Friday, July 25th, 2014

Call for fossil fuel divestment likens Presbyterians in the industry to slave owners

fossil fuel divestmentScroll down to page 13 of Florida Presbytery’s docket for its meeting on Saturday, Jan. 25, 2014, and you’ll read this:

“Remember owning slaves was an economic issue. It did cause economic harm to stop owning slaves. They were the backbone of the southern economy. But, just as owning another human being was  morally wrong, profiting from the burning of fossil fuels that are irreversibly harming our planet and neighbors is morally wrong. The risk of eliminating fossil fuel stocks from our portfolios is minimal compared to the harm of not doing so. ” - Florida Presbytery winter 2014 meeting docket, page 13.

Pam McVety, Florida Presbytery’s Stewardship of Creation Enabler, is the author of the paper that was included in the presbytery packet in support of an overture calling for the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s divestment from all fossil fuel related companies.

McVety’s pastor, the Rev. Brant Copeland, at First Presbyterian Church, Tallahassee, Fla., is supportive of the cause as well.  He posted on his blog that the session of the church unanimously supports the call for the denomination to divest from fossil fuel related investments.  Copeland writes, “Ethically, the current crisis is akin to the struggle to abolish slavery in the 19th century.  The South’s economy depended on slavery.  Changing course was traumatic and costly.  Still, most would argue today that abolishing slavery was the right thing to do.”

The secular media has been reporting for more than a year about the growing call on college and university campuses for institutional divestment from fossil fuel related companies. That youthful energy was evidenced recently in the PCUSA where it was reported that “Youth convince presbytery to divest from fossil fuel companies.”

Overture 18 is before the 2014 General Assembly, and it is likely to generate steam.

 

Is divestment the right request?

The PCUSA has a long-established process for resolution with corporations in which Presbyterian agencies hold investments. The General Assembly has a standing committee called Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI).

The denomination’s web site says that:

MRTI implements the General Assembly’s policies on socially responsible investing (also called faith-based investing) by engaging corporations in which the church owns stock. This is accomplished through correspondence, dialogues, voting shareholder proxies and recommending similar action to others, and occasionally filing shareholder resolutions.

Priorities are selected each year upon referral from the General Assembly and in consultation with ecumenical partners. The Mission Work Plan of the Presbyterian Mission Agency also guides the work of MRTI. Consistent with its mandate to promote the mission goals of the General Assembly, MRTI adopts an annual Priority Issues Work Plan.

MRTI enjoys the full participation of the Board of Pensions and the Presbyterian Church (USA) Foundation. Their assets, including those of the Foundation’s family of New Covenant mutual funds, are managed according to General Assembly guidelines.

So, the right path for those who are interested in the denomination’s assessing its investment in fossil fuel extraction-related companies is to ask the matter to be referred to MRTI.  Instead, advocates are seeking “immediate” divestment in terms of any new investment and full divestment from all identified companies within five years.

The Presbyterian Foundation estimates that it holds direct long-term investments in 95 of the 200 companies targeted for divestment.  However, both the Board of Pensions and Presbyterian Foundation face a great challenge in even estimating the percentage of commingled funds’ investments in the companies identified on the anti-fossil-fuel advocates’ list.

 

When getting what you ask for isn’t what you want

What do the advocates really want?  That is a very good question.

If what they want is to positively impact the environment by reducing carbon emissions, the carbon footprint of the denomination, and the denomination’s corporate responsibility for the negative effects of the coal, oil and gas industries on the environment, then you would expect them to be targeting behavior. Instead, they are targeting divestment — and not even divestment from the greatest offenders of carbon sin.  The divestment list focuses exclusively on the 100 coal and 100 oil and gas companies who hold the extraction rights for the greatest percentage of reserves still underground.

That makes this an exclusively a supply-side attack. The goal is to get companies who own the extraction rights to leave the carbon that’s in the ground, in the ground.  This approach fails to address the growing global demand side of the equation while threatening to shut down supply.

The ultimate outcome of shutting down oil, gas and coal production globally without first developing alternative fuels for heat, power and travel is predictable: global social chaos and war.

So, it’s particularly curious that the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship is supporting this particular supply-side only fossil-free effort.

 

What might a balanced request look like?

