God’s creation: Climate change and faith

earthWhat responsibility do people of faith have to protect the environment?

To what extent is climate change — and the impact that environmental degradation has on the earth and disproportionately on those living in poverty — a moral issue?

While the specifics of overtures still are emerging, there is no question the 2016 General Assembly will be asked to consider doing something concrete about climate change. The Fossil Free PC(USA) group will push the denomination to do something more than study or talk about the problem — asking the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to join a divestment movement that is drawing both support and criticism from around the world.

The Presbytery of San Francisco has submitted an overture seeking to have the Presbyterian Church divest its holdings in fossil fuel companies — something the 2014 assembly wasn’t willing to do and a move that would put the PC(USA) on the front lines of the divestment movement.

On the world stage, the push to take action on climate change is accelerating. Representatives of close to 200 nations gathered in Paris Nov. 30 to Dec. 11 for the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference to determine whether an agreement can be reached to take action to limit global warming to 2 degrees Centigrade (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) — which would be a huge accomplishment after the collapse of the 2009 talks in Copenhagen.

What’s at stake, according to climate scientists, is whether climate change will reach an irrevocable tipping point. Already, species and plants are disappearing; sea levels rising; glaciers melting. Scientists say the rising temperatures will affect access to food, drinking water and land available for farming, accelerating economic differences between the rich and the poor.

Pope Francis, a consistent advocate for the poor, has explicitly presented global warming as a moral issue.

Last June, the pope issued the 184-page papal letter titled “Laudato Si” (“Praise Be to You”) describing global warming as a worldwide problem rooted in greed, apathy and unceasing environmental exploitation. Pope Francis wrote that the poor and powerless are paying the heaviest price for those behaviors and that climate change “represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.”

“The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth,” he wrote.

In September, speaking to world leaders gathered at the United Nations, Pope Francis explicitly stated that a “right of the environment” exists. He blamed a “selfish and boundless thirst for power and material” for driving environmental destruction.

Humans are part of the environment — part of God’s creation — and must live “in communion with it, since the environment itself entails ethical limits which human activity must acknowledge and respect,” he said during that September 25 address. “Any harm done to the environment, therefore, is harm done to humanity.”

At the 2016 General Assembly in Portland, 594 commissioners will have to decide how the PC(USA) should weigh in on climate change and what the denomination might do that amounts to substantive action.

One option is divestment — but the Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee (MRTI) is not leaning towards recommending that. The assembly likely will consider overtures drafted both by advocates for divestment from fossil fuel companies and by an increasingly vocal and organized group contending that divestment is not the right way to go.

In the secular world, the fossil fuel divestment movement has both advocates and critics. Some high-profile institutions, such as Harvard University, have decided not to divest — and some question how much real economic or practical impact divestment actually would have.

Others contend that a divestment campaign can help put climate change on top of the public agenda and ignite a policy debate on ways to curb energy consumption and put a price on carbon emissions. Over the past year, some big entities have jumped into the divestment process, including Norway’s pension system, the Rockefeller family’s philanthropic arm and the University of California system, which has sold off $200 million in investments in coal and oil sands companies.

Some religious groups have taken action as well. The United Church of Christ voted in 2013 to prepare a plan for fossil fuel divestment by June 2018. The leadership of the Episcopal Church voted in June 2015 to divest $380 million in church holdings — but not to include $9 billion in church pension funds or $4 billion controlled by local parishes and dioceses. The World Council of Churches, with 345 member churches, voted in July 2014 not to make any new fossil fuel investments of its own, although it doesn’t control how the member churches invest.

A September 2015 report from Arabella Advisors, a private consulting firm that works with philanthropic groups, found that more than 400 institutions and 2,000 individuals have pledged to pull investments totaling $2.6 trillion in assets from fossil fuel companies — up from $50 billion in 2014.

Beyond divestment, another point of discussion is likely to be how individual Presbyterians and congregations can reduce their carbon footprints — and the role that globalization and consumerism play in the climate change debate.

In 2014, the Presbytery of Boston presented an overture (with concurrences from 11 other presbyteries) asking the General Assembly to instruct the Board of Pensions and the Presbyterian Foundation to stop divesting in fossil fuel companies (200 publicly traded oil and gas companies from the Carbon Underground list) and to liquidate any investments it already held in those companies within five years. The assembly voted 469-110 to refer that overture MRTI, which oversees the denomination’s socially responsible investment efforts.

MRTI has not yet issued its recommendations — they likely will come to the Presbyterian Mission Agency board at its meeting in February 2016.

In early October, a group calling itself Faithful Alternatives to Fossil Free Divestment, based in the Synod of the Sun, held a symposium in Houston to discuss both climate change and divestment alternatives.

A document prepared for the consultation agrees with the seriousness of the climate change problem, but questions whether divestment from coal and petroleum companies is either effective or ethical.

“Forcing reduction of fossil fuel use without providing adequate, affordable alternatives would punish economies globally, and this punishment would be felt most severely among the ‘least of these,’ ” the report states. It raises the possibility of finding ways to fairly price hydrocarbon usage as a means of reducing consumption and encourages the exploration of cleaner potential energy sources, including wind, solar, nuclear energy, natural gas and biofuels.

The leadership for the Faithful Alternatives group comes partly from the Presbytery of New Covenant, whose offices are in Houston — in the heart of the petroleum industry.

Mike Cole, New Covenant’s general presbyter, said in an interview that the recognition that many Presbyterians from his area work for oil and gas companies “plays a significant role” in his presbytery’s involvement with this issue.

“From my perspective, half our presbyteries across the denomination are in states where there is fossil fuel development,” Cole said. “We certainly see it here in Texas and in Houston, which may be the home base of fossil fuel development. I think we are deeply concerned in this area that a decision to divest, which is a moral decision, would render a moral judgment on everyone who works in some phase of the fossil fuel industry. And we know there are certainly some corporations who are behaving very responsibly. … One of our basic questions was if climate change is such an issue of paramount importance, how do we keep everyone at the table working on it, rather than dividing us even further and addressing it less effectively?”

Cole said he expects New Covenant and other presbyteries to vote this fall on overtures which the Faithful Alternatives group has helped to draft — and said conversations have been initiated between the Faithful Alternatives and Fossil Free PC(USA) leaders to see if they can find some common ground on climate change and potentially some proposals they can bring jointly to the 2016 assembly.

Already, San Francisco Presbytery has sent an overture calling for fossil fuel divestment, with a concurrence from the Presbytery of Heartland. That overture expresses “profound concern about the destructive effects of climate change on all God’s creation, including a disproportionate impact on those living in poverty and in the least developed countries; the elderly and children; and those least responsible for the emission of greenhouse gases.”

It asks the Board of Pensions and the Foundation to immediately cease making any new investments in fossil fuel companies and to divest any assets in those companies it now holds within the next three years.

With Pope Francis’ declarations this year and the Paris climate change conference underway, “the momentum on this issue is huge and growing,” said Dan Terpstra, a ruling elder from Tennessee and one of the leaders of the Fossil Free PC(USA) group. “This is such a critical issue. We’ve got to deal with it.”