Fossil Fuel Divestment at the 221st General Assembly
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On the bulletin board above my desk, I have an excerpt from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Book of Confessions:
“God’s redeeming work in Jesus Christ embraces the whole of [our] life: social and cultural, economic and political, scientific and technological, individual and corporate. It includes [our] natural environment as exploited and despoiled by sin… Already God’s reign is present as a ferment in the world, stirring hope… With an urgency born of this hope, the church applies itself to present tasks and strives for a better world.” (Confession of 1967, 9.53-9.55)
I love this expression of our faith. I love how it calls us to practice discipleship not only within church walls, but also in our table fellowship, investments and purchases, letters to elected officials, and energy and transportation choices. And I love how it affirms that God’s redeeming work – and therefore our care and compassion – extends to the whole Creation, which “waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (Romans 8:19).
Today, the Creation waits for the Church to apply itself to the “present task” of mitigating climate change and its impacts on vulnerable sisters and brothers. With “an urgency born of this hope,” I attended the 221st General Assembly (GA) as an Overture Advocate for item 15-01: On Divestment from Fossil Fuel Companies.  Crafted by the grassroots group FossilFree PC(USA), the overture called on our denomination to divest from fossil fuel companies and re-invest in energy efficiency and renewable energy. With it, we sought to strengthen the PC(USA)’s commitment to climate justice. 
My intention in this article is to share my experience as an overture advocate, and in so doing, to spark dialogue and action in two areas of utmost importance for the Church and the world: cultivating more just and inclusive decision-making processes, and strengthening our witness for climate justice.
Ultimately, the overture was referred to the Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) for study over the next two years.  I am grateful for the faithful work of MRTI and for the Assembly’s overwhelming mandate (81%) to prayerfully consider divesting from fossil fuels. However, I have deep concerns that the GA process excluded crucial information and voices. I also grieve the Assembly’s unwillingness to make the immediate moral commitment to cease profiting from an industry that is causing climate change, endangering countless human lives and the integrity of all Creation. While the PC(USA) has affirmed the goal of limiting global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius,  our witness is compromised by the fact that we continue to finance fossil fuel exploitation that threatens to raise Earth’s temperature beyond this limit.
My intention in this article is to share my experience as an overture advocate, and in so doing, to spark dialogue and action in two areas of utmost importance for the Church and the world: cultivating more just and inclusive decision-making processes, and strengthening our witness for climate justice. I do so in a spirit of love, hoping that these words – even, and perhaps especially, words of criticism and challenge – may be “useful for building up” (Ephesians 4:29) a Church with the courage to respond with integrity to the crisis of climate change.
From El Salvador to Detroit: My journey to General Assembly
My journey to Detroit began long before I packed my bag for General Assembly. As a Biology and Environmental Studies major in college, I read the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). What I learned then has only become more certain (Box 1). I learned how carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels are the main cause of global warming. I grieved the injustice of climate change: that its impacts fall most heavily on the poor. I began to wrap my mind around the rapid shift towards sustainable lifestyles and renewable energy necessary to mitigate future climate change.
Four years in the Peace Corps in El Salvador only strengthened my commitment to seeking climate justice as I witnessed firsthand the impact of climate change on people and a place I grew to love. As climate change increases erratic weather patterns, I learned, families lose precious harvests. When the rains failed to come in early May, I saw the anxiety on farmers’ faces as they wondered whether to plant in dry soil. In another year, the rains didn’t stop in November when farmers usually let crops dry in the field. I felt my host family’s desperation as we spread their harvest of dry beans on a tarp, painstakingly picked out beans destroyed by mold, and tried to salvage the rest. As I write this in August 2014, all of Central America is in the grip of a prolonged drought during what has, for centuries, been the rainy season. Six weeks without rain has reduced corn and bean harvests 75% or more in my adopted village, leaving farmers wondering how they will feed their families, let alone pay the debts incurred in planting. What they are suffering is consistent with the predicted impacts of human-caused climate change. Vulnerable people around the world face similar threats to their lives and livelihoods as climate change reduces crop yields,  intensifies water scarcity, threatens public health, and increases vulnerability to disasters. 