A collaborative approach that would promote peace, unity and purity within the PCUSA might include:

1. Referral to MRTI of the concerns raised by the fossil-free advocates;

2. Intentionally seeking out Presbyterians who are directly involved in the coal, oil and gas industries for input;

3. Including members of the presbyteries whose churches depend upon revenue from investments in fossil fuel companies to work collaboratively on a plan for reinvestment in other industries; and

4. A denomination-wide accountable call to diminish fossil-fuel consumption, starting with the General Assembly itself.

 

The problem with divestment: much smoke, little fire

Elite college students hanging painted sheets from iconic weathered New England bridges and calling for their billion dollar university endowment portfolios to divest makes for great press. For a generation of privileged American students finding a calling that they can get passionate about is important. But youthful exuberance does not necessarily make for good denominational stewardship nor for good and lasting global peace.  The PCUSA must take seriously the Scriptures, her theological understanding of both the stewardship of creation and the reality that one day God has said that the Earth will pass away, and the commitments she has made as an institutional fiduciary of member pensions.  Climate change and fossil fuels may be beyond the scope of expertise of many of the 2014 General Assembly commissioners, but the push is on for action.

 

About the author: Carmen Fowler LaBerge

Carmen Fowler LaBerge heads the ministry of the Presbyterian Lay Committee as its President and Executive Editor of its publications, including The Layman.

17 comments

  1. Chas Jay says:

    As usual, I’m not shocked with this news and the very lack of knowledge about “fossil fuels” and how much they changed our lives. If people like Ms. McVey want to stop divesting in those petroleum companies, she should start with herself and remove all products that contain such from her home and no longer puchase products containing anything that was made with petroleum or that uses such. I wonder how empty her home and medicine cabinet would be after all was removed as well as how much her home would be stripped bare.

  2. Dr. Thomas Brown says:

    It’s quite an interesting job title that Ms. McVety has, “Stewardship of Creation Enabler”. I would imagine The Lord is relieved to have such a person in charge of His creation. I am completely in favor of having the PCUSA and all of its adherants divest from gas, oil, and coal producers. However, it’s not for the same reason that McVety and her ilk including university trust funds would argue. If they could temporarily depress stock value in any meaningful way in the face of high corporate earnings it would mean buy, buy, buy for me.

    The comparison of fossil fuels to slavery is laughable beyond words. I would imagine African Americans to be insulted by such talk. By extension would McVety consider those since the creation of man to have sinned by the usage of wood fires? Ms. McVety’s own breath spewes CO2 into the atmosphere. Since God is the designer of our physiology such would imply that He was in error as the architect and creator. That would be a tall statement to make for anyone to make but we’re talking about the PCUSA after all.

  3. Robert A. Daniels, Ph.D. says:

    Friends,

    I do not support the overture to divest from fossil fuels. The environmentalist lobbyists/activists have cried wolf for 30 years and been discredited many, many times. I refer you to a short fact-packed blog by Dr. Roy Spencer currently showing: ( http://www.drroyspencer.com/)

    1. Lake Superior is now about 94% covered by ice. The first time in many years. Jay Austin Assoc. Prof who studies the ice on the Great Lakes “attributes the large amount of ice on the lake to the “extraordinary cold winter we’ve had,” pointing out that Duluth (MN) recently experienced an all-time record of 23 straight days of below-zero temperatures.

    The previous record of 22 days was set in 1936 and tied in 1963, according to the National Weather Service.” Sounds like a cyclical pattern to me.

    2. Spencer’s article shows that 90 different published climate models (used to “prove” man-made warming) greatly overestimate the warming. Spencer remarks that, “Whether humans are the cause of 100% of the observed warming or not, the conclusion is that global warming isn’t as bad as was predicted. That should have major policy implications…assuming policy is still informed by facts more than emotions and political aspirations.

    And if humans are the cause of only, say, 50% of the warming (e.g. our published paper), then there is even less reason to force expensive and prosperity-destroying energy policies down our throats.”

    We have need to focus on reinforcing and spreading the Gospel instead of this nonsense. The arrogance of thinking we can fine-tune the earth’s climate reminds me of the lofty aims of the Tower of Babel builders. Reject the overture.

