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Presbyterians demur on divestment from fossil fuels

Friends of Fossil Free PCUSA symbolically portray deaths over the next two years in protest of General Assembly 223 voting to not immediately divest from the fossil fuel industry on June 22, 2018, in St. Louis. Photo by Danny Bolin/PC(USA)

(RNS) — For the third time in a row, the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s General Assembly decided against divesting from companies invested in fossil fuels.

Instead, delegates passed a resolution at the biennial meeting of the PCUSA last week in St. Louis asking the denomination’s Mission Responsibility Through Investment committee to continue engagement with corporations that produce or heavily consume fossil fuels.

It was “the most powerful result that could come out of this assembly,” said Rob Fohr, the PCUSA’s director of faith-based investing and corporate engagement.

That’s because the resolution also included guidelines for measuring companies’ progress that could lead to selective divestment at the 2020 General Assembly. And the denomination recently joined a five-year initiative called Climate Action 100+ led by investors to pressure companies to cut greenhouse gas emissions and improve financial disclosures and governance related to climate change, Fohr said. That gives them clear goals to measure companies’ progress and more leverage as part of a coalition with almost $30 trillion in investments.

The denomination has about $150 million invested in companies regarded as large producers and consumers of fossil fuels.


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Divesting from fossil fuels has been a hot topic at the past two meetings, with the 2016 assembly similarly voting to continue to engage energy companies for at least two more years. Steven Webb, co-chair of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy for the General Assembly, said beforehand the denomination has seen some movement away from fossil fuels from companies in that time.

“So far they have been continuing to talk to us and make some changes — not as much as we want, not as much as they should, but they’re moving in the right direction,” Webb said. “If they’re moving in the right direction, we can stay in dialogue with them.”

For example, Fohr said, companies are beginning to disclose the risks of climate change as a result of pressure from investors, including Exxon Mobil, Marathon Petroleum, Noble Energy and Occidental Petroleum.

But that’s not enough for members of Fossil Free PCUSA and others. About 35 people walked all or part of the 260 miles between the mainline Protestant denomination’s headquarters in Louisville, Ky., and the assembly in St. Louis, hoping to persuade the 1.4 million-member denomination to divest.

After the vote, about 20 members of the group staged a “die-in” at the assembly, lying on the stone floor of the America’s Center Convention Complex outside the plenary where the vote had taken place, symbolizing lives lost to climate change caused by fossil fuel dependence.

The Rev. Abby Mohaupt, moderator of Fossil Free PCUSA, said she was angry and disappointed that, with its vote, the General Assembly was “really saying that as a denomination we’re going to continue to engage with people who are causing so much suffering instead of standing in solidarity with people who are experiencing climate change.” But she also left feeling hopeful because of the number of people who were supporting the movement.

Delegates also approved a resolution (called an “overture” at the General Assembly) opposing anti-BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) legislation by Congress and state governments. It pointed to Senate Bill 720 and House Resolution 1697, which it says “seek to impose civil and criminal penalties for nonviolent BDS resistance against human rights violations in Israel and Palestine.”

It was one of several resolutions regarding Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories adopted at the General Assembly.

Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) leaders Diane Moffett and J. Herbert Nelson, II lead the ‘Freedom Should Be Free – End Cash Bail’ march at General Assembly 223 on June 19, 2018, in St. Louis. Photo by Gregg Brekke/PC(USA)

Four years ago, delegates to General Assembly narrowly voted to divest church funds from three American companies it said were profiting from the oppression of Palestinians within Israel’s occupied territories.

And they were met with some pushback. The American Jewish Committee did not attend the assembly this year as it has in years past. Rabbi Noam Marans, AJC director of interreligious and intergroup relations, issued a written statement afterward, calling the denomination “obsessively critical of Israel in its national utterances.”

The Rev. J. Herbert Nelson II, the assembly’s stated clerk, also issued a statement in the assembly’s daily newsletter in response to a reported threat made to a speaker following a meeting of its Middle East Issues committee. 

“Presbyterians tend to have strong feelings about public issues and, in the case of the search for peace in the Middle East, that exposes the General Assembly to strong, divergent opinions,” Nelson wrote.

“Sometimes that exposes us to the existential passion of people embedded in the struggle, who have been invited to provide information and advice to the assembly committees. When that passion boils over, we have to deal with the results.”

Other actions taken by the General Assembly include:

  • Calling for an end to the “zero tolerance” border policy responsible for separating families at the U.S.-Mexico border while also condemning President Trump’s executive order “that further criminalizes migration through the expansion of family detention on military bases and other government property, potentially indefinitely.”
  • Affirming the denomination’s commitment to “the full welcome, acceptance, and inclusion of transgender people, people who identify as gender non-binary, and people of all gender identities within the full life of the church and the world” and the “gifts” of LGBT people for ministry, as well as celebrating LGBT people’s service in the church. This comes after previous assemblies voted to ordain LGBT clergy and allow same-sex marriage.
  • Asking RE/MAX to do “everything within its legal and moral power to stop facilitating the sale and rental of property in Israeli settlement colonies in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.”
  • Expressing grief over Palestinians’ deaths in recent protests at the Gaza border, praying for all Palestinians and Israelis who have been injured, and renewing the denomination’s call for “an end to the blockade of Gaza by Israel.”
  • Preparing a report for the next assembly describing the present status of Jerusalem and making policy recommendations.
  • Sending a message to the U.S. government asking it to work toward a cease-fire in Syria and “substantially expand” the number of refugees admitted from the country.