Since returning to the U.S. in 2008, I’ve poured much of my activist energy into a growing global movement for climate justice. As a person of faith, I see this work as both a moral obligation and a gift. In Genesis, God puts humankind in the garden to “serve and keep it” (Genesis 2:15), acting in ways that sustain the Earth’s capacity to support life. The words of the prophets and the example of Jesus Christ teach us to stand with the “least of these” (Matthew 25:40), working to ensure that all people have enough to live dignified lives. In this time of global climate change, reducing our carbon emissions to limit global warming – and therefore the severity of its ecological and humanitarian impacts – is essential both to caring for the Earth and loving our neighbors.
In this spirit, my church recently hosted an Interfaith Climate Justice educational series. Local speakers shared resources on reducing our carbon emissions, supporting sustainable food systems, engaging in policy advocacy, and responsible investing. Fresh from the latter session, Unbound’s January issue on Climate Change and Christian Faith caught my eye. The opening article mentioned a grassroots group bringing an overture to the 221st GA, calling our denomination to divest from fossil fuels and reinvest in clean energy solutions. It wasn’t long before I connected with FossilFree PC(USA), learned more about their work, and brought the overture my own presbytery.
Being Conformed to this World: The committee and plenary process on 15-01
When I arrived in Detroit for GA, I had learned a lot about the fossil fuel divestment movement. I was hopeful that divestment by the PC(USA) could make a powerful moral statement on the need to mitigate climate change, build public awareness and political will to reduce carbon emissions, and free resources to invest in creating renewable energy jobs. Looking forward to thoughtful discussion in Committee 15 (Immigration and Environmental Issues), I prepared thoroughly and eagerly awaited the beginning of deliberations.
What I experienced as the week unfolded disappointed me deeply. As a foundation for our Presbyterian polity, our Book of Order (F-1.041) quotes Paul’s exhortation to the early church: “The Church seeks ‘not [to] be conformed to this world, but [to] be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds, so that [we] may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect’” (Romans 12:2). Yet the GA process, at least for our overture, largely ‘conformed to this world.’ Instead of giving all God’s children equal voice, it privileged the powerful. Instead of remaining open to knowledge and perspectives that may have facilitated discernment, the process blocked crucial voices from being heard. I saw this take place in at least three ways.
First, in committee a Motion to Refer  was introduced early in discussion, halting debate on the original overture. This motion requested that the Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) “engage with individual corporations” to address the concerns articulated in the overture. Prior to the Motion to Refer, another commissioner had presented a Substitute Motion.  This motion was a compromise developed during the Assembly itself with input from MRTI staff, advocates of the original overture, and concerned commissioners and advisory delegates on Committee 15. It called on the Assembly to state its intention for the PC(USA) to divest from fossil fuel companies in five years and appoint a task force to work with MRTI to develop a plan for divestment. As such, it respected MRTI processes, but also empowered our church to make a clear moral statement on the urgency of climate change mitigation. Yet because the Motion to Refer took precedence, the Substitute Motion was never considered. After the Motion to Refer passed by the narrowest of margins (30-29), the Presbyterian Outlook reported, “Many in the committee thought this motion to refer was premature, not allowing for in-depth debate on the substitute motion or the main overture.” 
I was hopeful that divestment by the PC(USA) could make a powerful moral statement on the need to mitigate climate change, build public awareness and political will to reduce carbon emissions, and free resources to invest in creating renewable energy jobs.
The second factor biasing the discussion on 15-01 was that, in both committee and plenary, PC(USA) financial asset managers dominated the conversation. Overture Advocates were each given three minutes to speak to the committee and were not permitted to speak again during debate. On the other hand, asset managers had multiple opportunities to advocate for their position in both settings.  Without similar privilege of voice, divestment advocates were unable to answer questions and present more specific information to balance what were, in my view, misleading statements by asset managers.