  4. Brother of a scientist says:

    I am not a scientist, but my brother is (Ph.D. from Yale). So on matters scientific I defer to him. In his review of the literature he finds that there is evidence of man-made global climate change. His review of the literature does show an increase in temperature over the past century that is accelerating. Some of his observations are:
    1-Decrease in arctic ice.
    2-Melting of glaciers in Alaska, Montana and in particular Greenland.
    3-An increase in the acidity of the oceans caused by trapped CO2.
    4-An apparent increase in catastrophic storms. An increase in droughts in Australia and the western part of the U.S.
    Good stewardship of the earth is implied in Genesis. Seeking cleaner energy sources is a desirable goal.
    Snarky and angry comments rarely advance a cause or an opinion.

  5. John Schrenker says:

    I wish to thank Mr. Braden for his response to Mr. Rugh’s comment. It is refreshing to see a reasoned, researched and logical statement of facts in contrast to Mr. Rugh’s dismissal of a differing point of view by claiming the opposing arguments are invalid because you don’t care for the messenger.

    Consider this, you can have an opinion, choose to accept or reject facts, but it doesn’t alter the TRUTH.

  6. The claim that global warming is man-made is nothing but a sham and a scam. Advocates that took over the environmental movement have considerably different goals, and they are not helpful. Insofar as “mainstream scientist” are concerned, the proof of deception, revealed by their emails pretty well proved they can’t be depended on. Many advocates are simply go-alongs that find their stipends depend on their holding to the “right” policy. Funding comes from those who benefit from reducing and/or stopping USA oil production, either through being able to market more of their own production and/or weaken the USA both economically and militarily..

    It has been proven that the infamous temperature rise correlated with CO2 quantities was a fraud. While presented as the temperature rise following CO2 increase, it was actually the opposite. CO2 increase followed temperature rise. The reason was sea water increased its absorption of the gas on cooling and released it on warming.

    It was proven by astrophysicist at Lowell observatory that rising and falling solar activity causes rises and falls in Earth’s temperature, just as it does with all planets in this system, as their observations of both Mars and Neptune showed.

    Stop being Chicken Littles, the sky is not falling. Get off the Oil companies back, they are the great contributors to mankind’s industrial revolution which gives you all the amenities you enjoy. If you can’t stand it, surely you can find a third world nation in Africa or Asia more to your liking. Global warming and cooling is a natural phenomenon that has been going on as long as the earth has existed, according to geological records and is likely to continue to do so

    A faction in the church advocating trying to harm oil production is most likely more interested in political matters than religious ones. They have an axe to grind. These are the people the church should withdraw from.

    • Thank you John Kinnaird for expressing your view on the divestment initiative. This really is much more of a political matter disguised as a moral one. The claims of global warming are scientifically dubious at best. Such advocates are not doing their homework. They are touting the party line for emotional and political and not logical reasons, and the ultimate consequence of their reasoning – if economically applied and successful – would do great damage to our nation and to our pursuit of peace worldwide. They need to really think it through. Unfortunately, they are not.
      Blessings with faith and reason, Terry Barnhill

  7. Lucille Robbins says:

    Good job, Michael. Keep on being committed to articulating the facts, in the hope that the ignorant may yet become enlightened. Let us be grateful that whatever investment decisions the PC(USA) makes, they will have ZERO effect on the world’s energy supply. Hallelujah for that!

  8. Brant Copeland says:

    The headline for this article is misleading. The rationale for the overture does not liken Presbyterians in the fossil fuel industry to slave owners. It suggests that, just as the economy of the Old South depended on slavery, a morally indefensible institution, our current economy depends on a use of fossil fuels that is — in the long run — also morally indefensible. We can’t continue to use fossil fuels at an ever-increasing rate because of the damage we are causing to God’s creation. It’s an analogy — not an equivalence — which is quite clear if one reads the actual text of Pam McVety’s rationale.

    Whatever you think about the overture, it is not helpful to misrepresent the words of a sister in Christ. The overture is not an attack on those who work in the fossil fuel industry. When I was a pastor in Virginia, the same charge was brought against those of us who were in favor of restrictions on the use and advertisement of tobacco. “You’re attacking Presbyterian tobacco farmers,” I was told. The tobacco farmers I knew were the salt of the earth, but they were also caught up in a deadly industry.

