Editor’s Note: For business items before the General Assembly, the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP, for short) has the opportunity to offer “Advice and Counsel” – including comments on the social witness implications of the overture, relationship to past social witness policy, and the opportunity to recommend approval, disapproval, or approval with amendment, as outlined below. For the sake of readability, the A&Cs included in this issue of Unbound will be in reverse order as they appear in official GA publications, with the narrative rationale appearing first and the marked up amendment appearing second.
ACSWP Advice & Counsel on Item 15-01 (Full text here):
The energy and movement behind this overture is significant and important. Likewise, the concerns expressed in this overture are essential to the life of the Christian community. As the Rationale rightly points out, environmental concerns and resistance to climate change/disruption, in particular, have been an integral part of the church’s witness on the goodness of Creation for more than thirty years. Climate disruption is already showing true and devastating impacts on communities all over the globe, including in the U.S, as we note below. Thus, action is essential on U.S. carbon emissions and on the economic models by which we exploit fossil fuel.
As the Rationale rightly points out, environmental concerns and resistance to climate change/disruption, in particular, have been an integral part of the church’s witness on the goodness of Creation for more than thirty years.
A true vision of environmental stewardship for the church must include the proposed shift to renewable energy, so that no entity affiliated with the PC(USA) should profit from the desecration and exploitation of God’s Creation. The simplicity and immediacy of the overture, however, emphasizes the value of integrity (or even purity) over effectiveness to a high degree. The amendments [below] would require some immediate divestment and tracking of its portfolio impacts, and recognize that a five-year time period would allow for some re-balancing of short- and long-term holdings. Yet the responses by all major university endowments so far is instructive: without a plan to shift out of a major sector in the investment universe, portfolio managers see a popular gesture that does not address the ways that energy policy reflects competition among nation states and their parastatal enterprises, and not simply the great power of private energy companies and the virtually infinite regress of other firms based on fossil fuels.
The proposal [below] directs the urgency of the proponents to a necessary conversation between social ethics and investment planners. It may even prompt the investing agencies, the Board of Pensions and the Presbyterian Foundation, to contribute financial as well as technical resources to MRTI as they face the moral force of the call for fossil fuel reserves not to be exploited. At the same time, the call for the carbon tax above recognizes the power of the market that, in Germany for example, is helping drive the shift to a country 44 percent reliant on renewables. Divestment does address a dysfunction in public policy in the United States, but it needs a public policy partner to affect the everyday choices we make, lest we continue to buy from the companies we have divested from.
Divestment is an important and powerful social witness tool whose integrity and effectiveness is tied to a well-developed and respectful process of corporate engagement. In order to preserve the effectiveness of this tool (as we have seen in the context of other divestment conversations that have attracted significant outside attention), it is essential that we engage in the normal and established process, even if on an accelerated basis. The MRTI process has been affirmed and developed by General Assemblies since the churches’ first public interest proxy voting 1971. The most extensive treatment of divestment is the 1984 study and policy. While the proponents know the church’s environmental and energy policies, they do not mention “The Divestment Strategy: Principles and Criteria,” and its supporting study, “The Divestment Strategy: Ethical and Institutional Context” (both 1984). Without understanding the way this policy grew out of the years of corporate engagement with energy, banking, and military corporations supporting apartheid, it is hard to understand the church’s move to “selective, phased divestment” of securities in key companies. True, many activists did push for total divestment, but the pressure was focused by a prolonged campaign against particular targets. The language initially adopted by the General Assembly in dealing with investments profiting from the occupation of Palestine was also that of “selective, phased” divestment.
Corporate engagement is an important tool at all levels of the church, not just at the national Board of Pensions level. Mid councils and local churches also hold significant investments and endowments. Therefore, this movement to ethical corporate engagement should also extend to these entities.
Corporate engagement is also an important tool at all levels of the church, not just at the national Board of Pensions level. Mid councils and local churches also hold significant investments and endowments. Therefore, this movement to ethical corporate engagement should also extend to these entities. To the extent that their holdings are far less complex than those of the Foundation and Board of Pensions, however, congregations may want to make the full shift to divest of securities in the 200 leading fossil fuel reserve-holding companies.
The advantage of a corporate engagement strategy is that it does not require an act of the U.S. Congress, which is currently bogged down in partisan gridlock. Nevertheless, the best strategy for comprehensively addressing U.S. carbon pollution is a national, economy-wide strategy. The 220th General Assembly (2012) urged a strong and proactive Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to exercise its authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon pollution. The 218th General Assembly (2008) approved “The Power to Change: U.S. Energy Policy and Global Warming,” which urged an economy-wide strategy to “internalize the social and environmental costs related to greenhouse gas emissions in the prices of fossil fuels.” A carbon tax is considered to be one of the most effective ways to achieve this goal and to change behavior and energy consumption in the U.S. In addition, a carbon tax system is not vulnerable to market speculation in the way that other economy-wide market-based solutions.
Nevertheless, the move to reduce carbon pollution and the U.S. contribution to global climate change will increase the cost of important necessities, not only fuel, but also transportation, fuel, and other goods. Any national solution to climate pollution must dedicate a significant portion of revenue generated to alleviating hardship for low-income people, as well as to other priorities like mass transit infrastructure, renewable energy development, and climate change mitigation and international adaptation for the poorest countries in the world. Market measures alone, in other words, will not ensure provision for the poor. Nor will corporate social responsibility, although some advance in corporate standards are due to both voluntary initiatives among companies and their responses to shareholder pressure.
