Click here for General Assembly coverage

Assembly’s Environmental Justice Committee considers potential responses to climate change — both strategic and aspirational

Committee also approves, with some revisions, report on “investing in a Green Future”

Marcela Martinez (YAAD-The Pacific, center) listens to online testimony during the Environmental Justice Committee. Photo by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

Louisville, Kentucky – The Environmental Justice Committee still has some steep mountains to climb. Having already approved a recommendation (ENV-10) from the Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) to ask the assembly to approve divesting from five energy companies that MRTI says are not doing enough to slow global warming, the committee is working through its responses to five additional overtures — some of which call for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to divest categorically or completely from all fossil fuel companies.

But here’s the thing. Even if the General Assembly were to approve categorical divestment, as ENV-07 calls for, the Board of Pensions and the Presbyterian Foundation would not line up to do it — in fact, a Board of Pensions policy from 2019 prohibits it. “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,” that policy states.

Instead, both the Board of Pensions and the Presbyterian Foundation – the investing agencies of the denomination – follow a process of socially responsible investing approved by the General Assembly in 1984, and support MRTI’s process of corporate engagement and selective divestment.

“What is the relationship between the General Assembly and the Board of Pensions and the Presbyterian Foundation?” asked Jed Koball, a missionary advisory delegate from Peru.

“At the end of the day, they are independent,” having fiduciary responsibility for the funds they manage, replied Bruce Gillette, moderator of Presbyterians for Earth Care and an overture advocate.

So the committee – whose members acknowledge the urgency of the world’s climate crisis – is figuring out what actions to take on the basketful of overtures it still has left to deal with. It’s considering combining some ideas from ENV-09  “On Actions in Support of an Energy Transition,” from Seattle Presbytery, with elements of other overtures.

“It’s not a competition between overtures,” said committee vice-moderator Aaron Ochart, but a way of having the committee pull out the parts from each it considers most important.

Also, how to strike the balance between being aspirational — and identifying what actually can be done?

There might be a way to “acknowledge what we want to do ideally,” said Hayley Hershenson, a young adult advisory delegate from John Calvin Presbytery. And also a place to say “What is the reality of going with this approach?”

Committee member Andrew Kukla, a minister from Boise Presbytery, said he likes the idea of “channel markers” – both strategic ones that tell the church exactly where it is now, and aspirational ones to show “how do we want to go down the river. … We need that aspirational one that pushes us on as a denomination.”

Commissioners at the Environmental Justice Committee. Photo by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

Daniel McCollister, a teaching elder from Syracuse-Cayuga Presbytery, described the aspirational direction as the “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead, even if we can’t do it” approach.

A series of overture advocates appealed the committee to recognize the urgency of the need to slow global warming.

After years of relying on the coal industry, “Eastern Kentuckians have been abandoned by coal companies” to deal with the environmental problems those companies created, said Helen Richardson, an overture advocate from Transylvania Presbytery, supporting ENV-07. The list she cited includes underemployment, toxic water pollution, the aftermaths of mountain top removal and strip mining, lung disease, and mental health challenges due to economic uncertainty. That legacy is “not the abundance and justice that God dreams of and envisions for us,” Richardson said

Among the elements of potential action that seem to have grabbed the attention of at least some commissioners:

  • The idea of approving categorical divestment from fossil fuel as an “aspirational” statement. In other words, the assembly wouldn’t direct or require the PC(USA) to do it. But it might “call on” the church to move in that direction — asking for it while understanding it probably won’t happen.
  • A continued commitment to denominational support for the Paris Agreement on climate change.
  • A request for MRTI to work to update their screening criteria for engaging with companies — something MRTI already is committed to do.
  • A desire to recognize that the fossil fuel industry provides employment for many Presbyterians, and look for ways to support those workers.
  • An acknowledgment of ecological grief and climate anxiety.
  • A strategy to advocate for climate pricing.

Some committee members planned to work into the evening to draft potential language the committee might consider when it resumes its meeting on June 25.

The committee did take one action during its June 24 session: voting 34-2 to approve ENV-02, a study paper and recommendations from the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) called “Investing in a Green Future: A Vision for A Renewed Creation.” That report came from a directive of the 2018 General Assembly, requesting “a comprehensive updating of energy policy.”

Sue Smith, co-chair of ACSWP, said it’s important that the General Assembly pass policy statements involving climate change and environmental issues because those statements give the PC(USA)’s Office of Public Witness and other advocates a foundation for trying to influence public policy.

The report also calls on the PC(USA) to “work towards a goal of 100% renewable energy in congregations, mid councils and agencies” in the denomination by 2030.

Commissioner Ed Yokley, a ruling elder from Foothills Presbytery with a 40-year career in the chemical and materials industry, suggested changes in a section regarding the maintenance and construction of pipelines — saying that the problems come from “bad practices by companies that are managed poorly,” and that unmaintained pipelines typically corrode from the inside within 20 years.

The committee voted to make several changes to the ACSWP recommendations. Among them:

  • One, to revise language involving the construction and maintenance of fossil fuel pipelines — to say in part that safety and environmental failures “are overwhelmingly due to maintenance, operational and management issues. … We should therefore support such pipeline construction that has clear maintenance, integrity monitoring” and retrofitting and replacement standards, and where the interests and concerns of pathway neighbors are systematically addressed. The language also states “These are issues of practices and policy and performance, rather than existence. We hold that fracking operators can operate ONLY if they clean and detoxify their waste streams prior to any fenceline ground or surface water discharges.”
  • Second, to direct ACSWP to study and report back to the General Assembly in 2024 on the impacts of lithium mining and other forms of mining, “with particular attention” to the impact on Indigenous lands in South America and the western United States.
  • Third, to direct ACSWP to study and report back to the 2024 General Assembly the “life-cycle stewardship of alternative energy products created to enable a greener environment,” such as lithium batteries.

Jed Koball, a missionary advisory delegate from Peru, said lithium is used for car batteries for electric cars, but the mining of lithium often hurts the surrounding communities. Moving to a green future, he said, does not necessarily come without cost.

The discussion in the committee also reflected the difficulties of having aspiration goals for a greener world — and the realities of living into them.

“I’m not sure that a carbon-free future is something that I want,” Yokley said, citing our reliance on products such as cell phones that are made with carbon.

Randall Scott, a ruling elder from the Presbytery of Northern Kansas, said he does not favor categorial divestment from fossil fuel companies — he supports MRTI’s strategy of corporate engagement and selective divestment.

“Somewhere around here, there’s a power plant that’s humming like crazy,” providing the power for air conditioning and lights at the Presbyterian Center in downtown Louisville, where the committee was meeting, Scott said. “I have a hard time saying that power companies are bad.”

Vice moderator Aaron Ochart (left) and moderator Miguel Angel Dros Lorenzo (right) at the Environmental Justice Committee. Photo by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

Koball countered that the PC(USA) could support other forms of energy, such as solar power.

David Hill, a ruling elder from the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, said he liked the positive language in ENV-09 and some of the overtures — commending, recommending, encouraging advocating.

Janette Plunkett, an overture advocate for ENV-09 and a certified energy manager, said the approach to the overture was strategic. She sat in on MRTI meetings, and the presbytery waited to submit the overture until MRTI had approved its recommendations in January. That gave the drafters less time to gather concurrences — but more time, she said, to consider the language of the range of environmental overtures coming to this assembly, and to search for common themes.