The Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) had a chance last week to make history. During their General Assembly, the denomination delegates were presented with the opportunity to make changes to the investments of the Board of Pensions, the Presbyterian Foundation and the Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program, by divesting from fossil fuel companies. Unfortunately, the “overture” to divest was defeated despite the committee’s recommendation in favor.
PCUSA decided instead to take a “middle ground,” and to engage with fossil fuel companies through shareholder advocacy. Now shareholder advocacy has proven to be an effective tool for issues such as corporate governance, lobbying, pollution, human rights and equality. But never has advocacy been effective at changing the fundamental business model of a company. The idea that by engaging with oil/gas/mining companies and urging them to be better corporate citizens will change their behavior is naïve and a fools errand. Big Oil is not going to stop producing, refining and distributing oil because a few shareholders ask them to stop.
In my opinion, divestment is the only response to fossil fuel companies – both as a means of protest for their actions and as a fundamental investment move. The risk that fossil fuel companies currently present because of stranded assets and commodity volatility make them a questionable investment – especially for fiduciaries who oversee these institutional investments. PCUSA had the opportunity to make a major statement to the world that fossil fuel companies’ business of changing the chemical composition of the atmosphere for profit is unacceptable – a description that 350.org’s Bill McKibben has used often.
Perhaps the bigger opportunity was the potential to reinvest those fossil fuel assets into sustainable and responsible companies - companies focused on alternative energy, energy efficiency, battery and storage technology and other cutting-edge technologies. And while the adopted overture included the phrasing “consider an increasingly more diversified energy sector in their overall investment portfolios,” it is simply not strong enough – and is toothless without divestment.
I have been involved with this process as I served on three panels over the past year focused on Presbyterian divestment – two for the Western North Carolina Presbytery and one for Presbyterians for Earth Care. This decision is very disheartening, especially considering the need for bold actions. The climate will not wait for another General Assembly in two years.
On the positive side, the fossil fuel divestment movement continues to gain considerable ground as other churches, colleges and non-profits have made the commitment to divest. At a time when bold and decisive actions are needed, these organizations are to be applauded. Not to mention the countless individuals who have taken the step to remove fossil fuels from their individual accounts, trusts and retirement holdings.
I have no doubt that the PCUSA General Assembly will be faced with the same divestment overture in 2018, and with the work of Fossil Free PCUSA, Presbyterians for Earth Care and others, hopefully it will receive the consideration it deserves. In the meantime, individual congregations and parishioners can make their own divestment decisions – and reinvest in sustainable solutions. The climate won’t wait for talk. Visit www.divest-revest.com for more information on fossil fuel divestment for people of faith.