A growing number of mainline Protestant churches in New England are calling upon their denominations to divest from fossil fuel companies in an effort to cast unlimited coal, oil, and gas production as immoral as well as environmentally unsustainable.
The churches’ assets, usually congregational endowments or staff pension funds, are a minuscule share of the titanic fossil fuel industry. But proponents say religious divestment could underscore the damage greenhouse gas emissions are wreaking on the planet and make it socially toxic for the companies to continue business as usual.
“If ever there has been a David and Goliath situation, this is it,” said the Rev. Jim Antal, minister and president of the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ, whose board of directors voted last December to divest its assets from fossil fuel companies within five years, becoming the first religious body in the United States to do so.
But Antal said he believes that in this case, as in the biblical story, David will prevail.
“By divesting, the churches begin to reinject hope into a world that has been bereft of hope,” he said.
The Annual Meeting of the Massachusetts Conference affirmed the board’s vote earlier this month, and 10 other regional conferences of the United Church of Christ in the United States have voted to divest in the past six months. The denomination’s national governing body will consider the question at its General Synod in Long Beach, Calif., this week, with Antal as its principal advocate; the idea earned an endorsement from national UCC leaders last week.
“The realities of climate change require prophetic and strategic action by people of faith seeking to be faithful to the everlasting covenant God has made with us, with every living creature and with all future generations,” the resolution says in part. “If fossil fuel companies simply fulfill their purpose, the earth will become inhospitable to life as we know it.”
The UCC resolution also notes that climate change is already doing the most harm to poor people, and to those living in the least developed countries.
The New England Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted in favor of a similar resolution this month. Activists in both Episcopal dioceses in Massachusetts are urging church leaders to consider the idea. And a Presbyterian minister in the Back Bay is working with a group of Presbyterian environmentalists from around the country on a resolution that they hope their denomination will consider next summer. The Unitarian Universalist Association passed a nonbinding resolution at its General Assembly this month asking congregations to study divestment.
Earlier this month, the First Parish in Cambridge, a Unitarian Universalist church, voted to rid its $7.3 million endowment’s investment portfolio of fossil fuel holdings as well.
“We know we have a long way to go — the economy of the US is as entangled in fossil fuels today as the economy was in slavery in 1850,” said the Rev. Fred Small, senior minister of First Parish.
“I think the divestment movement is a kind of protest against the brokenness of our political process,” he said. “We are desperate for some tactic that will shift the conversation and compel our leaders to lead.”
Oil, coal and gas companies dismiss the divestment movement as ill-conceived grandstanding.
Alan T. Jeffers, a spokesman for ExxonMobil, the largest investor-owned fossil fuel company in the world, said divestment would not help solve the problem of global warming. He said ExxonMobil has spent $2 billion in recent years on emission reduction initiatives and improvements in the efficiency of its operations.
And he said that a variety of technologies are being evaluated that could reduce emissions or remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, including carbon capture and storage, hybrid vehicles, solar power, and biofuels.
“We think those are more viable and concrete ways to manage climate change and risk than a symbolic measure that does nothing to reduce emissions,” he said.
He added that fossil fuel — which supplies 80 percent of the world’s energy needs and is used in the manufacturing of aspirin, fertilizer, toothpaste, and a host of other products — makes modern life possible.
“We take great objection to the characterization of the work we do as somehow immoral,” he said.
Religious advocates of divestment are building on a campaign led by author and activist Bill McKibben that has swept US colleges and universities in the last year. Hundreds of student groups have formed to lobby their administrations to divest, although only a few institutions have actually done so thus far.
In a widely circulated article in Rolling Stone magazine last summer that helped spark the movement, McKibben wrote that the known coal, oil, and gas reserves of the top 200 fossil fuel companies contain five times as much carbon as climate scientists say is safe to burn without causing the most disastrous effects of global warming.
McKibben and his allies argue that the same tactic that helped end apartheid in South Africa two decades ago could pressure companies like ExxonMobil to lessen or even abandon fossil fuel extraction. Some say divestment could also galvanize public support for significant policy changes to limit consumption, such as the imposition of a carbon tax.
McKibben, who was on a speaking tour in Australia this month, said in an e-mail that he considers religious institutions an important part of the divestment campaign, both because they have some money and because of their moral sensibility.
“If we’re called to love our neighbors, we’re not allowed to enrich ourselves by drowning our neighbors, making it hard for them to grow their crops, spreading sickness in their midst,” he said.
The Jewish community has been less active on the issue, in large part because divestment has become so closely associated with pro-Palestinian divestment campaigns against Israel, activists say.
But some groups are working to change that, including the Shalom Center in Philadelphia, which recently launched a campaign called Move our Money/Protect Our Planet. Rabbi Arthur Waskow, the center’s director, said the group planned to work with seminarians at the major rabbinical schools and with college students to encourage Jewish institutions to divest from fossil fuel companies and reinvest in renewable energy.
Some religious activists for responsible investment, however, question the tactic.
Sister Patricia A. Daly, a Dominican nun who has long led the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility’s dealings with ExxonMobil, said the center’s roughly 275 faith-based institutional investors are committed to using shareholder engagement to influence corporate policy.
Although she welcomed the new momentum McKibben’s campaign has brought to global warming activism, she said that over more than two decades, shareholder activists have helped persuade many major corporations to accept scientific understanding of global warming; to stop funding groups promoting climate change denial; to begin identifying the greenhouse gas emissions in the manufacturing and use of their products; and to find ways to cut those emissions.
“We are nowhere near where we need to be, but the faith community has had a profound role in bringing about this change,” she said.
She acknowledged, however, that the fossil fuel industry remains committed as ever to extracting and selling fossil fuel.
“We just stick with it. That is what we do,” she said. “As people of faith, we are in there for the long haul. It is not something you just give up on.”
Tim Brennan, treasurer of the Unitarian Universalist Association, a denomination that has long been a leader in faith-based social and political activism, worries that divestment could be expensive and complicated for funds like the association’s endowment, which holds about $160 million in assets from about 200 congregations.
“It took us something like a decade to put together a team of managers and the funds we are in now,” said Brennan. “If we were to divest, we would have to get rid of the whole structure of the endowment.”
Brennan also said the association’s endowment has outperformed one of the best-known fossil fuel-free funds “by a substantial amount” over the last 10 years.
Both the association’s investment committee, which oversees the denomination’s endowment, and its advisory committee on socially responsible investing have unanimously recommended against fossil fuel divestment.
But divestment proponents say their faith tells them it is wrong to profit from the industry.
“Just as I wouldn’t want to be making money off tobacco or military operations, I don’t want to be making money off fossil fuel,” said the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas of Grace Episcopal Church in Amherst, a veteran climate activist. “It is one of the only businesses I can think of that, if successful in carrying out their business plan, they are going to essentially be killing life as it has evolved on this planet.”
The Rev. Fletcher Harper, an Episcopal priest and executive director of GreenFaith, an interreligious environmental organization based in New Jersey, says financial risk bolsters the moral power of religious divestment.
Many of the mainline Protestant churches discussing divestment are struggling, having seen significant declines in attendance over the last two generations.
“They are saying, ‘We’re not the institutions we were 40 and 50 years ago, but we are looking at this because we believe it is what God is calling us to do,’ ” Harper said.
Lisa Wangsness can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.