who don’t identify with a religious tradition.

Mark also sees the climate change issue as an opportunity for evangelism for the PC(USA). Having worked in a college chaplain’s office, he’s seen how worried many young people are about the impact of global warming.

“If we’re not talking about something like climate change, which is at the forefront for people in their 20s … if we are not speaking that language, we lose a huge chance for evangelism and witness and speaking about who Jesus is,” Mark said. “I call it creative evangelism.”

Congregations. Many of those involved in the Fossil Free PC(USA) movement also belong to congregations that take eco-stewardship seriously. At First Presbyterian Palo Alto in California, a Cool Planet group has been meeting since 2006, doing everything from planning earth-themed worship services to educating parishioners on how to reduce their carbon footprints. They’ve raised money for people in Cameroon “who are on the frontlines of climate change already,” said Shirley Eglington, a retired teacher active in the effort.

“To me, it seems as if we don’t have a sustainable environment then all of the things I care about in terms of dignity and justice for human beings are threatened,” Eglington said. With climate change, “the disruption of food sources hits the poor so hard … It’s a catastrophe if you’re living on a dollar a day.”