Third, both of these dynamics – a premature Motion to Refer and dominance of asset managers’ perspectives – silenced overture advocates, expert witnesses, commissioners, and advisory delegates who supported divestment. As a result, relevant information never reached the floor. For example, twice in committee, a commissioner requested that a registered expert witness in socially responsible investing share his knowledge of shareholder advocacy with fossil fuel companies and the growing suite of options for fossil-free investments. Another commissioner asked that an Overture Advocate provide further information on a statement made during her presentation – that shareholder advocacy with fossil fuel companies has failed to substantially reduce emissions.  In both cases, commissioners’ requests were denied because debate was only permitted on the merits of referral. And yet, the people these commissioners called on could have shared valuable information to inform the committee’s discussion of whether shareholder advocacy, divestment, or a combination of both would be the most effective course of action.
In plenary, commissioners and advisory delegates from Committee 15 brought the Substitute Motion to the floor as a Minority Report. Unfortunately, the question was called with lines of people waiting to speak in favor of divestment. While solid majorities of Young Adult and Theological Student Advisory Delegates voted in favor of divesting in five years, the Assembly rejected their counsel in favor of the weaker Motion to Refer. Sitting helplessly in the back bleachers, I was dismayed that so many young people were prevented from even speaking, since climate change will affect them far more than the commissioners who had the privilege of voting.
The GA process largely ‘conformed to this world.’ Instead of giving all God’s children equal voice, it privileged the powerful.
I came to GA as an active and tithing  Presbyterian, an overture advocate, a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, and an environmental scientist. I was eager to share the knowledge I have gleaned from each of these roles. Yet the clear message that I received from the committee and plenary process was that my church does not value what I have to say. In fairness, in the informal spaces of the Assembly I had positive interactions with Hunger Program and MRTI staff, ACSWP members, and Presbyterians from other grassroots groups. Yet in the arenas where decisions are made at the denominational level, I felt disrespected and excluded.
If this is not the message that the PC(USA) wishes to send to its members, then we need to reform the GA process. Ensuring that Motions to Refer do not block discussion on other courses of action, enforcing boundaries for staff resource people, allowing overture advocates to respond to issues that arise during debate in committee, and respecting the rights of young people to speak on issues of importance to them are all essential starting points.
The Unheard Narrative: Divestment as complement to shareholder advocacy, personal emissions reductions, and climate policy
The dominant narrative during the Assembly’s consideration of item 15-01 was that corporate engagement ‘works’ and divestment would cede the church’s voice as a shareholder in fossil fuel companies. Referring the matter for engagement with individual companies was presented as a more responsible, less risky decision. Many of us who were silenced in the conversation have another perspective. We see divestment as part of a moral and practical response to climate change, an action that complements and strengthens shareholder advocacy, efforts to reduce personal carbon emissions, and policy advocacy. Indeed, investing in fossil fuel companies undermines these other efforts by financing corporate lobbying against legislation that would make renewable energy and mass transit options more widely available.  In contrast, fossil fuel divestment – and clean energy reinvestment – supports our vision for a world where humanity relies on the energy God has provided in sun, wind, and water; workers find dignified employment in renewable energy industries;  and our global climate stays within bounds that allow Creation to flourish. Given the urgency of society-wide action to mitigate climate change (Box 2) and lack of progress in corporate engagement with fossil fuel companies, we see inaction as a far greater risk than the bold moral stance of divestment.
Divestment as complementary to shareholder advocacy
It is important to understand that the PC(USA) does not need to choose between divestment and shareholder advocacy. A simple amendment to the overture could have allowed the denomination to maintain the minimum holdings required to file shareholder resolutions (called ‘symbolic holdings’) while divesting most of our assets from fossil fuel companies, as the Unitarian Universalist Association recently voted to do.  Prior to GA, FossilFree PC(USA) expressed support for this course of action in our response to the ACSWP Advice and Counsel.  It was clear that the members of Committee 15 were not informed of the option to maintain symbolic holdings while divesting, and those in the room who could have explained the option – including an expert in socially responsible investing – were not permitted to speak.
