Fossil Fuel Divestment: Strengthening Our Response to an Urgent Crisis

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11 mins read

A Perspective from Fossil Free PC(USA)

Co-author Colleen Earp
Co-author Colleen Earp

In the shadow of the Paris Accords, rising global temperatures, and changing climates, we are thankful for the many voices discussing climate change in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). We recognize that our denomination has suffered and survived turmoil in the wake of the last General Assembly, which made the prophetic decisions both to support marriage equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people and to divest from several companies causing harm to Palestinians. We know that this work of the church has led to division and heartache, and we grieve with our denomination over brothers and sisters lost and estranged. So now, even as we approach another potentially contentious and divisive decision – whether or not to categorically divest from fossil fuel companies – we celebrate that the collection of overtures and reports related to environmental issues and specifically fossil fuels agree on number of points: that climate change is urgent and real, and that we as a church must find appropriate ways to respond.

In his recent Unbound article “Divesting from the Sins of Our Past”, Ben Perry analyzed the overtures concerning fossil fuel divestment and some alternatives thereof coming to 222nd General Assembly. Perry discussed the reality of climate change and the need for a “prophetic breakthrough”, which he (and we!) believes the PC(USA) might be poised to offer. Comparing the language and rationale of the different overtures addressing climate change, Perry gives careful attention to the moral message we can send by not only divesting from fossil fuels, but also addressing our own behaviors, particularly our personal consumption of fossil fuels.

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This is not an either/or conversation. The situation is simply that urgent.
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He rightly ends with the sentiment that this conversation needs to be centered not on an attitude of “Should we do something?” but rather “What is it that we should we do?” This is not an either/or conversation. We as Presbyterian Christians, as citizens of Earth, need to respond to climate change in as many ways as possible, as soon as possible. The situation is simply that urgent. It requires us to do everything possible as quickly as possible to respond.

Co-Author Rev. Abby Mohaupt
Co-Author Rev. Abby Mohaupt

We believe that divestment needs to be part of that broad array of actions because it aligns our investments with our values, our treasure with our heart, to paraphrase Jesus. While divestment is often labeled as hypocritical (how can we truly divest from fossil fuels if we still drive a car?), it is far from that. Divestment is not hypocritical when paired with other practical actions to reduce our carbon footprint and mitigate climate change, to the best of our abilities. It is a chance to add to our denomination’s long history of environmental justice, which includes education on environmental issues (the work of our brains), policies on carbon neutrality (the work of our policies), earth care congregations (the work of our hands), liturgy (the work of our souls), and shareholder advocacy (the work of our voices, and of our treasures). Together, we are able to love creation with our hearts, all our minds, and all our strength, just as we are called to love God (Mark 12:30). Divestment from fossil fuels is a critical opportunity to be bold about our morals as stewards of God’s creation.

Fossil fuel divestment is certainly not the sole solution to climate change, and on its own, it will not make fossil fuel companies stop their business model that relies on wrecking creation. Divesting from fossil fuels is not a statement against those who have worked in the oil, gas, and coal industries. Their contributions to progress and development are undeniable. Nor is it a moral reprimand against the people who have worked as laborers in the industry. However, we cannot ignore what we now know: that these energy sources have caused harm to land, water, air, and living things. Job availability in these sectors of the energy industry have been volatile for some time, in large part because of worldwide conflict and rapid changes in prices due to subsidies, inflation, or availability at different times. Fossil fuel divestment makes a statement that we are dissatisfied with our dependency on these industries, unhappy with industry leaders in their slow response to climate change, and wish to seek an alternative. Our divestment from fossil fuel companies allows us to put our money where our hearts are. It means we will not profit from the destruction of the planet and from our failure to love creation as we are called to, as the Presbyterian Church has affirmed again and again.

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We believe that divestment needs to be part of that broad array of actions because it aligns our investments with our values, our treasure with our heart, to paraphrase Jesus.
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A brief aside about the science: we are well aware that the term climate change makes some people uneasy. However, even if we set aside the lingo, it is difficult to deny that weather patterns are different than they were not too long ago. Places that relied on consistent climate patterns of regular, seasonal rainfall, dry spells, or moderate temperatures are now experiencing extended drought (California, India), sudden floods (South Carolina, France, Malawi), and unseasonable spikes in temperature, both high and low (which Colleen personally noticed as she tried to plant her garden in Virginia, where a late frost and early heat wave came within the same stretch of weeks that saw one of the wettest springs on record there). Weather today is more severe and less consistent.

Aerial photo of very badly eroded Terrebonne Parish. Outlines of pipeline canals that contributed to the erosion are visible. Photo Credit: Colleen Earp
Aerial photo of very badly eroded Terrebonne Parish. Outlines of pipeline canals that contributed to the erosion are visible.
Photo Credit: Colleen Earp

We mentioned above that we celebrate the points of agreement that the majority of Presbyterians have reached in in our conversation surrounding climate change and fossil fuels, particularly that human-caused climate change is real, that the situation is urgent, and that we are called to respond. Even for those who find themselves still debating the veracity or cause of climate change, the environmental damages caused by the fossil fuel industry are real and measurable. Excavation for pipelines and drilling equipment has eroded wetlands. Mining for coal has forever changed the shape of the mountains of Appalachia. Fracking has polluted groundwater sources and lead to unusual geologic activity. Leaks and spills are inevitable. Waste products have to go somewhere.

The situation is urgent, and we as a church need to do all we can to preach, teach, and practice good stewardship of God’s creation. The results of climate change promise to be devastating. Public health, economy and jobs, food sovereignty, global peace and security—these will only continue to deteriorate as natural disasters increase and we struggle for the flourishing of all life on this planet.

As we look to General Assembly, we see with eyes of hope. Hope that our denomination will respond to climate change with the urgency needed. Hope that our denomination will repent of the damage we’ve done as individuals and as a community of faith in our reliance on fossil fuels. Hope that our denomination will do everything it can to stand in favor of caring for God’s creation—because it will take everything.

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AUTHOR BIOS: Colleen Earp is a geographer and a YAV alum with interests in natural resource conservation and education. She is the Director of Youth, Environment, and Service Ministries at Camp Hanover and an MDiv student at Union Presbyterian Seminary. She lives in Richmond, VA. Abby Mohaupt is a Teaching Elder in San Francisco Presbytery. She loves Jesus, running, and the ocean. 

Read original article by Ben Perry: “Divesting From the Sins of Our Past.”

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

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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