Divest from fossil fuels: An appeal to the Episcopal Church

Next month, leaders in the Episcopal Church will gather in Salt Lake City for our triennial General Convention.   Among the significant decisions that will be made is a decision about whether to divest from fossil fuels – that is, whether to sell off holdings of stocks and bonds from the world’s leading 200 fossil fuel companies as identified by the Carbon Underground and to re-invest in the clean energy sector.

In many respects the Episcopal Church has a history of leadership in addressing the climate crisis (for a summary of that history, you can download here a pdf of my article, “The Episcopal Church and Climate Change: The First Twenty-Five Years,” The Anglican Theological Review, Fall 2013). As a community of faith, the Episcopal Church cherishes the study of science and accepts the consensus of climate scientists that climate change is real and is largely caused by human activity. In fact, our Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori (who was an oceanographer before she began studying for ordination) told a reporter a couple of months ago that it is “immoral” to deny the conclusions of climate science. Yet in the same public remarks Bishop Schori also stated that she opposes divesting from fossil fuels.

She is not alone. In speaking with Episcopalians in person, by mail, and on the phone, in small groups and one-on-one, I’ve discovered that although some of us are ardent advocates of fossil fuel divestment, others are moderately or strongly opposed.

Some Church leaders are uncertain, actively wrestling with their conscience, trying to sort out what faithfulness to the Gospel requires. The most poignant conversation I have had so far was with a man who spoke about divestment in terms of religious conversion. His deepest intention is to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. As a person charged with investment responsibilities in the Church he believes that divestment from fossil fuels is the right thing to do, but he does not feel ready to advocate for it. Very candidly he tells me that where he is as a follower of Jesus is different from where he is in carrying out his financial responsibilities. He is aware of the incongruity, and it troubles him. I sense that he lives in an in-between place, not at peace with his conscience. I sense his discomfort. I honor his desire for conversion.

I want to dedicate this blog post to him, and to all people of good will who want our behavior to line up with our conscience, so that the choices we make around money (and everything else) increasingly express our deepest values.

Here are some arguments against divestment that I’ve heard from several leaders in the Episcopal Church, and how I respond.

1) The Episcopal Church has a considered theological belief that encourages positive engagement when change is desired. We do not believe that shunning or cutting off conversation is an effective way to encourage conversion or transformation.

Conversation – including stockholders being in dialogue with corporate management – is indeed an essential aspect of positive engagement, but conversation is not the only or necessarily the best way to engage constructively or to encourage conversion or transformation. Jesus had many conversations that transformed lives, but he did not rely only on words to express his message. He also communicated God’s presence by touch, gesture, silence, and action.

Divesting from fossil fuels does not cut off conversation with the fossil fuel industry. Quite the contrary – it clarifies the message that we need to convey: 80% of fossil fuels must stay in the ground.

There are times when conversation by itself has no power to encourage conversion or transformation, but must be accompanied by action. A personal story may illustrate the point: my father was alcoholic. I spent many years reasoning and arguing with him, until at last I realized that talking with a drunk about his addiction would never change a thing. It was only when I helped organize a family intervention – a disciplined conversation that includes real consequences – that he became willing, however briefly, to address his addiction.

Words by themselves are not enough when it comes to transforming deep patterns of addiction and sin. Divestment, or the threat of divestment, raises the ante, builds social and political pressure, and increases the likelihood that fossil fuel companies will have to listen and change.

2) Stockholder engagement has the potential to shift energy companies’ focus to alternative, renewable, and less polluting sources.

Stockholder engagement makes sense when we want a company to change aspects of how it carries out its business. It does not make sense when we want a company to stop carrying out its core business.

When it comes to fossil fuels, we need to shut down an entire industry, not to fine-tune its operations. Fossil fuel companies now hold five times the amount of fuel that, if burned, would catapult the world into catastrophic climate disruption. Nevertheless these companies continue to aggressively explore for more oil, and they have every intention of burning it. If fossil fuel companies are successful in carrying out their business plans, which require unlimited expansion of markets and ever-increasing extraction and burning of fossil fuels, they will destroy life as it has evolved on this planet, along with human civilization. Their core business is destroying life on Earth.