That said, we must also recognize the limits of shareholder advocacy with fossil fuel companies. Companies may lawfully exclude shareholder resolutions that “deal with a matter related to the company’s ordinary business operations,”  in this case extracting and selling fossil fuels.
In the debate at GA, asset managers repeatedly stressed that ‘corporate engagement works.’ It is true that faith-based corporate engagement has yielded victories in other areas, such as improving workers’ rights and safety. Yet in the context of seeking corporate behavior to mitigate dangerous climate change, stating that ‘corporate engagement works’ is misleading. As a case in point, for years, the PC(USA) has led a resolution requesting that ConocoPhillips set and publicize greenhouse gas reduction goals for its operations. It has never received more than 29% of the vote.  Despite years of effort, shareholder advocacy has not forced the company to even set goals for GHG reductions, let alone take action to realize them. Furthermore, the resolution asks only that ConocoPhillips reduce GHG emissions from its operations.  It does not require the company to transition away from exploiting and selling fossil fuels.
We see divestment as part of a moral and practical response to climate change, an action that complements and strengthens shareholder advocacy, efforts to reduce personal carbon emissions, and policy advocacy.
The science is clear that in order to limit global warming to less than 2°C, about 85% of proven fossil fuel reserves must be left unburned (Box 2). It will not be enough for fossil fuel companies to become more efficient fossil fuel companies; they must become renewable energy companies. For all of their statements about the efficacy of shareholder advocacy during debate, asset managers could not cite a single example of corporate engagement with a fossil fuel company that resulted in it ceasing exploration for more fossil fuels, shifting substantially to renewable energy, or ceasing lobbying against GHG emissions regulations. Without fulfilling these criteria, companies undermine climate change mitigation goals that the PC(USA) has affirmed (Box 2). As such, they are in violation of our denomination’s social witness policy, and it is morally unacceptable to invest in them.
Divestment from fossil fuel companies doesn’t mean that we cede our voice in the public sphere. Divestment becomes our voice. When faith communities, foundations, and other institutions of conscience divest from fossil fuels, the world hears about it.  With the voice afforded by divestment, we can say what we can’t as shareholder advocates: that for the sake of all Creation, we must cease burning fossil fuels as soon as possible and shift to renewable energy that honors the Earth and creates good, green jobs.
Divestment as complementary to lifestyle changes and policy advocacy
In addition to articulating concerns about remaining engaged in shareholder advocacy, commissioners at GA lifted up the need to reduce our use of nonrenewable energy and to participate in policy advocacy. We in FossilFree PC(USA) whole-heartedly embrace a comprehensive response to climate change, and all of us are involved in such efforts. We are deeply proud of PC(USA) policies (passed in 2006 and 2008) calling on Presbyterians to reduce personal and congregational carbon emissions and to advocate for legislation mandating economy-wide emissions reductions. 
Indeed, we in FossilFree PC(USA) see divestment as complementary to the PC(USA)’s 2006 and 2008 statements on climate change mitigation. At present, it is not feasible for even the most climate-conscious individuals to function without fossil fuels. This is despite the fact that we have the technology to supply humanity’s energy needs from renewable sources. Studies at both the global level  and for the United States  show that it is possible for us to transition completely to existing wind, water, and solar energy technologies by 2050.
However, these solutions will not be widely accessible without changes in public policy.  Through their lobbying efforts, fossil fuel companies block these changes. In 2013, oil and gas companies spent nearly $145 million to lobby the U.S. Congress.  That is $400,000 a day to undermine policies that would make renewable energy more economical and widely available.
