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The Mission Responsibility through Investment Committee clarifies their role in the PC(USA)’s fight against climate change

An op-ed by Kerri Allen and Lindley DeGarmo, the chair and vice-chair of the Mission Responsibility through Investment Committee, about the committee's role in a multipronged strategy to halt the impact of climate change.

Humanity is faced with the existential and worsening crisis of climate change. The sustainability of God’s creation and of human well-being depends on “the flourishing of other life and the integrity of the life-supporting processes that God has ordained” (Restoring Creation for Ecology and Justice, 1990, p. 2). The degradation of the planet is an affront to God because when creation is violated, so too are human communities, particularly those most vulnerable in the U.S. and around the world. Human action and corporate abasement threaten the survival of the planet upon which we live and depend. Simply put: this is one of the most pressing moral and theological problems of our time.

As the church, we are called to respond to Jesus’ prodding with our witness and action. The Mission Responsibility through Investment Committee (MRTI) plays a small but important role in a multipronged strategy to halt the impact of climate change by holding corporations accountable for business practices that are environmentally and socially responsible. This recognition underpins MRTI’s recommendations to add five companies to the General Assembly prohibited securities list: Chevron, ExxonMobil, Marathon Petroleum, Phillips 66, and Valero Energy. Guidance from the Holy Spirit, communal discernment and adherence to PC(USA) policy were also the foundation of MRTI’s recommendation. (The MRTI recommendations are available here: https://www.pc-biz.org/#/search/3000939)

We hear the cries that this is not enough. We agree. Faithful action across society and institutions is needed to address the existential crisis of climate change. Society’s continuing, profligate use of fossil fuels must be curtailed, even as we call fossil fuel producers to account. Selective divestment, even categorial divestment, alone, is not enough to address the crisis.

Selective divestment, however, is the best tool available to us.

The 196th GA (1984) adopted the policy, “The Use of Divestment as an Ethical Strategy” (Minutes, UPCUSA, Part I, pp. 193–207, available here: https://www.presbyterianmission.org/wp-content/uploads/GA-1984-Divestment-Strategy.pdf ). The detailed, thoughtful policy outlines seven criteria guiding divestment recommendations. Those same criteria guide trustees of related institutions and organizations throughout the church. MRTI works to faithfully follow this policy.

Selective divestment is the best tool available to us because it is the only way in which the investing agencies related to the General Assembly (the Board of Pensions and Presbyterian Foundation) can implement this type of divestment recommendation from the General Assembly, and it is the tool that gets the attention of companies that are not compliant with Presbyterian values. Companies sit up and take notice when they are called out specifically.

If the General Assembly votes to add Chevron, ExxonMobil, Marathon Petroleum, Phillips 66, and Valero Energy to its prohibited securities list, we will have their attention — and we know this because Valero Energy has already said so. From Valero Energy’s 2020 Proxy Statement:

  • “Members of the investment community are also increasing their focus on sustainability practices, including practices related to GHGs and climate change, in the energy industry. As a result, we may face increasing pressure regarding our sustainability disclosures and practices. Additionally, members of the investment community may screen companies such as ours for sustainability performance before investing in our stock. If we are unable to meet the sustainability standards set by these investors, we may lose investors, our stock price may be negatively impacted and our reputation may be negatively affected.”

Selective divestment is also the one strategy that can be implemented by the investing agencies of the PC(USA). (See the BOP’s 2019 prohibited securities policy, available here: https://www.pensions.org/file/our-role-and-purpose/about-us/performance-and-financials/Documents/BOP-Policy-Prohibited-Securities.pdf/) The Board of Pensions’s prohibited securities policy states that the Board of Pensions will not participate in categorical divestment. As for the Presbyterian Foundation, any divestment decisions would be brought before its investment committee and Board of Trustees, who must act within their fiduciary duty. Both the Board of Pensions and the Foundation commented on MRTI’s report, supporting the process and the recommendation.

MRTI is a working committee including a diverse representation of the PC(USA). We have committed members representing the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, the Advocacy Committee on Women’s Concerns, Racial Equity Advocacy Committee, the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board, the Board of Pensions, the Presbyterian Foundation/New Covenant Trust Company and three at-large members approved by the General Assembly. Each member is fully engaged with the committee, joining us either in person or on Zoom, and each provides different theological, practical and investment perspectives as well as different justice lenses. Collectively, there is wisdom in this discernment we do together. We do not make our decisions and recommendations lightly.

Following the 1984 Divestment as Strategy policy, we have engaged with leadership from these companies and researched and scored them to track progress (or lack thereof) using MRTI’s Guideline Metrics (available here: https://www.presbyterianmission.org/wp-content/uploads/Final-Approved-January-2022-Guideline-Metrics.pdf. ) We have listened to front line communities impacted by the operations of corporations and heard stories from international partners about these negative impacts. We’ve spent an extensive amount of time with Presbyterians who work in the fossil fuel industry to both answer questions and help them understand our metrics, process and work, and how we implement General Assembly policy. This time has been fruitful and important as we help explain why we are recommending divestment from these particular companies. We will continue this important work, being both present and accountable as we push for corporations to change harmful practices.

We are grateful for the grassroots efforts that have kept the climate crisis front and center. MRTI’s work, our denominational work, does not end with this divestment decision. We will continue to engage with companies and hold them accountable to take meaningful action to address the climate crisis. And, as Reformed Christians, our work must continue on multiple fronts, fighting to protect creation.

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