Fossil fuel companies like to present themselves as being “energy” companies, as if they were equally involved in developing solar and wind power alongside power from fossil fuels (for a while BP tried to persuade the public to call the company “Beyond Petroleum”). In fact, developing power from sun and wind is a miniscule part of what fossil fuel companies do. Meanwhile the industry blocks regulations that would promote clean, safe, renewable energy; funds climate deniers and think-tanks that deny climate science; confuses the public by spreading misinformation; and pours billions of dollars into the effort to persuade the public that fossil fuels are the answer to our energy needs.

I know of no example of shareholder engagement persuading a company to replace its core business with a different business.

3) Pragmatically, an immediate end to fossil fuel use is unmanageable. The world is going to have to continue to utilize fossil sources like gas as a bridge to a sustainable future.

In calling for divestment from fossil fuels, we recognize that we continue to depend on fossil fuels in just about every aspect of modern life. We see divestment as expressing our intention to break society’s dependence on fossil fuels and to create a path to a sustainable future. The goal of divestment is to propel a shift to clean, safe, renewable energy.

So-called “natural” gas has been touted as a bridge to a sustainable future, though that claim is increasingly in doubt, given the methane leaks that result from extracting and distributing this fuel. Methane is an even more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and fracking is associated with contamination of groundwater and aquifers, and with earthquakes.

Pragmatically, all of us depend on a fossil-fuel-based economy, but we know enough about the effects of burning fossil fuels to know that we must create a new clean-energy economy as quickly as possible. As individuals, we must reduce our carbon footprint as much as we can. As citizens, we must push for policies and regulations that keep fossil fuels in the ground and enable a swift transition to clean renewables.

Back in the days of slavery, everyone depended on slaves. Slave-holding was considered essential to a healthy economy. Yet people who depended on slaves – people who wore clothes made by slaves, people who ate food produced by slaves – had a moral awakening, rose up to say that slavery was wrong, and actively engaged in the struggle to bring slavery to an end.

We can do the same thing. The shift to clean, safe, renewable energy won’t happen overnight, but it needs to start right now.  Thanks to the political and economic clout of the fossil fuel industry, most of us depend on fossil fuels because we have no other choice. Generally speaking, fossil fuel is the only source of energy that is available or affordable.  So using fossil fuels by no means removes our responsibility to push for societal change. Even while recognizing that we ourselves remain embedded in an economy based on fossil fuels, we can and must do everything in our power to change that economy, to hold fossil companies accountable for their actions, and to withdraw their social license to keep wrecking the planet. (For an excellent essay on this subject, read KC Golden’s “We have met the wrong enemy”).

4) We don’t want to make a political statement with our investments. Our endowment (or pension fund) is a resource, not an instrument to promote social or political change.

What we do with our money – how we spend it, how we save it, how we give it away, how we invest it – always has political ramifications. Money is always an expression of our values. Jesus had more to say about money than about any other topic.

If it is immoral to destroy life on this planet, then it is equally immoral to profit from that destruction. This is one reason that Archbishop Desmond Tutu – who knows first-hand the powerful role that was played by divestment in bringing down apartheid in South Africa – urges divestment from fossil fuels. Tutu affirms that “people of conscience need to break their ties with corporations financing the injustice of climate change.”

5) Our number one priority as responsible investors is to make money. Our fiduciary responsibility requires ongoing investment in fossil fuels.

Regarding financial risk, a strong case can be made that divesting from fossil fuels is a responsible financial decision. Financial analysts have shown that the short-term financial impact of divestment is negligible (see, for instance, “Extracting Fossil Fuels from Your Portfolio”). The long-term financial impact of divestment may actually strengthen a portfolio, because the so-called “carbon bubble” could burst as climate disruption forces governments to limit the burning of fossil fuels and to put a steep price on carbon. Continuing to invest in fossil fuels could lead to financial loss as fossil fuel reserves lose value and become stranded assets.

