Fossil Free PCUSA: Why We Are Called to Divest

Author Rev. Abby Mohaupt

Author Rev. Abby Mohaupt

As I write, the Presbyterian Church (USA) finds itself in a strange place, at an important juncture. Even as our denomination has affirmed our call to care for creation, we continue to profit significantly from fossil fuel companies.

In November 2012, Cool Planet Working Group, one of the small groups in First Presbyterian Church Palo Alto, the congregation where I serve, organized a group of people to go hear climate-change activist Bill McKibben speak. McKibben laid a compelling case for the present reality of climate change and suggested divestment from fossil fuel companies as a way to fight back against our species’ addiction to oil.

Coming away from McKibben’s lecture, Cool Planet began to realize that climate change is not just a moral issue, but a theological one as well. Together, we began to write an overture to General Assembly, asking our denomination to do what now over 300 colleges and universities have done: divest from fossil fuel companies.

___________________________________________

While our denomination is made up of business people, economists, scientists, and countless others who may have a stake one way or another in this debate, when we come together at General Assembly, we are first and foremost a church.
___________________________________________

More than a year after that initial lecture, that overture has been approved by twelve presbyteries and is on its way to General Assembly. It will be considered and debated by Committee 15, the Committee on Immigration and Environmental Issues.

The overture to divest from fossil fuels asks our denomination to do three things:

  1. Stop all new investments in fossil fuel companies.
  2. Divest completely of any current holdings in these companies over the course of the next 5 years.
  3. Regularly report back to the denomination about the progress the Presbyterian Foundation and the Board of Pensions has made in this divestment. [1]

The Board of Pensions and the Presbyterian Foundation, the two main General Assembly entities involved in the investment arena, have to live in the tension between market logic and the mission of the Body of Christ. They are asked to make the highest return on their investments, but at the same time, our PC(USA) social witness policy prohibits them from investing in industries that harm people. We do not, for example, invest in gambling, firearms, pornography, and alcohol. The argument of our overture is simple: fossil fuel companies should be added to this list. While there is no doubt that these companies have been profitable, we cannot make investments on profit alone. As Christians, even our money must bear witness to our faith in Jesus Christ, the one who came bearing the good news that God loves us and has called us to love one another.

___________________________________________

The Board of Pensions and the Presbyterian Foundation, the two main General Assembly entities involved in the investment arena, have to live in the tension between market logic and the mission of the Body of Christ.
___________________________________________

At the heart of my own personal commitment to this overture is my conviction that the first victims of climate change are people who are poor, the very people who have contributed the least to the global epidemic climate change. God calls us to love one another, but how can we love others if we are adding to the destruction of their homes, health, and futures through our continued contribution to climate change? Even more to point, how can we as a church love them if we continue to profit from their suffering? For me, my commitment to divest from fossil fuels is first and foremost a theological commitment not to profit from the sin of causing other people to suffer.

climate-change-croppedThe Board of Pensions (BOP), the Presbyterian Foundation, and the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) each suggest in their comments and counsel on the overture (see right-side menu) that immediate divestment is not the right course of action. The BOP and the Foundation in particular suggest that we do better to stay invested and, through our Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) engage in stockholder advocacy with these companies. [2]

I want to be clear: MRTI has done commendable extensive and long-term engagement with many companies. However, they have never done industry-wide engagement, as the BOP, ACSWP, and Foundation comments seem to be suggesting here. Furthermore, such engagement takes time, time that we simply do not have in the shadow of climate change.

Additionally, if the overture is sent to MRTI, that committee will be tasked with asking fossil fuel companies to change their entire business model. It is difficult to imagine that even the best advocacy by MRTI will stop an oil company from drilling for oil. The task on which MRTI would spend its time and resources would be an absurd and almost certainly fruitless undertaking.

___________________________________________

Long-term corporate engagement through MRTI takes time, time that we simply do not have in the shadow of climate change.
___________________________________________

While our denomination is made up of business people, economists, scientists, and countless others who may have a stake one way or another in this debate, when we come together at General Assembly, we are first and foremost a church. And as a church, our sinful complicity in climate change is unacceptable. It is time to come before God with repentance, repentance sincere enough to lead us to divest.

Fossil Free PCUSAACSWP’s advice on this overture also includes the suggestion that divestment should take place on all levels of our denomination (from congregations through synods) but notes that the General Assembly cannot mandate that kind of policy at the mid-council level. I am all for individual congregations divesting, and the congregation I serve is doing just that. I hope that congregations will follow the lead of the General Assembly as soon as possible.

