Divesting from the Sins of Our Past

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Author Benjamin Perry
Author Benjamin Perry

Climate change has quickly emerged as one of the world’s greatest threats. You only need to turn on the television or peruse a newspaper to see the devastating effects on environments and communities around the globe. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is a denomination committed to responding to God’s call to protect the natural world; it is thus unsurprising that our current ecological crisis is prompting many passionate responses. Two particular documents are worth examining, as each provides insight into how the PC(USA) ought to address the present crisis. The first is the 2016 General Assembly overture written by the Presbytery of San Francisco (with 28 concurrences) and supported by Fossil Free PC(USA), which argues we are called to divest from fossil fuel companies. The second document, “Faithful Alternatives for Engagement with Climate Change,” released by the Synod of the Sun and New Covenant Presbytery, suggests fossil fuel divestment is the wrong strategy for combating climate change. Instead, it offers a variety of ideas intended to wean us from our present reliance on fossil fuels.

Both documents have significant merit, and I propose that, taken together, they articulate precisely the strategy to which our church is called at this time. This essay will attempt to negotiate their points of disagreement, and will suggest that the solutions proffered by the Faithful Alternatives document cannot be effective in isolation; they will only achieve their desired intent if enacted alongside divestment.

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We would do well to first celebrate that we are having this conversation, as a denomination, and not the “Is climate change real?” conversation that too often dominates ecological discourse.
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Before delving into specifics, we would do well to first celebrate that we are having this conversation, as a denomination, and not the “Is climate change real?” conversation that too often dominates ecological discourse. It is emboldening to see a group of people as large and diverse as the PC(USA) accept, as a starting point, the conclusion reached by 97% of scientists: climate change is real, and it is caused by human actions. As these two documents make clear, this starting point doesn’t guarantee agreement regarding what should be done to combat the issue. Our consensus regarding the scientific veracity of climate change does, however, enable us to engage in a more meaningful conversation. Indeed—in a culture struggling to accept the reality of climate change—if the PC(USA) is able to reach a meaningful accord concerning what God is calling us to do, we would be poised to be a guiding voice in a broader culture that seriously needs a prophetic breakthrough.

Ben Pic 1Both the GA overture for divestment from fossil fuel companies and the Faithful Alternatives document have strengths and weaknesses. I encourage reading both documents for yourself, but will briefly summarize their arguments here. The argument of the divestment overture is more succinct in scope, and thus represents an easier starting point. Put simply, the overture calls for the denomination to divest its current holdings in fossil fuel companies within the next three years, while still “retaining or acquiring minimal sufficient investment…to participate in shareholder engagement.” It also calls on the PC(USA) to immediately cease any new fossil fuel investments. Its theological rationale invokes God’s call in Genesis 1 & 2 for humanity to serve as stewards of creation and Jesus’ call in Matthew 25:31-46 for us to care for “the least of these.”

While the “Faithful Alternatives” document disagrees with the “fossil-free” solution, its authors are, in their own words, “in substantial agreement with many aspects” of the overture, and, indeed, cite the same scriptures in their own theological justification. The differences between the documents do not reflect a disagreement over the ultimate objective, but over the means by which that objective may be achieved. This, again, should be a source of great hope. Much like a disagreement over the veracity of climate change, a disagreement about our denomination’s ultimate objective would be far more difficult to reconcile. Both groups agree that we need to protect our common home, and that we are obliged to follow Jesus’ call to help “the least of these.” Let’s look, then, at where the disagreements arise.

Faith is More than Looking Inwards

The “Faithful Alternatives,” authors’ primary points of contention are that the divestment overture proffered by Fossil Free PC(USA) is a hypocritical stance — one ill-equipped to address climate change adequately — and that it forgoes our responsibility to aid the economic growth of developing nations (“the least of these”). There is some merit to their first objection. The authors note, “if we decry the production and use of fossil fuels,” we should also “decry [their] consumption —including our own.” (Faithful Alternatives, pg. 6) The GA overture does call for “local efforts to reduce carbon footprint,” but it is true that the document spends little time analyzing the ways we are complicit as consumers. (Overture, pg. 1) True, in 2006 the denomination already commended individuals and congregations to go carbon neutral, and provided general guidelines for doing so. Yet, for structural reasons I will address later, I am skeptical about our ability to change our nation’s carbon dependency through changes in individual consumption. [1] Some of those same structures appear to tie developing nations’ hopes of growth to fossil fuels, but more on that in a moment.

Ben Pic 4“Faithful Alternatives” is right to point out that divestment, in isolation, will likely not be sufficient to address our warming climate. The document provides an excellent analysis of the ways in which, the “contribution to greenhouse gases and associated problems is not reflected in the price charged for energy” in current markets, going on to suggest a carbon tax as a way to facilitate the transition away from carbon-intensive forms of energy. (Faithful Alternatives, pg. 9) While the GA overture does call, broadly, for “advocacy at local, state, and federal levels for policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” the Faithful Alternatives document should be applauded for its rigorous enumeration of the types of policies needed for the scale of societal transformation that climate change (and God!) demand we make. Divestment, in isolation, will not likely yield the monumental overhaul of our energy practices we so desperately need.