That said, of all the arguments against divestment, the argument that earning top dollar takes precedence over any other value is the argument – especially when voiced by Christians – that most breaks my heart.

Define “fiduciary responsibility” as being faithful to the future and it makes no sense to invest in fossil fuels. Burning fossil fuels undermines any hope of a livable, healthy future for future generations, including our children and grandchildren.

I imagine a dystopian vision: a scorched and desolate Earth, devoid of myriad species that have long-since gone extinct; billions of refugees on the move, searching for food and fresh water; extreme storms and waves of heat; local, regional, and national conflicts erupting over scarce resources; authoritarian governments crushing democracy in the name of national security. In such a world blighted by runaway climate change, will anybody who profited from fossil fuels look back with satisfaction on their investments?  Will the people who managed pension funds and endowments and kept investing in fossil fuels congratulate themselves on their fiduciary responsibility to their clients? We wrecked the Earth, but hey, no problem, we did the right thing – we made a few bucks!

I imagine a life-sustaining vision: one after another, organizations of all kinds – educational institutions, non-profit groups, communities of faith – rise up to say yes to life. In a wave of moral clarity, they divest from fossil fuels. By divesting, they open up a space for a new future and build momentum for deep societal change. By divesting, they make it easier to pass laws that limit carbon pollution. By divesting, they break the mental grip that the fossil fuel industry has on our collective consciousness. By divesting, they make it crystal clear that if business as usual is wrecking the planet, then business as usual must stop.

A wave of religious activism, including, in some cases, civil disobedience, is beginning to sweep the globe, as religious leaders and institutions increasingly proclaim that climate disruption is not just a scientific or economic or political issue, but also a moral issue. I ask you – is it ethical to ruin the world for our children and grandchildren and for generations yet unborn? Do we have no moral responsibility for the cascade of extinctions now underway among our brother and sister species, in large part because of climate change? Are we willing to stand idly by and devastate the lives of the poor, who suffer first and hardest from the effects of climate change? Are we willing to thumb our noses at our Creator, who entrusted the Earth to our care and to whom the Creation ultimately belongs (Psalm 24:1)? Will we refuse to bear witness to the Risen Christ, whose redemptive love embraces the whole Creation?

For more and more of us, thank God, the answer is No. We want to abide in God’s love. We want to be faithful to Jesus. We want the love that is pouring into our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5) to be manifest in how we treat each other and how we treat the Earth.

Recently the Church of England announced that it is divesting from two of the most polluting fuels, coal and tar sands. The World Council of Churches, the Unitarian Universalist Association, and the United Church of Christ have already announced that they are divesting from fossil fuels, as have a number of dioceses in the Anglican Communion and several dioceses in the Episcopal Church, including my own, the Diocese of Western Massachusetts.

Fossil fuel divestment by the Episcopal Church at this summer’s General Convention would send a powerful message that climate change is a moral issue. Divestment would also enlarge our capacity to make positive investments in renewable energy, such as sun and wind, and to help build a new, carbon-free economy.

In these perilous times, I pray that the Holy Spirit will transform every member of the Episcopal Church by the renewing of our mind, and will help us to discern what is the will of God (Romans 12:2).

10 Responses to “Divest from fossil fuels: An appeal to the Episcopal Church”

  1. Lucy Robinson

    Thank you, Margaret, for this clarion call to action for the General Convention to divest our funds from fossil fuels. the defining issue of our age. It is time for the Episcopal Church to join others in this movement to save God’s creation- His lands, His creatures, and His people. If our churches take a stand on this moral issue, governments and individuals will eventually move to stop what we know is disastrous fossil fuel consumption and together build a carbon-free life for our planet.

  2. Carolyn

    Splendid article. I have been praying that our Church take this important step in the care of God’s creation. We do indeed have a moral obligation to divest.

