Connecting back to last issue’s theme, Defending the Common Good, Sue Smith challenges the current position of the church in discussions surrounding issues of climate change, fossil fuels, and financial investment. As with all scenarios of potential divestment, the perceived advantage of “a seat at the table” is weighed against the potential for complicity (in this case, with the evils of corporate climate change denial).
Listening to the news reports during Hurricane Harvey last August brought back memories of living through Superstorm Sandy at the Jersey shore in 2012. The language was eerily similar: “It’s not the wind, it’s the water.” “Power companies are coming in from all over the country.” “People are coming back to homes already filled with mold.”
What comes next? Health issues – all the demolition releases mold into the air, increasing cases of asthma. And what was the other parallel memory? The call for individuals to donate money. The call from J.J. Watt, the call from the Red Cross, the call from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA)…
Organizations like PDA work to bring people who have suffered a disaster back to a seat at the table of the common good. What does that table look like? There are many definitions; for me, it is clean water to drink and cook with, clean air to breathe, health and wellness, food, shelter and clothing, and meaningful vocation. During hurricanes, flooding, and wildfires, all of these facets of the common good are at risk. And I appreciate that the Church’s seat at the table is an influential one when it comes to responding to extreme weather events.
And yet at the same time, in the church, I am hearing about a seat at another table…the table that Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) sits at in the boardrooms of the fossil fuel companies. I value the corporate social responsibility work that this committee of our church does, as I think we cannot profit from our investment portfolios without understanding where those profits come from. But in some cases, those profits come from investing in companies steeped in fossil fuels that drive the climate change that is affecting our weather patterns and contributing to the extremes in weather events, flooding and wildfires. And it is a seat at their table that MRTI does not want to give up.
Climate change has become a story driven by politics, and not by science or faith-driven stewardship.
These same companies, even as they entertain the church at the boardroom table, sit at another table – the table of public opinion. With their millions they lobby elected officials to deny climate change, to block any regulations to mitigate its impact, and to gut the Environmental Protection Agency. With their millions they deny that climate change is human caused. With their millions they have stolen the story on climate change from scientists and from people of faith, people who are trying to serve and tend God’s creation as required in Genesis 2:15. Climate change has become a story driven by politics, and not by science or faith-driven stewardship.
Is there evidence? As far as impacts in the legislative arena, the Center for Responsive Politics tracks money in politics. Their website, OpenSecrets.org, publishes lobbyist spending in Washington, DC. In 2017, spending by the Oil & Gas Industry has been more than $93 million. In 2009, annual spending spiked to almost $175 million…coinciding with The American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009. This bill was approved by the House but never introduced on the floor of the Senate. The takeaway? Lobbying money need not “buy votes” directly to have an impact on legislative outcomes.
ExxonMobil deliberately manipulated the public story to create doubt.
As far as impacting the story of scientists and people of faith, last summer Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes of Harvard University published a peer-reviewed letter, “Assessing ExxonMobil’s climate change communications (1977-2014).” The release was covered in numerous media outlets: Bloomberg, CNBC, CNN Money, PBS News Hour, Philanthropy News Digest, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Independent, NASDAQ, Vox, and The Guardian.
(Fox News—notoriously dubious of climate change—appears to have ignored this study in their coverage.)
The study revealed that ExxonMobil’s internal and peer-reviewed scientific documents agree that climate change is real, human-caused, and serious. Any “doubt” about the results came in the form of normal scientific uncertainties about the magnitude and causality. In contrast, ExxonMobil’s advertorials in the New York Times expressed existential doubt about climate change. Such advertorials are seen by the public and public policy makers. In this way, ExxonMobil deliberately manipulated the public story to create doubt. Not only does this sort of manipulation impact public policy; it also distorts the narratives told by scientists and people of faith.
This story of climate change is told in different ways at the table of public opinion, at the table of the common good, and at the tables in corporate boardrooms…and it has gotten me to thinking about the tables where Jesus sat. Jesus was not afraid to sit down with flawed people: Jesus ate with Pharisees, sinners, and tax collectors. Jesus shared his last supper at table with the disciples – a meal that we celebrate today – a visible sign of invisible grace. Today, too, Jesus’ table is open to all people. But there were different tables in the temple, tables where commerce was conducted instead of prayer. Those tables Jesus overturned. Jesus was not interested in sitting at tables of the powerful where the worship of God was subsumed by profit.
I believe the time has come when the church should no longer sit with fossil fuel companies, lest it send the message that the table of the fossil fuel corporate boardrooms is more precious than the table of the common good.
So what am I to think about the Presbyterian Church (USA), as our denomination seeks to follow Jesus Christ? On the one hand, we work to bring people back to the table of the common good after facing environmental disasters. On the other hand, we profit from holdings in fossil fuel companies, those tables of commerce that are egregiously harming God’s creation and causing people to be displaced from the table of the common good.
Corporate engagement is an important aspect of carrying out the mission of the church. I understand that we want to be a “Big Table” Church. But I watch the storms come in to shore, and I watch the lobbyists come into Washington, and they are both environmental disasters. I believe the time has come when the church should no longer sit with fossil fuel companies, lest it send the message that the table of the fossil fuel corporate boardrooms is more precious than the table of the common good.
AUTHOR BIO: Sue Smith put her MBA to work in the global financial services industry for 30 years. She is an elder and member of the First Presbyterian Church of Rumson (NJ) and currently serves as Moderator of Monmouth Presbytery. She is Vice Moderator of Presbyterians for Earth Care, serves on the Coalition of Healthy Ports representing GreenFaith and is a board member of Clean Water Action, NJ. She also holds an M. Div. from New Brunswick Theological Seminary.