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Having my say about fossil fuel divestment and shareholder engagement

Guest commentary by Pam McVety  

Editor’s note: For the next several Fridays, we will publish commentary expressing opinions on and responses to the actions of the 223rd General Assembly.


 “The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) believes that church investment, as well as personal investment, are more than practical questions. We believe that the Lordship of Jesus Christ is at the heart of all that we do and therefore, directs all aspects of our lives, including how we earn, use and invest our money.” (183rd General Assembly, United Presbyterian Church USA, 1971)

As a scientist and grandmother, I am stunned and saddened that the 223rd General Assembly voted to support Mission Responsibility Through Investment’s (MRTI) report calling for more shareholder engagement with fossil fuel companies instead of supporting categorical divestment.

Every day for the past 20 years, I have read articles about the worsening effects of climate change and observed that what is happening is worse than predicted by climate scientists. Recently, we learned that Antarctica is melting three times faster than it was just a decade ago, raising seas that will likely flood more than 300,000 U.S. homes twice a month within decades. In Florida, where I live, this is not a distant threat. It is a daily reality and the rate of sea level rise is doubling every seven years. Some experts say that by the end of this century it will be at least 15 feet. The average elevation in Florida is six feet. Twenty-seven major cities in Florida, where one-third of all current housing sits, are below 10 feet.

My beloved Presbyterians, how deep does the water have to get and how many homes, businesses, schools, hospitals, churches, nursing homes, streets, wellfields and farms have to be flooded before the church stops funding the fossil fuel industry?

I am appalled and struggling with my church’s response to a crisis that threatens our own brothers and sisters as well as the survivability of much of humankind. While we acknowledge that global warming is real and caused by human action, our “prophetic response” is to continue talking to the industry whose “business as usual” has caused – and will continue to cause – the problem we say we’re dealing with.  Our response falls way short of what is required.

At plenary when the commissioners voted, they heard five passionate minutes of testimony on the divestment overture by the Environmental Issues Committee Chair, Michael Kirby, a pastor from Chicago Presbytery. They then listened to a defense of the MRTI minority report — nearly an hour of presentations and answers to questions by five equally passionate speakers, including the president of the Board of Pensions. They heard nothing from the divestment overture advocates representing a record 40 presbyteries that supported the overture. The committee debating the overture before it went to plenary voted for divestment and against MRTI’s plan for further shareholder engagement. But, no surprise, having really only heard from one side in plenary, commissioners voted overwhelmingly to accept the minority report and allow MRTI to continue with shareholder engagement.

Commissioners speaking at the microphone protested the imbalance in time devoted to the divestment overture and the minority report, saying they felt the process skewed against the overture. If the process had been equitable, I believe commissioners would have heard how immediate, serious and worsening our change climate is, how our money is funding a deceptive industry causing so much harm, how ineffective and symbolic shareholder engagement has been for decades, the nature of the Climate Action 100+ initiative, how renewable energy is a viable available alternative to fossil fuels and how those on the frontlines are being slammed by our disruptive climate and are asking how we, the church, can support an industry that is causing them so much pain and suffering.

We justify support for more shareholder engagement by saying that being “at the table” with fossil fuel companies is “the only way to have a voice” with the industry. But what good is having a “voice” if no one is listening? In over 20 years of talking to the industry, MRTI has not convinced a single fossil fuel company to abandon its core business model of extracting, producing, refining or selling fossil fuels. While MRTI talks, people die — over 4,000 in Puerto Rico alone since the last General Assembly. Meanwhile, the biggest unshared fact in this debate is that shareholder resolutions about climate action are purely symbolic.  According to the Securities and Exchange Commission, companies do not have to respond to or even entertain resolutions if they speak to their core business model.

MRTI touted its joining Climate Action 100, a large group of investors led by the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS). Their spokesman claimed that the group’s collective large portfolio makes talking to the industry even more effective. What commissioners didn’t hear is that some observers believe that Climate Action 100+ is a strategy specifically designed to forestall any consideration of divestment from fossil fuel companies for five years, while the group “engages.” For example, Janet Cox, an activist with Fossil Free California, noted that the Climate Action 100 website provides no reference to any action during five years of engagement.

MRTI also promoted the metrics they spent much of the last two years developing that will evaluate company actions related to climate change. There is only one criterion needed to decide about categorical divestment from the fossil fuel industry — and it only takes seconds to apply it, not two years:  Should our money support an industry that knowingly and for profit is destroying the livability of the planet?

Overall, claiming that shareholder engagement is a “bold prophetic action” is an unjustified and perhaps hypocritical interpretation of the reality and power of shareholder engagement.

The fossil fuel industry has spent tens of millions of dollars, over at least four decades, to deceive and deliberately confuse the public about the reality of climate change, and to influence elected officials to protect the companies’ interests. The industry has known for decades that climate change is potentially catastrophic. By its own words, it has stated internally that the damage from the burning of fossil fuels to the environment could be severe.

And this is the industry our money is supporting.

I am grateful that a commissioner amended the MRTI report to establish a clear deadline for divestment and named specific companies (such as Chevron, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips and Marathon) to be reviewed for divestment.  I am grateful that the denomination acknowledges that climate change is real and I am grateful that the Board of Pensions and Presbyterian Foundation fossil fuel investments have quietly declined in the last four years. This is a sure sign that they can divest.

But this was the third assembly where fossil fuel divestment has been proposed. We have been talking about it for years… and now must we wait another two years, apply metrics and talk to the industry again — while carbon emissions continue to climb and more people are harmed? Surely not?  We are in a crisis. Climate change is the greatest moral challenge humanity has ever faced. We do indeed need to take bold prophetic action and can do so by moving away from the table and using the loudest voice we have – divestment — without waiting another two years for the General Assembly to debate it for a fourth time.

We are the church. Our investments reflect our values. We are a moral institution that people look to for guidance and in our hearts, we know what we must do. Not a moment longer, should our money support the fossil fuel industry that is driving us all over a cliff.