The proponents are correct in suggesting that slow and incremental will not win the race against climate catastrophe. Intensification of the church’s response is needed, and in the direction they recommend. Yet abruptness is not a virtue, and the partnership MRTI embodies has been a very important forum where action can be planned and agreed upon.
The proponents are correct, finally, in suggesting that slow and incremental will not win the race against climate catastrophe. Intensification of the church’s response is needed, and in the direction they recommend. Yet abruptness is not a virtue, and the partnership MRTI embodies has been a very important forum where action can be planned and agreed upon. At the largest scale, the economy needs to be reordered for less throughput of all kinds; it needs to be changed for the greener, root and branch. Let MRTI plant the investment seeds on fertile ground if possible, working with the Restoring Creation network and all God-loving and carbon-fearing Presbyterians.
Two major scientific confirmations of climate change:
Previous assessments have already shown through multiple lines of evidence that the climate is changing across our planet, largely as a result of human activities. The most compelling evidence of climate change derives from observations of the atmosphere, land, oceans, and cryosphere. Unequivocal evidence from in situ observations and ice core records shows that the atmospheric concentrations of important greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxides have increased over the last few centuries. (1–2)
Without global action, the UNDP estimates that the number of people living in extreme poverty could increase by up to 3 billion by 2050 with untold numbers of children dying due to climate change, deforestation, air and water pollution, natural disasters, droughts and floods, rising sea levels, extreme weather, melting ice caps creating “feedback loops,” etc.
In concurrence with the spirit and ultimate aim of this overture and sharing its grave concern for accelerated climate change, the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) advises the following amendments:
[Text to be deleted is shown with brackets and a strike-through; text to be added or inserted is shown with brackets and an underline.]
“The Presbytery of Boston overtures the 221st General Assembly (2014) to do the following:
“1. Express its profound concern about the destructive effects of climate change on all God’s creation. Climate change has had a disproportionate impact on those living in poverty and in the least developed countries, the elderly and children, and those least responsible for the emissions of greenhouse gases. The 221st General Assembly (2014) thus recognizes the moral mandate for humanity to shift to a sustainable energy plan in a way that is both just and compassionate. [To this end, the church shall work to shift its energy investments increasingly into renewable sources as it undertakes parallel actions to reduce its nonrenewable energy consumption and that of its members.] [
This mandate propels us to action as a denomination: to divest from the fossil fuel industry even as we reduce our use of fossil fuels and shrink our carbon footprint.]
“[2. Direct the Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) to develop a plan to address the call to fossil fuel-related divestment in a manner consistent with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s environmental and investment responsibility policies and practices, including The Divestment Strategy: Principles and Criteria (1984), and to bring recommendations to the 222nd General Assembly (2016), recognizing the need for integrity by the church as we participate in all aspects of an urgent and massive economic and social transformation for the sake of the whole of creation.]
2.] [3.] Call upon the Board of Pensions and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Foundation to
a. immediately stop any new investment in fossil fuel companies and instruct asset managers in their work for the denomination to do the same;]
b.] [a.] [ ensure that within five years none of its directly held or commingled assets includes holdings of either] [initiate and assess the performance of virtual and actual investment vehicles with significant funds that would exclude both] equities or corporate bonds in [the 200 leading] fossil [ fuel companies] [energy reserves] as determined by the Carbon Tracker list1 [in conjunction with the MRTI processes of corporate engagement and their own theologically-informed standards of trustee responsibility];[ and]
c.] [b.] incorporate, into [ already existing] [MRTI and appropriate] financial reports, regular [public] updates [ detailing progress made towards full divestment. These reports will be made available to the public] [on the progress of national and international investment in and production of solar, hydro, geothermal, and other renewable and non-fossil fuel energy and gains made in conservation, as well as reports on the performance of the investment vehicles proposed in 3.a.][ .] [; and]
“[c. work with the Presbyterian Mission Agency in developing a strategic plan to invest more consistently with the values of the General Assembly, including sustainability, peacemaking, and greater sharing of profits and productivity gains within the economy.]
3. Call upon the Stated Clerk of the PC(USA) to inform those fossil fuel companies of the passage and implementation of this resolution.]
“[4. Urge Presbyterian individuals, mid councils, and congregations holding financial investment portfolios to consider immediate fossil fuel divestment as well as corporate engagement to the extent of their capacities, and to work with MRTI and the investment agencies as feasible in considering the range of alternative investment vehicles.]
“[5. Direct the Office of Public Witness to promote a federal carbon tax as an important national policy accompaniment to the strategy of corporate engagement and the best way to internalize the true social and environmental costs of fossil fuel exploitation into the price of energy. This policy advocacy should also include concern for those who are already living in poverty and should urge that any national carbon reduction policy include provisions to mitigate the worst impacts of rising fuel, transportation, and fuel prices on the poorest people.]”
For another perspective on this overture, check out Abby Mohaupt’s article Fossil Free PCUSA: Why We Are Called to Divest.
Read more articles from The Road to Detroit: Issues of Social Justice Before the 221st General Assembly!