For many, the highlight of the assembly wasn’t the resolutions, but a march Tuesday (June 19) to the City Justice Center, where delegates donating the offering collected at their opening worship service to bail out about three dozen people incarcerated for minor offenses, according to the Rev. Jerry Van Marter, interim director of communications for the Office of the General Assembly.

About the author

Emily McFarlan Miller

Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.

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  • If they could just take a moment away from “reaffirming their principles” all the time and actually DO something useful, they… well, they wouldn’t be a religion any more. But at least it would be a welcome change.

  • Cue in the lecturing and finger-wagging from the usual voices in the conservative peanut gallery pointing out the hypocrisy of people who drive their gas-fueled cars to work and live in houses heated and cooled by fossil fuels. Here’s my response to them: perhaps if there hadn’t been a concerted effort by Republicans to block the advancement of the electric car thirty years ago or in making solar energy cheaper and more widely available, we wouldn’t still be forced to use fossil fuel energy at this very moment. But thanks to Republicans in Congress, conservatives ensured that we’re lagging behind other nations in that respect, including places we used to call developing, like China. Soon we’ll be the ones referred to as part of the developing world, all because a bunch of rich fat cat oil executives had their way with Republicans for more than a generation. Thanks again, Republicans…for nothing.

  • You do realize China is the world’s largest polluter and largest user of coal, right?

  • I was under the impression that was the purpose of political parties.

    The fact that this was even before the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s General Assembly may have something to do with the fact it is shedding members like a tree sheds leaves in the fall.

  • So, you agree that the purpose of churches is not to do anything useful. Good; we’re making progress in your education.

  • I do, and I also know that they’re investing in solar power at a higher rate than we are.

  • And selling the solar power to the US.

    Solar power is NOT a substitute for fossil fuels, btw.

    It is at best an expensive supplement.

  • I believe the purpose of churches is to communicate whatever the content of whatever particular religion is to those who adhere to it.

    Typically that also involves outreach to potential members and – in the case of Christians – charitable works.

    So, yes, they’re considerably more useful than your comments at

    https://disqus.com/home/forum/religionnews/

  • The slow adoption of alternative energy is not due to a conspiracy, its due to the laws of Chemistry and Physics. Solar, for examples, takes a lot or resources to make and has a very low efficiency, and only works when the sun is out. Yes, we need to be working on alternative energy sources, but they aren’t remotely ready for ‘prime time’, and today can only replace some hydrocarbon sources, and only some of the time.
    I’m not against alternatives, we just need to be honest with people: Solar electricity costs 150-%-200% more than natural gas or coal powered, and only works at best 12-14 hours a day, and at worst, is out for days.And, to make it more reliable would involves building huge new networks of power transmission lines all over the country, which local communities oppose. I think my PCUSA did the right thing here.

  • Solar power is not and cannot be a significant contributor to the power grid.

    It has some application in remote deserts and very sunny climates, but if California – for an example – covered the entire surface of the state in solar panels it would still have a power shortfall.

    It is at best an expensive supplement.

  • I think my PCUSA made the right move here.
    Alternative energy sources aren’t remotely ready to replace hydrocarbons, and the reasons why have to do with the laws of Physics and Chemistry, which all the taxes and sanctions in the world won’t change.
    Hydrocarbon energy has drawbacks, no doubt. We can’t deny that. But, they have huge beneftis, and we need to honestly acknowledge that. Hydrocarbon-based energy has dramatically raised the living-starndard for humans, and made much of modern civilication possible.
    Imagine what we would be eating today without fertilizer (made from methane), tractors (diesel), processing and cooking (natural gas or electricity) , trucking from farm to town (diesel), and refrigeration. We’d be easing the few things we could grow locally and keep year-round in a root cellar.

  • Could you explain what you mean when you cite the laws of physics and chemistry? Also, divesting from these companies would really be more of a symbollic statement that we need to take climate change more seriously and move toward energy sources that will be more sustainable. Can’t we acknowledge that fossil fuels have increased our standard of living while also recognizing they’re unsustainable and that there are alternatives?

    Also, teh price of renewable sources has been dropping steadily. Some say solar will be cheaper than fossil fuel options by 2020: https://www.forbes.com/sites/dominicdudley/2018/01/13/renewable-energy-cost-effective-fossil-fuels-2020/#35aff7ec4ff2

    There is certainly room for debate and development, but we also really need to take climate change seriously. Here’s one more paper where scholars are debating whether we are ready to move to 100 percent renewables: http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2017/06/16/1610381114.full

  • Or if not huge networks of powers transmission lines, huge areas covered with storage batteries.