There is, however, a serious caveat to the Faithful Alternatives approach: none of these wonderful policies can be realized if we, and others, do not divest our holdings from fossil fuel companies. The fossil fuel industry, at this point, wields wildly outsized influence over both consumer choices and politics in Washington. Any attempt to change our nation’s energy policy that does not seek to limit the industry’s power is doomed to failure. It’s all well and good to tell people to make better consumer choices, but that is only a reasonable suggestion if people have those choices available. Unfortunately, there are many areas in the country where people have no choice but to purchase heat, energy, and commercial products in ways that benefit the fossil fuel industry. Coal, oil, and natural gas have a stranglehold on most energy markets. If green energy is available, it can be prohibitively expensive. Thus concerned citizens may have more choice with regard to their energy investments than they do in their transportation and home heating, however hypocritical it may seem.

Mixing Money & Politics

The authors of Faithful Alternatives point to the unaffordability of green energy as evidence that we cannot, at this point, transition our economy away from fossil fuels, noting, “given current technologies and market structures, there is no energy source more cost-effective than fossil fuels.” (Faithful Alternative, pg. 4) This disparity is not due to the relative merits of fossil fuels, but rather is a product of the current market structure. The price of fossil fuels is artificially lower because they benefit from billions in government subsidies and, as Faithful Alternatives itself notes, those prices do not reflect inherent environmental costs. Current energy markets also do not reflect the incredible costs associated with natural disasters like the drought in California, Hurricane Katrina, or Superstorm Sandy our fossil fuel dependency makes these types of cataclysmic events far more common than they would be otherwise.

windmills - PDMeanwhile, renewables like solar and wind are becoming increasingly viable sources of energy, and are increasingly capable of shouldering our nation’s energy needs. Germany, for example, is projected by 2020 to cut emissions 40% from their 1990 levels (and to cut 80% by 2050), spurred by robust government investment in renewables. Renewable energy in this country, however, is only projected to account for 20% of US energy production by 2030, and even that target –which falls far short of what we need – is being fought tooth and nail by U.S. politicians in the pocket of big oil. Does Faithful Alternatives really envision much alternative to the “hard path” controlled by the energy majors?

Indeed, the amount of money oil companies give to politicians, and the influence of that money on how those politicians vote (to say nothing of the army of lobbyists and “scientists’ employed by the fossil fuel industry), is the single largest reason why divestment is necessary to effect real change. Certainly campaign reform has to be part of future conversation, but until that day comes, oil companies will be able to inject limitless amounts of money into the political process, to disastrous effect. Divestment, then, is not simply an economic action; it is a political one. If enough organizations divest, there may some diminuition of the amount of money fossil fuel corporations can use to buy votes. More significantly, however, the price of those votes will be higher.

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“Faithful Alternatives” is right to point out that divestment, in isolation, will likely not be sufficient to address our warming climate.
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Ben Pic 2A decision to divest will not just have economic ramifications; it also sends a powerful moral message. If organizations like the PC(USA) withdraw their support, it will signal to politicians and the American public that the moral conversation on climate change is turning. Across the country, people of good faith – concerned about the future of our world – are standing up and demanding that we change our nation’s approach to energy. The PC(USA) should lead that charge and divest from those who seek to thwart political progress. We must press upon our elected officials the need to pass the kinds of regulations articulated in Faithful Alternatives, but that cannot be done without first reducing the fossil fuel lobby’s power. Divestment seeks to restore the balance of power, amplifying the significant majority of American citizens who want the U.S. to lead boldly in cutting carbon emissions. Divestment is our only hope to cut through a political process currently rendered stagnant by an influx of money propagating fossil fuel dependency.

If we combine the contributions of each paper, we arrive at a remarkable strategy more viable than either approach taken in isolation. Divestment cannot, and should not, be viewed as a panacea. It will only yield results if those leading the call to divest subsequently demand carbon taxes and alternative energy investments with equal intensity. Divestment is only as good as the measures proffered to replace the status quo. The GA overture hints support for these steps, but recognizes that none of these faithful alternatives will yield success if we do not curb fossil fuel companies’ current influence.

The First Step Towards Justice Is To Listen

The authors of Faithful Alternatives’ second major objection is that divestment disregards Jesus’ call to care for the “least of these.” Specifically, the authors suggest that the proposed divestment “would likely condemn to eternal poverty those poor who need access to low-cost energy to emerge from poverty.” (Faithful Alternatives, pg. 8) I find these claims lacking in significant merit. This worldview conveniently overlooks the incredible contributions green energy has already made to the economies of developing countries – as well as observations from analysts like Ethan Zindler, of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, who notes that “clean energy is the low-cost option,” in many developing countries. He concludes, “the technologies are cost-competitive right now. Not in the future, but right now.” More than that, however, to claim fossil fuels are necessary for developing nation’s economic growth ignores what the people and representatives of these countries are saying!