One of the hopes of the divestment movement is to discredit lobbying by the fossil fuel industry, and build public pressure for Congress to pass legislation regulating carbon emissions and shifting financial incentives toward energy efficiency and renewable energy. The history of divestment movements indicates that this hope is well-founded. A University of Oxford study concluded that fossil fuel divestment “is growing faster than any previous divestment campaign” and may affect political change to regulate emissions. One author noted, “In every case we reviewed…divestment campaigns were successful in lobbying for restrictive legislation.”  By divesting from fossil fuel companies, the PC(USA) can contribute to this movement, and to the policy changes that we need to guide society to a renewable energy future and a stable climate.
With the voice afforded by divestment, we can say what we can’t as shareholder advocates: that for the sake of all Creation, we must cease burning fossil fuels as soon as possible and shift to renewable energy that honors the Earth and creates good, green jobs.
In summary, we in FossilFree PC(USA) see divestment as fully consistent with other efforts to mitigate global climate change. It can accelerate shareholder advocacy by demonstrating that there are consequences when companies fail to act for the common good. It can generate public awareness of the dangers of climate change, and so build political pressure to regulate carbon emissions and provide incentives for renewable energy. By sparking society-wide changes in energy infrastructure and policy, divestment from fossil fuel companies will make it easier for us to use active and mass transit, retrofit our homes and churches, and install solar panels and wind turbines to power them.
But of course, this was not the dominant narrative on the floor of the Assembly. At the end of the day, our commissioners opted for referral to MRTI for discernment and continued shareholder advocacy rather than a commitment to fossil fuel divestment.
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So where does the GA decision leave me, and others who long for a Church where we can give our tithes knowing that they will be used to keep, and not harm, the Creation? For two weeks after returning from GA, I let the collection plate pass me by as I agonized over what to do. How could I give my tithes knowing that some will find their way into PC(USA) investments financing the fossil fuels that cause climate change – and now not by default, but by a conscious decision of the General Assembly to allow such investment to continue?
After much reflection, I still do not know what to do. But by the first Sunday in July, I did know I could no longer withhold my support from the congregation and denomination that have nurtured my hopes for the church and the world. Yes, there are more steps we can and should take to embody a commitment to climate justice. But my church family has installed bike racks, hosted an interfaith series on climate justice, and provided the moral and financial support for me to advocate for fossil fuel divestment at GA. We’re actively pursuing a full energy efficiency audit, solar energy and more sustainable options for congregational investments. More broadly, my church has offered spiritual grounding, fellowship, and opportunities for compassionate engagement in my community and world. So that Sunday, with a heavy heart, I dropped a check in the offering plate for my usual weekly pledge.
Then I wept all through communion.
I wept for the suffering of God’s children and God’s Creation caused by climate change. And I wept for my – our – complicity in it. When I took the bread and cup, I also tasted the salt of my tears. As I prayed, I recalled a verse from the Easter hymn, “Christ is Alive”:
In every insult, rift and war,
Where color, scorn, or wealth divide,
Christ suffers still, yet loves the more,
And lives where even hope has died. 
Of course my tears for those affected by climate change mingled with the symbolic body and blood of Christ that Sunday. In the “insult, rift, and war” of climate change, “Christ suffers still, yet loves the more.” Christ suffers in the farming families that go hungry because of lost harvests. Christ suffers in the coastal communities whose loved ones and homes are swept away by rising seas. Christ suffers in the mining communities where fossil fuel extraction endangers health and mars landscapes. Through our investments in fossil fuel companies, we, the PC(USA), are complicit in that suffering. My deepest hope is that the church that nurtured me into caring for Creation and neighbor may one day soon be an agent of healing, of resurrection.
Hope for Climate Justice
Despite the disappointment of less than an immediate commitment to fossil fuel divestment, as I reflect on my first GA I do see signs of hope. First and foremost, I am grateful for the energy and commitment of fellow Presbyterians who are concerned about climate justice and for the new relationships we forged at GA. We in FossilFree PC(USA) are humbled by the groundswell of support from Presbyterians for Earth Care and the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, and from commissioners and advisory delegates. I look forward to nurturing those relationships as we continue to work on this crucial issue for the Church and the world.