  • That is yet another outright falsehood by Bob Arnzen. Solar energy production in California has already exceeded 50% of demand during peak production periods, and CA regularly exports its excess of solar power to other states; it often has TOO MUCH solar power for its own use.

    As usual, here Bob Arnzen is merely acting as a paid shill for causes such as the fossil fuel industry. He was kicked out of his role in Washington DC for similarly fraudulent actions spanning many years.

    We’ve caught you in the act of lying yet again, Bob Arnzen, and now you are being exposed.

  • As usual, Bob presents misleading information. There is no need to “cover the state with storage batteries”.

  • Lies as usual from Bob Arnzen. See my comment below about his fraudulent actions in this regard elsewhere.

  • I fail to see how voting against and protesting the use of fossil fuels has anything to do with the mission of the Presbyterian Church, USA. IF the church truly want’s to reinvent itself, it should become focused on preaching, teaching and modeling the transforming power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in their lives.

    Fossil fuels are a gift from God, and they’ve transformed the lives of people all around the world for well over a century now. If those protesting members of the Presbyterian Church, USA.were living in the era just prior to the wide use of fossil fuels, they’d be out protesting FOR the use of them in the name of “progress!” I believe it’s rather hypocritical for the people in the picture to protest when they’ll get up and drive away in their vehicles powered by some kind of fossil fuel.

    They choose not to think about the fact that the earth has been warming and cooling for millinia now, and fossil fuel emissions from all around the world,don’t seem to have much effect on the total amount of carbon dioxide escaping into the atmosphere. Also, the researchers who are so concerned about global warming, don’t take into account the fluctuations in solar activity, which may be considerable, if studied over long periods of time.

    BTW, animal flatulence worldwide–including animals in the wild, has about the same effect on carbon monoxide emissions. IFall the members of the Presbyterian Church, USA were to become vegetarians and vegans, along with all the tree-huggers from the other mainline churches, it wouldn’t have a very big effect on the total amount of carbon dioxide escaping into the atmosphere from animal flatulence. It would, however, give those folks a great, “holier-than-thou”-feeling and bragging rights over those who just stick to preaching, teaching and modeling the transforming power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, eating great hamburgers and rib steaks, and driving their gasoline and diesel-powered automobiles.

    Count me among the latter group, particularly those eating great rib steaks!

  • What I mean is that the laws of physics apply to solar panels, and there are limits on how much power can be generated by a silicon panel, how much current is lost in transmission over wires, etc..

    Yes, the price of renewables is dropping. But, its still not close to that of hydrocarbons in many places. Case-in-point: our local electric utility, public owned, was interested in acquiring solar last year. However, on opening bids, it was found that solar power would cost more than twice what the present cost of gas-fired power is, and would only work when the sun is shining on panels, which even in some sunny places in the West is an average of 10 hours a day.

    We need to work toward developing alternatives – agreed. But, we can (and should, IMO) do that while leaving what we have in place. We need to build the bridge before we start damaging the old bridge. A doubling of electrictricy costs would be be disastrous to the poor, and power that worked only 10 hours a day would be catastrophic to many people.

  • Whether they take up much space, batteries require large industrial-scale mining, and contain metals and acids that are potentially dangerous to both the environment and human health. That can be managed, but its true that batteries are not envionmentally ‘clean’.

  • Exactly.

    Electric cars require a source of electricity, which is generally dirty.

    Lithium extraction for batteries is an environmental catastrophe.

    And on and on.

  • Your ignorance of science is showing. You make no real scientific arguments just unproven statements. What is your opinion on plate tectonic theory? Theory of gravity?

  • Well Mr. Johnson, a full white beard and a serious looking face doesn’t convince me or anyone else that you have any BETTER background in Science. What statement of mine are your taking issue with? What kind of documented proof do you have to offer us?

    Is it “Fossil fuels are a gift from God–?

    How about, “. . . the fact that the earth has been warming and cooling for millinia now . . . “–?

    Or, ” . . . animal flatulence worldwide–including animals in the wild, has about the same effect on carbon monoxide emissions.”–? You look like you might just be a august expert on animal flatulence!

    We’re all anxious to read your well-reasoned, well-documented reply, instead of your name-calling and snippy little sophomoric wise crack-of-a-reply you offered us earlier!

  • The Israel/Palestine committee of the PCUSA disapproved just two resolutions. One was to cease characterizing Israel as a “colonial project.” The other was critical of IDF treatment of Palestinian children, but because it also included a clause condemning Palestinian militarization of its own children to serve in attacks on Israel, the resolution was disapproved. If I’m one of the Jews to whom you want to “reach out in open, truthful dialogue” about the conflict, don’t be surprised when I slam the door in your face.

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