    All of us depend on the fossil fuels that pollute the planet and jeopardize the futures of our children. The divestment overture by itself will not change the economy, but it will raise the moral question we should all be asking ourselves. We need to bear witness on all fronts, beginning with our own behaviors, and those of our congregations. In addition, we should prod those in power to make changes.

    Simply put, we need to repent. Going in a new direction will not be easy, but true repentance never is.

    By all means, feel free to critique the overture, but please do not bear false witness against your neighbors.

    • John Erthein says:

      With all due respect to my colleague, Brant Copeland, who graciously welcomed me to this Presbytery nearly three years ago, and whose congregation has done some commendable things to help the environment (I am thinking here of the solar panels installed by the church at considerable expense; I am sure there are many other examples), I find the analogy completely unnecessary. It is crude, simplistic, and needlessly inflammatory. There are many economic activities that we may consider morally questionable over the long run. Surely a better analogy could have been chosen. I have read the entire rationale for the overture and it really does nothing to reduce the inappropriateness of the language quoted above.

      Obviously, anyone reading this article can do the same thing (read the materials packet) and come to their own conclusion about that.

      Look, we all make comments that are over the top. I have been guilty of that myself on too many occasions! But these words, as quoted above, are not an offhand comment, or a comment made in anger in the heat of the moment. They are not a Facebook or blog posting. Rather, they were deliberately chosen and are being used to support this overture in an official rationale. I do not see how this language can possibly be justified.

  9. John Erthein says:

    I forgot to mention, Carmen, that I appreciate your suggestions towards a “balanced request.”

  10. John Erthein says:

    Many churches, including in the Presbytery of Florida where I am privileged to serve, have employees of fossil fuel related industries as members. For me as a pastor, the most troubling aspect of this overture (in the supporting materials) is the inflammatory and condemning language used to describe the livelihood of some members of our congregations. I am not going to compare any of my congregational members to slave holders whatever their occupation and I very much hope my colleagues feel similarly.

  11. Michael Braden says:

    If you stop coal and oil companies from producing fossil fuels, then pity the poor northeasterners. Since the northeast does not want to produce their own fossil fuels – there is a shortage of propane in the USA for the next Polar Vortex at the end of this week. Furthermore, these fine college students do not seem to realize that without fossil fuels, there would be no smartphones, no computers, no fuel for automobiles, trains, and planes. For that matter, these transportation divices would not exist either. Plastics will cease since the raw materials come from fossil fuels. Funny how the alternative energy relies on fossil fuels to get started. Do we really want to start riding horses for transportation, burning trees for cooking and warmth, and wearing homespum clothes in the summer like the late 1700′s? I do not and I do not believe these students do either.

    It is also interesting that the world has not had any temperature increase in 16 years (per IPCC). And yet the CO2 levels increase. God made the world very flexible and it is up to us to be good stewarts of the valuble resources it has to offer. And yes, fossil fuels is one of those resources that has help the lives of millions of individuals worldwide.

    Also the coal and oil companies make profits (not as much as in percentage as Microsoft), thus increasing the value of the funds PCUSA holds. Isn’t good stewardship of money also one of God’s concerns as well? Divesting of these companies into other poorer performing companies seems to be like the man with only the one talent in the parable of the talents. He did not invest the talent and was harshly condemmed for it. I believe that PCUSA should be harshly condemmed for divesting in these companies if they vote for this overture.

    • Michael Rugh says:

      Mr Braden, I am a Presbyterian and support the overture to divest from fossil fuels. You have some good points but there are reasoned arguments on the other side. Namely, I agree there will always be some need for fossil fuels, but the current rate of consumption has to be dramatically reduced. With the right combination of incentives a wholesale shift from fossil fuels to an energy supply based largely (again, not entirely) on wind, solar and geothermal power is possible over time. This will require that our political leadership remove tax incentives to continue fossil fuel exploration and encourage research and investment in alternative energies. Divestment is a strong signal that change is necessary.

      re lack of temperature increase: While Fox News has proclaimed that global warming is “over,”
      this is not the view of most mainstream scientists. Also, the correct reading of the IPCC report is that the rate of increase in surface temperatures has declined — not that temperatures have leveled off. I am not a scientist, but there are a host of articles that convince me that climate change is alive and well, despite the pronouncements of Fox News and Ted Cruz.

