Guest commentary by Abby Mohaupt and Dan Terpstra
One of our core beliefs as Presbyterians is that we are called to love creation, just as we are called to love God and each other. From the beginning of our sacred text, our vocation as human beings is rooted in caring for the earth (Genesis 2:15). It is a vocation we have tried to live into as a pastor (Abby) and a scientist (Dan), and as members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
The Bible reminds us that we are called to love God in this vocation to love the earth with all our heart, all our mind and with all our strength. In our contemporary world, we can expand this call to love God with our whole selves to include our pocket books. And so, as we discern how to care for creation, it is imperative that divestment from fossil fuels be part of our plan.
As Presbyterians, we know the science of the climate crisis. Greenhouse gases, mostly CO2 produced primarily by burning fossil fuels, are causing the climate to warm. We have already seen about 0.8° C of warming, and have probably locked in almost 1.5° C with our current emissions. We must reduce annual human CO2 output by about 80 percent in the next 30 years to have a chance at staying within the aspirational 1.5° C limit declared by COP21 in Paris last December.
As citizens of the world, we are aware of current events. Last November, CO2 in the at-mosphere crossed the 400 parts per million (ppm) boundary. That’s more than 40 percent above the historical average of 280 ppm. This past winter was the hottest by the biggest margin recorded. In the first two months of 2016, three developing countries (Vietnam, Zimbabwe and Fiji) suffered their worst climate-related disasters on record: two droughts and a cyclone that cost 4, 12 and 10 percent, respectively, of those countries’ gross domestic product. Those least responsible for our carbon-intensive lifestyles are already suffering first and worst. Clearly, we must quickly move away from a fossil fuel based economy.
There is a lot to be done in the face of such a global environmental catastrophe. We must reduce our carbon footprint. We must tax the use of carbon to bring prices in line with true social costs. As shareholders, we must hold companies accountable for their environmental impact and for that of the products they profit from, particularly those companies whose business model requires the destruction of a stable climate.
And we must avoid investing in these most destabilizing companies, for where our treasure is, there our hearts will be also.
Our denomination has long held that it is immoral and unfaithful to profit from companies that cause harm. It’s why the denomination is not invested in firearms, gambling, tobacco or alcohol. These industries categorically cause harm if abused. That is, drinking alcohol isn’t inherently evil, but when it is abused, human families are hurt. In the same way, fossil fuels aren’t inherently bad — in fact they have historically done great good — but our abuse of them harms the rest of creation.
Fossil fuel companies operate within a business model that inherently causes climate change. They have shown little willingness to change that historically extremely profitable model.
And so, given our biblical tradition, the science (with which most Presbyterians agree) and our historical tradition as Presbyterians, we in Fossil Free PCUSA have worked to move the PC(USA) to divest from fossil fuel companies. For decades, Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) has sat at the table with members of this industry, doing the hard and faithful work of engaging fossil fuel companies. Their steadfast witness hasn’t changed climate change. Fossil fuel companies are not changing their business model, despite MRTI’s work.
So it’s time to divest the bulk of our shares and send a clear prophetic message to the fossil fuel industry: It’s wrong to wreck creation and it’s wrong to profit from its destruction. We cannot wait any longer.
Divestment is especially powerful in the company of other strategies. Yes, we should continue to engage in shareholder actions — bolstered by the clear moral message of divestment and led by MRTI. Yes, we should shift our investments to clean energy companies. Yes, we should advocate for policy changes to put a price on carbon. Yes, we should voluntarily price our own carbon footprints and reduce or offset them. Yes, we should advocate for job retraining programs for fossil fuel employees. Yes, we should educate and engage and invest and advocate… and divest!
We’re proud to be part of a denomination committed to caring for creation. In June, commissioners will consider many possible responses to climate change. We encourage them to do everything possible to protect the creation with which we have been entrusted. Divestment is a powerful piece of that whole. May this General Assembly, responding to God’s grace to us in Jesus Christ, emerge with a bold prophetic call on this most pressing crisis of our time. Together — doing everything we can to respond to climate change — we can live into our vocation as people of faith who love God and all creation.
ABBY MOHAUPT is a teaching elder in northern California serving a resource center for farmworkers and families. An artist and long distance runner, she is also a founding member of the Fossil Free PC(USA) steering committee. DAN TERPSTRA was trained as a chemist, receiving his doctorate from Florida State University. Dan is a ruling elder at First Presbyterian Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.