PORTLAND, Ore. – On Monday morning, June 20, Committee 9 jumped into their work of considering overtures both for and against divestment from fossil fuel.
From 9:30-10:30 a.m., the committee held open hearings; speakers were limited to one minute. More than 20 people spoke on behalf of overture 09-01 in favor of divestment with one person speaking against it. The committee then heard public comments on overture 09-02, an alternative to divestment. Six people spoke in favor of the overture and seven spoke against the alternative overture and in favor of divestment. The speakers raised a diversity of issues in support of and opposition to divestment.
Abbi Heimach, an overture advocate from Chicago Presbytery, said, “Jesus saw an economy that offered wholeness. He overthrew tables when he witnessed an unjust economic system. That is why we are called to do this, but it is not just a moral choice, but a smart choice. It is both a faithful and an effective strategy.”
Paul Volker, a ruling elder observer from North Central Iowa Presbytery speaking against divestment stated, “We don’t oppose this because the sentiment is wrong, but divestment is the wrong way to do it. It is utter hypocrisy to label energy companies as evil. Since none of us here is without a carbon footprint, shouldn’t we use our leverage as consumers to bend their ear rather than hypocritically divesting from an industry we all depend on?”
Dereck Browning, an ecumenical visitor from the Church of Scotland stated, “If the PC(USA) moves forward, she will not stand alone. Your mother church stands behind you. Far be it from me to say that mother knows best, but mother nature is also calling us to this.”
Mike Cole, the executive presbyter in New Covenant Presbytery, said, “We are all in agreement that climate change has to be addressed. We Presbyterians believe in process. We have a process, MRTI (Mission Responsibility Through Investment) has used the process. We need to identify those companies that are out of compliance and be prepared to divest from them, but we need to follow our process. Climate change is such a critical issue, we need all hands on deck. We can’t afford to disenfranchise any Presbyterians and divestment could divide us.”
Rich Schempp, the executive presbyter of Palo Duro Presbytery, stated, “We are probably the largest gas and oil producing presbytery in the country. Many of our parishioners work in jobs related to fossil fuels and yet we recognize the importance of being good stewards and calling for alternative energy sources. The alternative resolution to divestment does that best.”
Mark Owens, the stated clerk of the Presbytery of Wyoming, said, “The issue of divestment has a direct impact on people’s lives and livelihoods. And there aren’t alternatives to that in Wyoming. I urge you to come up with solutions that do not include divestment and protect the lives and livelihoods of our parishioners.”
Jane Laping, vice-moderator of Presbyterians for Earth Care, said, “Fossil fuel companies continue to fund climate change denial. Another two years of shareholder engagement will not turn things around. The SEC (Security and Exchange Commission) limits what shareholder engagement can do and PC(USA) cannot change the core business model without divestment.”
Following the open hearings, the committee heard from the overture advocates. On behalf of overture 09-01, Abby Mohaupt spoke first. Standing behind her were 31 people in orange T-shirts holding signs representing the 31 presbyteries that concurred with the overture for divestment. She acknowledged the 31 presbyteries with over 400,000 members and stated, “Divestment from fossil fuels is not just about money, it is about living into our God-given vocation of loving creation. Our love of creation is a response to God’s love for us. Where we put our money shows where our hearts are, so it matters where we put our investments. We are called to love with our whole selves.”
Next, Hannah Graunke, a former Presbyterian Young Adult Volunteer, spoke as a divestment overture advocate. She described the impacts of global climate change locally and globally. “The issue is bigger than the people in this room, but the people in the room can make a big difference today.”
Finally, David Kepley of National Capital Presbytery spoke as a divestment overture advocate. He stated, “The PC(USA) has tried a lot through shareholder engagement and the plea has not been heard. Many of these companies have known about the ill effects of fossil fuels on the environment for more than 30 years, yet they continue to extract and burn these fuels and then blame the consumers.”
Overture advocates for 09-02 spoke on behalf of an alternative to divestment. Bill Bray spoke first stating, “The church can best use its investments at this time to pressure fossil fuel companies and hasten the move towards renewable energy.” He continued, “While Texas is the number one producer of petroleum, it is also the number one producer of wind power. Our region is taking action, we aren’t just wringing our hands. We also need to take this action in board rooms and shareholder meetings. Without direct ongoing engagement, which we would lose through divestment, we cannot make this necessary impact.”
Stuart Baskin, a pastor in Tyler, Texas, spoke next saying, “This is a difficult issue for all of us. There is no real debate about global warming and its human causes.” Noting that everyone agrees on the negative impacts of global warming, Tyler argued, “Divestment will not hasten a shift away from the use of fossil fuels in the global economy. Divesting from fossil fuel companies is one of the least effective ways. It might make us feel good, but it will make no meaningful difference in the long-term. No one has been able to explain how divestment shifts us away from fossil fuel use.”
Steve Shive, the general presbyter of Wyoming, said, “The earth system is telling us something needs to happen regarding use of energy resources. The question is: How do we respond? We need thoughtful, progressive, biblical, theological, positive change processes resulting in incremental steps and allowing all voices to be engaged in the process. For this reason I advocate for overture 09-02 in favor of alternatives to fossil fuel divestments.”
The final overture advocate that spoke was Joseph Kinard, a ruling elder from Middle Tennessee Presbytery who is a member of the Board of Pensions, the investment committee from Board of Pensions and the Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) committee. He spoke in favor of overture 09-09, the report presented by MRTI. He stated, “The MRTI report and the focused course of action represents a carefully crafted middle path built on MRTI’s process for getting results. It flows from the R.eformed tradition, provides clear markers, offers a path forward, and aims to establish criteria. It calls for focused action, not further study. The path and process that MRTI has used was developed after reunion of the churches in the 1980s. It is a proven path that allows for differentiation between companies based on their individual work and merits.”
A few highlights from the MRTI report and key recommendations are:
- To adopt criteria by which all companies can be evaluated.
- Focused engagement process with corporations on climate change issues.
- Report to the next GA with recommendations including possible divestment.
Kinard concluded his remarks by stating, “I was not raised a Presbyterian, I was drawn to it. We are a church that engages the world around us. We are called to push companies to be better, do well and do good. Companies thank us for our input and have changed the way they do business. We need to take actions that will work. We believe divestment will limit our capacity to engage with companies.”
Following the testimony from open hearings and overture advocates, the committee broke into small groups to discuss and reflect for 45 minutes. They returned to the larger committee, shared their reflections and started the process of committee discernment work. This process quickly turned into parliamentary wrangling with amendments, motions, substitute motions and substantial debate.
After nearly two hours of parliamentary process and debate, the committee leadership regrouped to determine a way forward to faithfully debate the issues around divestment and the alternatives. They suspended the rules and opened up the floor to discuss a faithful way forward, which led to another 30 minutes of discussion about the best way to continue the process.
Finally, Peter Hulac, the moderator of the committee, took an informal poll asking for people to raise their hands for one of three options: divest now; a middle ground that largely follows the MRTI proposal; and not supporting divestment at all. The tallies were 20 for divest now, 32 supporting the middle ground, and three in favor of no divestment. The committee debated for another 20 minutes after the informal poll and then recessed for dinner.
After dinner, the committee reconvened and immediately got to business. Within 15 minutes, the committee had called the question on a clean version of overture 09-01 and voted 31-25 in favor of the overture, recommending divestment and forwarding it to the General Assembly.