In preparation for General Assembly, a grassroots organization called Fossil Free PCUSA has emerged to help organize around this overture. It is an organization that stretches across the country, from Northern California to Arkansas, North Dakota to Florida, Tennessee to Minnesota, New York to Massachusetts. It is an organization of clergy and lay people, older folks and younger ones, scientists and theologians. The group believes that the PC(USA) must respond now in a radical way to climate change. We must divest from fossil fuels, sending a message to those companies that the very reason they exist is immoral. This is what we have said in the past to other industries, long before MRTI existed or we had policy outlining a framework for corporate engagement.

___________________________________________

I pray unceasingly for that future. But I also pray that in the future, I will be able to look Owen, Ethan, Oliver, and other little ones in the eye and say that I did the best I could.
___________________________________________

As I’ve said above, my primary reason for pushing for divestment is theological. The Biblical call for us to care for creation extends also to our care for each other. Whether we like it or not, our futures are all bound up together.

Photo Credit: Fossil Free PCUSA

Photo Credit: Fossil Free PCUSA

However, my secondary reason is personal. I have three nephews under the age of six. They delight in being outside in God’s creation, and I hope without hope that their future will be in a creation that is safe and healthy.

I pray unceasingly for that future. But I also pray that in the future, I will be able to look Owen, Ethan, Oliver, and other little ones in the eye and say that I did the best I could. That I asked my denomination to pull rank with fossil fuel companies doing harm to a future yet-to-be, that my own future pension [3] did not grow because of climate change.

At General Assembly, our denomination will be asked to make a decision. I pray that we will make it in faith. I know that however the PC(USA) votes, that the Holy Spirit will be alive in the deliberations of the committee and the plenary.

_________________________________________________________________________________

[1] See the full text of the overture and its rationale here: http://pc-biz.org/PC-Biz.WebApp_deploy/%28S%283zolyl2suczdq5k5w3cuuxrn%29%29/IOBView.aspx?m=ro&id=4587.

[2] While I disagree with their suggested course of action, I am grateful that each of these groups agrees that climate change exists and that we must respond to it as a denomination. Responding to the immensity of the problem, however, needs to include immediate action, not more conversation and more policy.

[3] Full disclosure: I am not installed in my ordained position so I am not required to pay into a Presbyterian Pension. I do not plan to do so as long as the fund contains fossil fuel companies, which means, of course, that I will not be installed into a position either until installation does not require paying into the pension or we divest.

AUTHOR BIO: Rev. Abby Mohaupt is the Pastoral Resident at First Presbyterian Church in Palo Alto, CA. She splits her time between the congregation and a rural community in Pescadero, CA, where she supports the work of Puente, a resource center for the South Coast. She holds a Master of Divinity and a Master of Theology from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, IL.

For more information about the Overture to Divest from Fossil Fuels, visit http://www.fossilfreepcusa.org or http://www.facebook.com/fossilfreepcusa!

For another perspective on this overture, check out ACSWP’s Advice & Counsel to refer to MRTI

Read more articles from The Road to Detroit: Issues of Social Justice Before the 221st General Assembly!

3 Responses to Fossil Free PCUSA: Why We Are Called to Divest

  1. Profile photo of Robin-B Robin-B says:

    Thanks, Abby, for this wonderfully written assessment of the current conflictual situation many of us find ourselves in as Presbyterian faith leaders and as citizens concerned about a warming and changing climate. I agree: I truly hope we can look our young folks in the eye in a few years and say that we did everything we can… and that those efforts bear some fruit in terms of heightened awareness of the urgent need for a shift in our lifestyles and energy sources.

  2. Your ability to encapsulate so much so powerfully is a gift. You say this so well and yet so kindly. It is easier to hear hard words when they are from a person’s heart. I join you in praying that this assembly stands up to the moral issue of harming others through our use of fossil fuels.

  3. Let’s think about our denomination’s relationship to our youth! The author refers to divestment campaigns on over 300 college and university campuses. Her reference to this would more clearly read, “asking our denomination to do what now over 300 colleges and universities have been asked to do: divest from fossil fuel companies.” While 12 colleges have committed to full divestment and one, Stanford University, has taken a first step by announcing its divestment from coal companies, the campaigns on the other campuses are ongoing. Had our GA voted for divestment, it would have been a huge boost to these campaigns and a message to young people that we understand the urgency they feel about the threat to their future. The advisory vote of the Young Adult Advisory Delegates at GA was overwhelmingly in favor of divestment. I fervently hope that the fossilfreePCUSA movement will gain momentum in the next two years and that GA in 2016 will add its moral voice to the cry of our youth.

Leave a Reply