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7 overtures will address the climate crisis at GA225, but does the assembly’s format allow for the necessary conversations?

This year’s General Assembly presents an unprecedented opportunity for commissioners to take decisive action that can benefit God’s creation and all of God’s children.

This opinion piece contains details that require correction, could be deemed misleading or lack context. Read our May 23, 2022, letter for more information.

This year’s General Assembly presents an unprecedented opportunity for commissioners to take decisive action that can benefit God’s creation and all of God’s children. Seven overtures, plus another coming from Presbyterians for Earth Care (PEC), are all focused on climate change. Taken together, these overtures give the PC(USA) a golden opportunity to address the climate crisis in multiple ways.

“On Fossil Fuel Divestment” (ENV-07) calls upon the denomination to divest all its investments in fossil fuels, as does “On Learning About and Starting the Process of Divestment from Fossil Fuels” (ENV-01). The Presbyterians for Earth Care Overture “Cherish Creation, Cut Carbon and Speak Up” (ENV-08) also calls for categorical divestment.

Denomination staff is recommending divestment from five fossil fuel companies in ENV-03. The Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) is bringing forth a report on renewable energy and doing a better job of caring for creation. There is even an overture asking for the establishment of a tree fund and another that asks us to affirm the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. You can read each overture by going to https://www.pc-biz.org.

Every one of these overtures and reports should be approved because each one moves our denomination forward in addressing the climate crisis. But getting all these overtures approved by the GA is going to be tough. Based on what has occurred at past GAs, commissioners will most likely struggle with overtures calling for categorical divestment.

We are not of one mind about the importance of divesting all our holdings from the fossil fuel companies that historically have done so well financially for our members.

We are getting closer though. This is indicated by the consensus in all the overtures that climate change is a serious problem and the fact that Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee (MRTI) is, at long last, recommending divestment from five fossil fuel companies — ExxonMobil, Phillips 66, Marathon Petroleum, Valero and Chevron.

This is great news, but let’s not pat ourselves on the back yet because we are not finished. We still have money invested in the fossil fuel industry and our slow review process doesn’t reflect the urgency of the climate crisis. A report released February 28, 2022, by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns of the growing mismatch between rising temperatures and the rapidly closing window of opportunity to respond.

We have talked to fossil fuel companies for decades with a process called shareholder engagement, and it has taken eight years to recommend divestment from just five companies. Furthermore, a recent Japanese study raises doubt about the effectiveness of shareholder engagement.

While the shareholder engagement process has proceeded at a snail’s pace, the world is moving on without us. While we have been talking to the industry, roughly 1,500 other companies and organizations have pledged $40 trillion dollars for divestment. Of these 1,500 entities, faith-based organizations comprise the single largest group at about 35%.

Why do commissioners at General Assembly keep voting for MRTI to do more shareholder engagement? One reason is that this option sounds decent and orderly, both of which are very appealing to Presbyterians. As a result, the many concerns swirling around shareholder engagement don’t get a fair hearing. The GA process is so overwhelming and so time-constrained that it is hard for commissioners to understand what they are voting on and what the consequences of their vote might be.

The reality is that this issue is complicated. Only a small number of commissioners in the committee hear some of what they need to know to vote. At the plenary, where all the commissioners are present, they hear a committee report with a brief justification and recommendation. They also hear from Presbyterian Mission Agency staff who in the past have been opposed to categorical divestment. During the debate, commissioners line up randomly at microphones and can say pretty much anything.

Photo by William Bossen on Unsplash

Advocates of these overtures — scientists, clergy, financial experts who have the support of thousands of Presbyterians – do not have a voice at plenary. I wrote about the shock and unfairness of this in an article in 2018 in Presbyterian Outlook Having My Say About Fossil Fuel Divestment. Further, the complexity of divestment is always squeezed into a time-constrained GA process that leaves many commissioners not knowing enough to cast an informed vote.

We will repeat this if nothing changes at GA. The good news is that we could change how GA operates.

We could allocate more time — a lot more time — for this issue and make sure that overture advocates have a role in informing and responding at plenary. Moderators could elevate the existential threat and urgency of the climate crisis through prayers and sermons and call for a faithful, fact-based discussion amongst commissioners. The committee presentation to the plenary could be more detailed. More time could be allocated to address and respond to commissioners’ concerns and comments as they testify during the plenary.

Yes, all this takes more time and energy but surely the reality of the climate crisis demands no less. The growing chorus of voices in our denomination calling for categorical divestment demands our best response. All the overtures and reports prepared by caring and hardworking Presbyterians that address the climate crisis should be fully heard and approved.

Let’s show the world that we truly love our neighbors, care for creation, and understand the reality of the climate crisis and the power of our money.

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