Second, there was an overwhelming mandate from the Assembly to consider the call to fossil fuel divestment through MRTI. I pray that their discernment may lead to support for divestment.
Third, a solid majority of Young Adult and Theological Student Advisory Delegates voted in support of the stronger motion committing the PC(USA) to divest from fossil fuels in five years. Clearly, the young people of the PC(USA) are deeply concerned about climate change, and willing to take bold action to lead our society to a renewable energy future.
In this time of climate change, how can we live into our calling to be the “children of God” for whom “the creation waits” (Romans 8:19)?
As the PC(USA) moves forward from the 221st General Assembly, then, I invite us all to reflect, discuss, and act on this question: In this time of climate change, how can we live into our calling to be the “children of God” for whom “the creation waits” (Romans 8:19)? Here I offer some of my own ideas, and invite your thoughtful contributions.
- First, we can promote education, discussion, and broad action for climate justice in our churches and presbyteries. From energy efficiency and renewable energy upgrades to supporting sustainable food systems, writing our elected officials in support of climate legislation, and exploring divestment and clean energy reinvestment for our personal and congregational funds, there is much that we can do now.FossilFree PC(USA) is preparing a Climate Justice curriculum to help congregations discern how they are called to act for climate justice at individual, congregational, and denominational levels. With this curriculum and grassroots educational campaign, we hope to raise awareness of existing PC(USA) policies on climate change and compile resources to inspire and enable congregational actions.
- Second, we can support MRTI’s discernment and action to leverage our denominational assets to discourage fossil fuel exploitation and accelerate progress towards a renewable energy future. The Church needs to develop and apply a clear set of criteria for investment that outlines corporate behavior consistent with PC(USA) social witness policy, specifically our commitment to limiting global warming to less than 2 °C.  We can also explore creating optional fossil free funds for church investments (as the United Church of Christ has done ) and for pensions.
- Third, we can support economic transition in communities that depend on fossil fuels for their livelihoods. Investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy creates more jobs than investing in fossil fuels,  but we need to provide support for these growing industries and for workers who will need re-training. As part of the discernment process on fossil fuel divestment, I suggest that FossilFree PC(USA) collaborate with MRTI and other church agencies to engage communities facing economic transition and develop plans for the Church to support them as the world shifts to renewable energy. This could include shareholder and policy advocacy to urge industry and government to support job creation in places where fossil fuel jobs will be lost. The Church might also provide support to nonprofit organizations, such Appalachian Transition, that are building sustainable economies.
These are just a few of the possibilities that I see for prophetic action by our Church at a crucial point in history. As we discern how we are called to respond, we would do well to remember our heritage: When the biblical people of Israel stood at a similarly critical juncture in their common life, Moses exhorted them, “See, I have set before you life and prosperity, death and adversity… Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 30:15-20).
We face the same choice. Humanity’s actions in the next few years will determine the kind of world that future generations inherit. We still have an opportunity to choose life – to transform our global society into one that uses energy wisely and so can rely on God’s gifts of sun, wind, and water. I hope and pray that over the next two years and under the leadership of MRTI, the whole church may participate in discerning how we can “choose life” by strengthening our work for climate justice.
The Creation waits. So we must not.
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AUTHOR BIO: Megan M. Gregory is an ordained ruling elder and currently serving deacon at First Presbyterian Church in Ithaca, NY, where she recently helped organize an interfaith education series on Climate Justice. From 2004-2008 she served as an Agroforestry volunteer in Peace Corps/El Salvador, where she witnessed the impacts of climate change on smallholder farmers. This experience motivates much of her work to engage the church, and the broader society, in dialogue and action to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Megan holds a B.A. in Biology and Environmental Studies from St. Olaf College, which has installed a wind turbine  that provides up to one-third of the college’s energy. She is currently a PhD. candidate in Agroecology at Cornell University. Her dissertation project  involves collaborating with community gardeners to develop ecologically-based practices that support healthy food production and a healthy environment.
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