  3. Bud Cederholm

    Powerful, Passionate, Prophetic, and Pastoral Margaret
    it will make a difference!!
    Believe it!

  4. Fred Small

    Both passionately prophetic and ineluctably logical. Thank you, Margaret!

  5. Harleigh V S Tingley

    While I am a long time advocate of action to reduce CO2, I oppose diversification as it attempts to blame others – the fossil fuel industry – for our own actions

    We, the people, including most members of the Episcopal Church, are the generators of CO2 when we drive our cars and heat our homes. And we pay the energy industry to mine coal and drill for oil to provide us with the fossil fuels we need to do so

    To attack CO2 we should advocate a carbon tax which, by raising the cost of fossil fuels provides the incentive to develop clean energy sources. (A resolution to call for a CO tax was introduced at our last convention, but was reduced in committee to a general statement opposing CO2)

    Divestment to me is a form of Creationism. As Creationism ignores scientific facts, Divestment ignores economics. Divestment also appears to me as an updated version of religion as practiced in Salem over three centuries ago

  6. John D Mears

    Well said. It does raise some dilemas, though. In what investments should the divested funds be placed? Given that many corporations and investment products are engaged in a diversity of enterprises, some of which may be both doing what is needed to ameliorate fossil fuel’s environmental degradation and at the same time engaged in fossil fuel production and use, what will be our (the EC and its dioceses and churches) criteria for separating the sheep from the goats for reinvesting the divested funds? While there is a certain nobility if not righteousness in our divestment in fossil fuel it raises the much more difficult and thorny issue of our divestment – corporately and individually – in using fossil fuel in our quotidian lives. Fossil fuel (and thus the consequences of its use) is so entertwined with every activity in modern culture. From plastic bags to our homes and highways to our work and play. Seemingly every activity has its carbon footprint. The winnowing task seems overwhelming. Were we, by magic, miracle, or science (the latter two are the only ones that seems to offer hope) to find the means tomorrow if not today to replace our energy demand with renewable, sustainable sources, the sheer magnitude of our existing system would mean adoption, and the cost of that, would have a profound fiscal and environmental impact. Solar, wind, and geothermal, our most promising prospects at the moment, right now take a lot of fossil fuel energy to bring into being. And their cost per unit of energy produced is significantly greater; as the fossil fuel industry is so quick to point out to us. We, not just the EC and all its members, have a less than illustrious record of choosing the worthy but more costly ovèr the expedient but cheaper. Our hope for achieving by our example a true witness that the worthy, the morally responsible, the indeed righteous way is the way to go for the world depends upon our faithfulness to that witness. Lip service won’t cut it. Never does.

  7. Jeff Weisner

    Thank you for this powerful witness to climate justice! Prayers to you and the the Convention that they will take the prophetic and moral stance and divest.

  8. Bullitt-Jonas backs fossil fuel divestment at General Convention | Episcopal Cafe

    […] On the heels of a group of bishops from around the Anglican Communion supporting fossil fuel divestment, the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, the Missioner for Creation Care in the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, is calling for the Episcopal Church to divest from fossil fuels this summer at General Convention: […]

  9. Ed Fotoh

    Divestment is not only the ‘right’ thing to do theologicaly, it’s also the right thing to do fiscally. In a market known for it’s volitility the risks to capitol involved in the possability that tomorrow may bring an anouncment of a new technology that makes fossil fuels all but obsoliete poses a risk that should be concidered.
    The world focus (although sadly not here in the U.S.) on renuable technologies makes clear one thing, the fossle fuel cash cow is a dieing breed and as investors TEC should be concidering being one of the ‘smart money’ who gets out at the top of one trend and ‘in on the bottom floor’ of the next. In the ‘market’ and at the gaming tables knowing when to fold is the biggest weapon.

  10. Kevyn Smith

    I wonder where my Episcopal parish sits? Margaret, you are a prophet. I hope we heed your wisdom and witness. I will do my best.

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