Some young people are so concerned about the imminent danger to the planet from climate change – from all they see happening around them to the animals and the oceans and the glaciers and the land – that they have decided never to have children. They can’t face bringing new life into such a broken world.
Meanwhile, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is likely to take time at the 2020 General Assembly to dive into another intricate debate about the metrics used by the Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) — trying to decide whether to follow a measured strategy of corporate engagement with nine particular companies, or whether the PC(USA) should move quickly to divest all its holdings from fossil fuel companies and reinvest in companies focusing on renewable energy and energy efficiency.
There’s a challenge here. Presbyterians tend to do things deliberately, by committee and task force and carefully worded public statement and reports. And young people, increasing numbers of whom do not align with organized religion, are calling for action on global warming — now, before it’s too late.
In September, teenagers and young adults took to the streets around the world in Climate Strike actions, raising their voices about the climate-related dangers of rising waters, species extinction, melting glaciers – and about the disproportionate impact of environmental degradation on the most vulnerable, those with the least access to money, jobs and power. “How dare you?” Greta Thunberg, the teenage climate activist from Sweden, unflinchingly rebuked global leaders at the United Nations General Assembly, chastising them for not doing enough to save the planet.
So questions facing the church are: What can Presbyterians who are concerned about the environment actually do to make a difference? Is the church doing enough? And how can the PC(USA) show the world – and particularly young people – that Presbyterians care about the earth?
Climate change at the 2020 General Assembly
One of the ongoing tensions as climate issues come before the church is how to be both forceful and intentional. In the secular world, coalitions have formed both around the strategy of corporate engagement, with MRTI aligning itself with the Climate Action 100+ investor group, and with other environmental groups building momentum for fossil fuel divestment. Both approaches have supporters and critics.
Weaving through all the specifics of the debate in the church are some big-picture questions. Is the PC(USA) doing enough quickly enough? What does the Bible say about creation care? Given the enormous consequences of global warming, what can congregations and people of faith do to make a difference closer to home?
Two years ago, 40 of the 170 presbyteries concurred with an overture seeking fossil fuel divestment — one of the biggest shows of support for an overture in in PC(USA) history, advocates say. Despite that, the General Assembly voted by a two-thirds margin not to support immediate divestment, but instead to favor a process of corporate engagement proposed by MRTI: putting into place a clearer set of metrics through which to measure whether that process is producing results with nine particular companies, or whether a case can be made for recommending divestment from any of them.
In 2020, a fossil fuel divestment overture is again coming to the assembly, sent by the Presbytery of Monmouth, and likely with considerable support from other presbyteries.
That overture calls on the assembly to “recognize that fossil fuels have been used by humans to create a better world for many people and that the time of their usefulness is now over.”
It calls on the PC(USA), the Presbyterian Foundation, the Board of Pensions, and the Investment and Loan Program to divest from the fossil fuel industry, and for the Board of Pensions and Foundation “to actively seek out and invest in securities of companies whose predominant focus is in renewable and/or energy efficiency.”
MRTI may recommend divestment from certain companies as well. On October 15, MRTI voted to endorse a process of recommending divestment in January 2021 from any companies that fall in the “red” zone on the metrics — the lowest possible score, indicating an overall poor record on the dozens of standards by which MRTI measures progress. As of June 2019, three companies – Marathon Petroleum, Phillips 66 and Valero Energy – were ranked in the red zone.
Rob Fohr, the PC(USA)’s director of Faith-Based Investment and Corporate Engagement, said in an interview that MRTI will update those rankings by mid-January — with the possibility that some of the nine companies it is assessing will either move into or out of the red zone by then. MRTI’s divestment recommendation will go to the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board in February for its consideration, then on to the General Assembly in Baltimore in June.
MRTI follows the divestment policy adopted by the General Assembly in 1984, which outlines seven steps – including corporate engagement – the PC(USA) should follow before divesting assets.
