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.


Carmen Fowler LaBerge