A tale of two approaches to global climate change: Preview of environmental issues business


What is the most faithful and effective Christian response to global climate change? The Immigration and Environmental Issues Committee (committee 9) of the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will consider this question when they start meeting on June 19.

At issue are competing ideas about the most faithful and effective response to climate change. What is not at issue are the beliefs that global climate change is happening and that fossil fuels and carbon emissions are at least partially to blame. Every overture related to the environment and brought before this committee starts with those core beliefs. Where the overtures diverge is in how Christians are called to respond.

This is not a new debate for the PC(USA), although it has heated up significantly in the months leading up to GA. At the 22st GA in 2014, this issue was debated and referred to a committee for further study and a report. Instead of waiting for the report and taking action based on it, a number of presbyteries have submitted overtures calling for specific actions related to global climate change and the collective response of the denomination.

The first response, item 09-01, is an overture initiated by San Francisco Presbytery calling for a staged and orderly divestment of Presbyterian holdings in companies that extract and sell fossil fuels. Specifically, it calls for no new investments in fossil fuel companies and phased divestment of existing investments over the next three years, along with a call to invest in renewable energy. This overture received concurrence from 29 presbyteries. It echoes the overture that was brought to the assembly two years ago from the Presbytery of Boston, which was amended to call for a study and report instead of divestment. This time there are more voices calling for divestment; in addition to the 30 concurring presbyteries, there are nine moderators of past General Assemblies of the PC(USA) – and also the moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Colombia (IPC) – who are actively speaking in favor of this overture and of divestment from the fossil fuel industry.

The second response, item 09-02, is an overture initiated by New Covenant Presbytery (in Houston). Titled “On an Alternative to Divestment from the Fossil Fuel Industry,” it seeks to postpone divestment “because it does not meet the denomination’s long-standing process for consideration of divestment.” Instead, it states that the General Assembly should request that the Presbyterian Church “study ways that investments can best be leveraged to help care for God’s creation and mitigate the negative effects of climate change.” This overture received concurrence from eight presbyteries.

Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) was tasked with studying this issue after the 2014 assembly. MRTI studied the issues and submitted a report, item 09-09, that stands in contrast to the divestment overture from San Francisco Presbytery. Rather than divest from fossil fuel holdings, MRTI asks the assembly for permission “to pursue its focused engagement process on climate change issues,” especially with companies in the oil, gas and coal sectors. MRTI would then report back to the 223rd General Assembly in 2018 with recommendations – possibly including divestment, “if significant changes in governance, strategy, implementation, transparency and disclosure, and public policy are not instituted.” This report by MRTI is endorsed by the the Presbyterian Board of Pensions, the Presbyterian Mission Agency, the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy and the Advisory Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns and reflects many of the sentiments in the alternative to divestment overture.

The divestment overture from San Francisco Presbytery and the alternative to divestment overture from New Covenant Presbytery along with the MRTI report set up competing views of a faithful and effective response to global climate change. Should the PC(USA) decide to divest from fossil fuel companies, it would join a number of ecumenical partners including Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists and the United Church of Christ, as well as many universities and foundations, which have all committed to divest.

One thing that the overture writers and advocates seem to agree on is that global climate change is real and Christians are called to be stewards of God’s creation. The question that will be debated at this assembly is: What is the most faithful and effective response to these realities?