Ben Perry Pic TweetIndeed, developing countries are some of the loudest voices demanding a shift from traditional economic and energy policies; their critiques make U.S. green activists look tame in comparison. Evo Morales, president of Bolivia, is blunt in his observation that “capitalism is leading humanity towards a horizon of destruction,” suggesting, “[in order to find] a lasting solution to the climate crisis we must destroy capitalism.” Likewise, grassroots protests of indigenous people around the world against fossil fuel extraction suggest a critical mass of “the least of these” [2] vehemently oppose expanding the role of fossil fuels. They support development, but not if it means the destruction of our planet and their natural environment. Many living in these regions understand that the worst effects of climate change will likely be borne by the global south, part of their drive for green alternatives. Truly, to claim fossil fuels are beneficial for the world’s most vulnerable is to ignore that population’s burgeoning protests, as well as what the future of climate change portends.

The trade-offs between greener energy and immediate use of fossil fuels are seen on a large scale in China and India, the former of which is pouring money into alternatives while still burning huge amounts of coal. How much of a public debate is there in China, and how much air pollution can their population take in the name of progress? There are also enormous differences within those countries between the relatively new middle classes that have benefited from global trade and millions who remain desperately poor, without electricity from any source.

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Divestment is our only hope to cut through a political process currently rendered stagnant by an influx of money propagating fossil fuel dependency.
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Caring for “the least of these” should always begin by listening to those we seek to help. We must hear the cries of indigenous people in Canada, who seek to halt the oil industry’s desecration of their ancestral grounds. We must stand on the side of protesters in India who risked life and limb to prevent the expansion of coal power. We must support the efforts of Tuvalu, where scientists suggest, “There is a potential that the entire land surface…could disappear as a result of sea level rise.” No amount of economic growth can prevent this calamity; the only solution is an immediate reduction in our use of carbon. To suggest, over the clamor of protests and in the face of clear and present danger, that the lives of people in developing nations will be improved through an expanded role for fossil fuels is audacious. It is the ideological child of a patronizing colonial tradition wherein established powers tell developing countries what is in their own best interests. It is time, instead, to take seriously what “the least of these” have to say, and to acknowledge we may well learn something in the process.

Participants in the People's Climate March in Visakhapatnam in 2014
Participants in the People’s Climate March in Visakhapatnam in 2014

Even apart from these concerns, it makes no sense to aid the economic growth of developing nations by investing in fossil fuel infrastructure. At this point it should be clear that, sooner or later, the world will be forced to transition our energy production completely from fossil fuels to renewables. The dearth of energy infrastructure in much of the developing world offers an amazing opportunity for these countries themselves to choose a path towards self-sufficiency through robust commitment to renewable energy. If we, instead, attempt to solve energy needs by helping developing nations remain dependent upon fossil fuels, we do those countries a great disservice. The developing world faces an opportunity to radically invest in their future; why would we squander that chance by wedding them to energy infrastructure they must eventually abandon?

In sum, I would encourage the General Assembly commissioners assigned to work on the divestment overture to robustly integrate the specific policy ideas recommended in the “Faithful Alternatives,” document. Divestment, alone, is not a solution. This is an opportunity for the PC(USA) to provide a prophetic witness by laying out the kind of comprehensive plan necessary to confront climate change. At the same time, I would caution against any proposed solution that does not include divestment measures. Given current market structures and technologies, divesting economic and moral power away from the fossil fuel industry creates space for genuine alternatives to grow. Without divestment, these efforts amount to tilting at windmills.

Divestment is a drastic measure, but we can no longer afford to wait. God is calling us to invest wholly in our future, but we cannot answer that call if we lack the courage to divest from the sins of our past.

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[1]  A far more comprehensive energy policy was adopted by the General Assembly in 2008: https://www.pcusa.org/resource/power-change-us-energy-policy-global-warming/. This document, cited by both the Fossil-Free overture proponents and the Faithful Alternatives group, corrects the individualism and lack of systemic analysis in the 2006 action.
[2] I find labeling citizens and leaders of developing nations as “the least of these,” patronizing and dismissive. Moreover, it obscures how much we in “developed” nations stand to learn from the ecological perspectives and practices of “developing” nations, which have historically been more sustainable compared to Western technology. These problems notwithstanding, I will continue to use the term here as it was the one chosen by the authors of Faithful Alternatives.

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AUTHOR BIO: Benjamin Perry is a recent graduate of Union Theological Seminary and now works as an assistant editor at Time Inc. Prior to seminary, Benjamin received a B.A. From SUNY Geneseo, where he majored in psychology. He focuses on the field of social ethics as well as exploring the intersection between science and religion.

Read “A Response to ‘Divesting from the Sins of Our Past'” by Ron Spross of Faithful Alternatives.

Read “Fossil Fuel Divestment: Strengthening Our Response to an Urgent Crisis” by Rev. Abby Mohaupt and Colleen Earp of Fossil Free PC(USA).

Read “Emission Responsibility Through Investment: Creating Criteria for Corporate Engagement and Environmental Responsibility” by Rev. Kerri Allen and Dr. Steve Webb of MRTI.

Read Divestment Overture 9-01 and Faithful Alternatives Overtures 9-02, 9-03, and 9-04.

Read more articles in this issue “A Year for Confessions: Issues of Social Justice Coming before the 222nd General Assembly.”

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