Guest commentary by Jim Allison
The 222nd General Assembly will face the issue of climate change and our response. The agenda includes an overture calling for divestment from fossil fuel companies and three overtures with alternatives. There are also overtures for study of the encyclical “Laudato Si” and to add “caring for God’s creation” to G-1.0304. These continue our tradition of concern for the environment as, for example, in the 1990 paper “Restoring Creation for Ecology and Justice” and the 2008 report “The Power to Change: U.S. Energy Policy and Global Warming.” Our theology expresses our responsibility to God’s creation using two simultaneous criteria: economic development and justice and faithful and responsible stewardship of creation. We advocates of the alternatives concluded that divestment falls short of what God requires.
Given the PC(USA) history of disputes, some might see this debate about climate change as yet another such fight. That conclusion is incorrect and fails to appreciate the substantial overlap in perspectives on the nature and urgency of the issue. There is disagreement, but the disagreement is primarily about how best to respond to these issues. The multiplicity of overtures is an effort to contribute to a richer, more informed discussion at General Assembly; to a wiser, more faithful decision by our denomination; and to prompt realization of behavioral changes adequate to address the problem.
Our conclusion that the 2014 divestment overture was not an adequately faithful response forced us to consider two foundational questions: First, how can we assess the faithfulness of responses, recognizing the dual obligations of economic justice and creation care? Second, if divestment is not a faithful, effective and just response to climate change, what is? We concluded that criteria the church should consider include these questions:
- Does the proposed response address the problem (rather than simply make a judgment)?
- Does it advance economic justice?
- Will it have a practical effect?
- Does it propose behavior we are willing to adopt ourselves?
On this basis, we concluded that divestment is not an adequately faithful response for three reasons.
First, divestment is highly unlikely to achieve its expressed aims. There is no causal connection between the concern expressed (climate change) and the action proposed (sell certain stock investments). Greenhouse gas emissions are driven by our consumption decisions, not the investments we own. Actions that alter portfolios but leave our consumption decisions unchanged will not change greenhouse gas emissions. An effective proposal changes behaviors.
Second, divestment fails to consider the importance of low-cost energy for economic development. Divestment — if it were effective in achieving its aims — harms the poor who need low-cost energy to emerge from poverty.
Third, to divest is to abandon the field and thus to abrogate our duty to engage with political and corporate powers to find effective solutions.
We believe the proposed alternatives provide a more faithful response.
First, the “alternative” solutions call for pricing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions, together with offsetting the regressive nature of such pricing (whose effects otherwise would fall most heavily upon the poor). It is not within the power of the PC(USA) to do this; the overtures therefore call for engagement to drive the necessary changes.
Second, beyond engagement, there are many things we can and should do, both individually and collectively. We acknowledge that the required changes in behaviors are easier when emissions are priced, but we affirm that we are prepared to align our behaviors with our calling and our advocacy.
Third, we request the Presbyterian Foundation, Board of Pensions and Presbyterian Investment and Loan Corporation to study ways that investments can be leveraged to help mitigate the adverse effects of climate change.
Fourth, we urge the denomination to allow MRTI to continue to do the job it has performed so diligently on our behalf. The overtures propose guidelines that would help identify particular firms that represent a barrier to progress and provide for selective divestment, in line with our long-standing policies.
Christians have the privilege and obligation to speak with moral authority on issues of great importance. This is such an issue. But it is not enough simply to speak truth to power. We must enact meaningful solutions. Divestment makes no difference in the behaviors that drive greenhouse gases. Divestment does, however, render a moral judgment on thousands of good, moral Presbyterians who are employed within the fossil fuel sector. Damage to our relationships with those faithful Presbyterians would do great harm to our congregations without providing any meaningful engagement with climate change. The alternative overtures exhort all Presbyterians to unite in engaging climate change with actions that will make a difference in the future of God’s creation. Through the actions called for, the PC(USA) will demonstrate our theological understanding of the stewardship of God’s creation and community by promoting faithful alternatives that unite us in addressing the issues of climate change.
JIM ALLISON is a ruling elder at Pines Presbyterian Church in Houston. He retired after 33 years with ConocoPhillips, an international energy company, where he worked in strategic planning and commercial risk management.