      Finally, I disagree with your comments about investment returns. The Church already has a divestment policy, which now includes gambling, pornography, liquour, and weapons of war. Many of the companies in these sectors perform quite weil — are you suggesting we abolish current policy? More to the point, there are fossil-free investment portfolios that perform just as well or better n terms of returns. Even more to the point, our investment behavior is haming God’s creation; to me this is primus inter pares.

      • Michael Braden says:

        Mr. Rugh,

        According to the NOAA and NASA, the world has cooled -0.3 degrees C over the last 17 years instead of rising 0.2 degrees C as per IPCC (David Whitehouse, The Global Warming Policy Foundation, 21 January 2014). This is neither Fox News or Ted Cruz – neither of whom I referenced so please do not imply that I did. Also the “concensus” of scientists is also in error (journals.ametsoc.org/doi/pdf/10.1175/BAMS-D-13-00091.1) where 52% of the meteorological and climate professionals believe in AGW – far different than the 97% that the newpapers quote. So 48% are deniers? Far more likely is that our sun is in a low sunspot production – and has been for the past few years. That big yellow ball in the sky has more influence on our climate that carbon dioxide (www.washingtontimes.com/news/2012/sep/6/global-warming-fanatics-take-note/).

        The US government has invested quite a few billion dollars for alternative fuels research – and most of them have gone bust or need to rely on subsities stay in business (e.g. ethanol). I do not disagree that we need to explore and research all types of energy methods; however, at the current state of energy production, nothing will give you more return value for your dollar than fossil fuels. Not ethanol, not solar, not wind, not geothermal sources at this present time.

        As far as investments are concern, I do not disagree with present policy nor did I suggest that we should. However investing in the oil companies – especially fracking because it lowers greenhouse gases (www.cps.org.uk/files/reports/original/131202135150-WhyEverySeriousEnvironmentalistShouldFavourFracking.pdf) – having shares in these companies can give PCUSA a voice in policy during stockholder meetings. Divesting gives the PCUSA no voice.
        As for your suggestion that coal and oil companies harm this world, I suggest you take a long look at the enviromental situation in China in a New York Times series called “Choking on Growth” (www.nytimes.com/2007/08/26/world/asia/26china.html). Compared to the USA, our rivers are cleaner, our air is cleaner, and our land is cleaner than it has been for many years.
        Here are some examples of what the oil companies are doing for the environment. (oilprice.com/The-Environment/Global-Warming/Oil-And-The-Environment-What-Are-Oil-Companies-Doing-To-Clean-Up-Their-Act.html)

        British Petroleum is a leader in solar, wind and hydrogen power programs. Meanwhile Exxon Mobil is partnering with Stanford University on its Global Climate and Energy Project. Oil companies are some of the largest contributors actively partnering in Third World developments, investing in their future by donating billions of dollars for the building of schools, hospitals, libraries, and other much needed infrastructure, getting countless previously unemployed workers off of the streets and feeding families that otherwise would starve to death.

        Exxon, after the media blood bath it suffered over the Valdez catastrophe, has drastically improved it’s reputation world wide, but particularly with the environmental groups, by paying for all of the damages and working diligently to promote resurgence of wildlife in Prince William Sound, as well as funding environmental education to prevent and protect against future spills. They also recently donated millions to the “Save the Tiger Fund,” “The World Wildlife Fund” and “The Wildlife Conservation Society.”

        In 2008, at Chevron’s annual shareholders meeting, the priority items of significance placed on the agenda by the stockholders included: Environmental Justice, Peace, and Human Rights world wide. Meanwhile, “Innovest Strategic Value Advisors,” an investment advisory firm dedicated to helping concerned investors find environmental leaders to invest in, proudly recommended both Shell and BP for their superior environmental management programs and commitment to sustainable development.

        While Shell and BP-Amoco were rated particularly high for their work on renewable energy, corporate social responsibility and research regarding climate change. They gave strong referrals to Exxon, for their efforts to develop a now highly respectable environmental management framework directed at reducing environmental impact while improving performance. They also glowingly recognized Texaco for their expertise in waste “gasification” that they are not only using for their own benefits, but also making available to competitors.

        Yes the oil companies have a messy business. But with the environmental efforts, it is something that I would like the PCUSA to continue to support.

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