Fohr said that MRTI has tried over the past four years to ask the General Assembly to provide more clarity to the process — asking for policy guidance in 2016 and for approval of a more specific set of metrics in 2018. That provides a pathway, he said, for MRTI to recommend divestment when oil and gas companies aren’t willing to cooperate with corporate engagement or aren’t making progress.
Another question that’s surfaced in these debates: What role does the Board of Pensions and its investment portfolio play?
Frank Spencer, president of the Board of Pensions, told a General Assembly committee in 2018 that even if the assembly were to approve fossil fuel divestment, the Board of Pensions would make its own decisions. Spencer told the Environmental Issues Committee that “the board is deeply concerned about climate change,” but also that the board’s decisions regarding investment matters are “solely within the board’s purview,” with the Board of Pensions having a fiduciary responsibility to its members, and its investment decisions not subject to review or approval by the General Assembly.
Spencer also points out that the Board of Pensions has never failed to put on its prohibited list a specific security from which the General Assembly has requested divestment.
The Board of Pensions has recently revisited the issue, with its board voting Oct. 26 to revise its investment policy to say that, once the General Assembly has voted to place a particular company on the Prohibited Securities list following the MRTI process, the Board of Pensions investment managers would “sell the specified security as soon as prudently possible. Should the manager not have completed the sale within 24 months, a written justification for its continued retention and request for waiver must be presented to the Investment Committee of the Board for approval.”
The policy also states this: “Recognizing the primacy of the General Assembly to set the values of the church, the policy on prohibited securities affirms two things. First, the Board looks to the General Assembly to decide which securities should be considered for prohibition, no longer adding companies at its own discretion.
“Second, in alignment with the General Assembly divestment policy of 1984, which it reaffirmed with the most recent action in 2014, the Board responds to the prohibition of specific securities as recommended by MRTI and approved by the General Assembly. The Board does not act on categorical prohibitions by the General Assembly, as this requires the Board to make decisions without the diligence of MRTI.”
A call to act
The deliberate approach taken by MRTI has left some Presbyterians feeling frustrated and angry — convinced the PC(USA) is not doing enough.
Unwilling to wait, a handful of presbyteries (San Francisco, Boston, Monmouth, Susquehanna Valley and Long Island) and at least one synod (the Synod of the Northeast) have already voted to divest their own assets from fossil fuel companies.
“Presbyteries are starting to divest because they’re tired of waiting,” said abby mohaupt (she uses all lowercase letters for her name), moderator of Fossil Free PC(USA) and senior advisor for education and training and director of the Green Seminaries Initiative of GreenFaith, an international, interfaith environmental movement. Those mid councils want to “send the message that the MRTI process is too slow and isn’t doing enough,” mohaupt said.
She particularly objects to MRTI’s decision not to place Exxon Mobil in the red zone in its June 2019 rankings — a decision made even as New York state has gone to trial in a lawsuit, which the New York attorney general filed in 2018, alleging that Exxon has lied to the public and its shareholders about both the costs and the impact of climate change.
That lawsuit charges that Exxon knew about the dangers of global warming but fraudulently misrepresented to its investors how carbon regulation would impact the company’s finances — leading to the social media hashtag #ExxonKnew. The Exxon suit is seen as part of the first wave of climate litigation — an emerging strategy for holding energy companies responsible.
“In my mind, if you’re paying attention to the larger climate change story, they (Exxon Mobil) should be red,” mohaupt said. “And if they’re not, there’s something wrong with the metrics.”
Along with the MRTI recommendations, other environmental actions may be coming to the 2020 General Assembly as well — including a call for the assembly to ask for continued U.S. participation in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation. The Trump administration is preparing to formally withdraw from that accord, in which nearly 200 nations agreed they would work to reduce emissions that contribute to global warming.
Other possibilities: overtures calling for the PC(USA) to become carbon neutral or carbon positive, with a deadline for doing that; or to endorse the Green New Deal (as the United Church of Christ has done) or, if that’s seen as too political, at least endorse aspects of it.
And “I personally would like General Assembly to be talking about our carbon footprint as a denomination – how we approach our building, our travels, our conferencing,” said Rebecca Barnes, coordinator of the Presbyterian Hunger Program.
Asked whether he expects to see other environmental proposals come to the 2020 General Assembly beyond divestment, Fohr said: “I hope so. … It’s such an urgent crisis we have on our hands that it’s imperative we do everything and all things. Whatever the church can do in that role is a positive next step.”
For advocates of fossil divestment, however, the sense that time is running out and the church is moving too slow is overwhelming.
“How much longer do we have to wait?” asked PC(USA) minister and blogger Christopher De La Cruz — arguing in a blogpost that advocates for fossil fuel divestment came to the 2018 General Assembly with passion, significant support from the presbyteries, and a real sense of urgency. When those presbyteries “called on the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to join this worldwide moral movement to take a stand for God’s world and the future for our children, they were given a message. Wait.”
That leads some climate change activists to conclude that Presbyterians aren’t taking the dangers of climate change seriously enough.
The 2018 General Assembly sent a message to climate change activists that “the denomination doesn’t understand that it’s an emergency,” mohaupt said.
“The message it sent to folks in the climate justice movement is that the Presbyterian church doesn’t understand the urgency,” said Emily Brewer, executive director of Presbyterian Peace Fellowship. “I think that’s true. I think it also sends a message that we value money and a seat closer to power more” than taking decisive action.
It’s significant, mohaupt and Brewer said, that the theological student advisory delegates and young adult advisory delegates – contingents that skew considerably younger than General Assembly commissioners – voted overwhelmingly in favor of divestment. Both mohaupt and Brewer are in their early 30s.
While the assembly favored the more deliberate strategy of corporate engagement – putting in place specific metrics through which to measure progress – climate activists say the denomination can’t afford to wait. “We like things done decently and in order,” Brewer said. “Climate change is not decent and in order. This is a time when a faithful response … is to push really hard.”
For many young people, the urgency of climate change is felt particularly strongly – along with the certainty that their parents’ and grandparents’ generations have not done enough.
This past summer, at the Presbyterian Youth Triennium, the Presbyterian Hunger Program held workshops on climate change and had materials at the Compassion, Peace and Justice booth in the exhibit hall. When teenagers walked up to the table, the first thing they reached for was material on climate change, said Jessica Maudlin, associate for sustainable living and earth care concerns. The first workshop – which was optional and held at the end of a long, hot day – was packed.
“I do think climate change is a very present and real issue for young people,” Maudlin said. A group of students from Alaska spoke of living through the hottest summer on record there, “and how unsettling that made them feel,” she said. “They very quickly and very easily could name temperature changes, crop impacts, water impacts,” and had “very real, personal stories of where they’re seeing that in their own communities.”
Some congregations and Presbyterians also are looking for tangible, concrete ways to respond. For example, some churches have taken the steps to become an Earth Care Congregation, and Presbyterians individually have made a commitment to be part of the Climate Care Challenge and make changes in their own lives, such as driving less, reducing waste, or purchasing renewable energy.
In the Triennium conversations, “ they really wanted to know what people can do, and talked about things they were trying in their own lives,” such as changing their diets to be more plant based, creating community gardens, pushing their congregations to use solar power, Barnes said. “They really wanted to talk about these practical, local solutions in the face of something that feels pretty overwhelming.”
The data continues to pour in. The oceans are heating up, threatening the fish population, putting coastal regions in danger, fueling cyclones and floods. Temperatures are rising, species dying off, the weather becoming more extreme.
Some young activists are pushing the PC(USA) to “go as green as you can,” said Chris Iosso, coordinator of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, which is working on a paper for the 2020 General Assembly on energy policy.
Their idea: “The public witness of the church needs to be tied to its integrity,” Iosso said.
Young people see wildfires and flooding and rising temperatures. They hear climate scientists warning that the planet is in danger. Time is running out.
Their question: What will the church do?