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Loving God’s world: A call to divesting from fossil fuel industries

Bruce Gillette writes in favor of ENV-02, "On Removal of Investments in and Subsidies for Fossil Fuels." 

In light of the escalating climate crisis, it is time to live out the Presbyterian motto stated in the Book of Order, “‘The church reformed, always to be reformed according to the Word of God’ in the power of the Spirit.” Our Book of Confessions affirms: “Effective preaching, teaching, and personal witness require disciplined study of both the Bible and the contemporary world.” The Scriptures and the world in crisis call the PC(USA) to join other churches in divesting from the fossil fuel industries as an act of faithful caring for God’s creation. Divesting demonstrates the church cares enough to change our actions. Those who are already impacted by the climate crisis, as well as youth, young adults and young families concerned for their futures, are looking to see how the church will respond.

This summer at General Assembly, the PC(USA) will have an opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to caring for the earth and those impacted by climate change by approving ENV-02, sponsored by Susquehanna Valley Presbytery with a dozen presbyteries throughout the country concurring.

The PC(USA) will have an opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to caring for the earth and those impacted by climate change by approving ENV-02.

The 2024 GA Environmental and Climate Justice Committee, after listening to all sides, voted 27-17 to recommend the ENV-02 overture, “On Removal of Investments In and Subsidies for Fossil Fuels” to the GA plenary. This committee is made up of made up of randomly assigned commissioners from across the denomination.

Top biblical scholars have joined a growing list of seminary faculty supporting this overture, “On Removal of Investments in and Subsidies for Fossil Fuels.” These scholars include William P. Brown (William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary and author of The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder); Patricia K. Tull (A.B. Rhodes Professor Emerita of Old Testament Education at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and author of Inhabiting Eden: Christians, the Bible, and the Ecological Crisis and the Presbyterian Women’s 2024-2025 study, Let Justice Roll Down: God’s Call to Care for Neighbors and All Creation); Christine Roy Yoder (Old Testament scholar, senior vice president and dean of faculty at Columbia Theological Seminary); Paul Galbreath (emeritus professor of theology at Union Presbyterian Seminary); Tim Hartman (associate professor of theology at Columbia Theological Seminary), Anna Carter Florence (Peter Marshall Professor of Preaching at Columbia Theological Seminary) and Thomas John Hastings (retired executive director of the Overseas Ministries Study Center at Princeton Theological Seminary).

Rapid change is crucial for a more sustainable life amid the climate crisis.

Rapid change is crucial for a more sustainable life amid the climate crisis. On June 6, 2024, CBS News reported: “One of the major drivers of the exceptional heat building within Earth’s atmosphere has reached levels beyond anything humans have ever experienced, officials announced on Thursday. Carbon dioxide, the gas that accounts for the majority of global warming caused by human activities, is accumulating “faster than ever,” scientists from [The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)], the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the University of California San Diego found.

“Over the past year, we’ve experienced the hottest year on record, the hottest ocean temperatures on record, and a seemingly endless string of heat waves, droughts, floods, wildfires and storms,” NOAA Administrator Rick Spinrad said in a press release.

Earlier, on January 9, 2024, NOAA reported, “For millions of Americans impacted by a seemingly endless onslaught of weather and climate disasters, 2023 has hit a new record for many extremes,” said NOAA Chief Scientist Sarah Kapnick. “Record warm U.S. temperatures in December, a record-setting number of U.S. billion-dollar disasters in 2023 and potentially the warmest year on record for the planet are just the latest examples of the extremes we now face that will continue to worsen due to climate change.” All of this is a direct result of the production and burning of fossil fuels, primarily by the industrialized nations of the global North.

Beyond the suffering and deaths from heat waves, droughts, floods, wildfires and storms, air pollution from burning fossil fuels can cause millions of deaths annually, according to a group of scientists from Harvard and the United Kingdom.

“Climate action can reduce escalating humanitarian needs.” — UN World Food Program

The UN World Food Program (WFP) in October 2023 reported, “In 2022, climate extremes pushed 56.8 million people in 12 countries into acute food insecurity. The climate crisis, and its impact on food security, is unfolding against a backdrop of an overstretched humanitarian system and dwindling global resources. With greater commitment and investments, climate action can reduce escalating humanitarian needs.” On May 22, 2024, the WFP reported extreme weather was causing a surge in global hunger from Zambia to Afghanistan.

Beyond humanity, the U.S. National Park Service reports: “Biologists are becoming more and more concerned that global climate change will drastically reduce biodiversity. Some biologists estimate that 35% of animals and plants could become extinct in the wild by 2050 due to global climate change.”

The need is apparent. How should the church respond? The “mother churches” of early American Presbyterianism (the Church of Scotland, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and the United Reformed Church in the United Kingdom) have independently studied the climate crisis and determined an important way to counter it is to no longer invest church funds in fossil fuel industries. The World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) is the largest association of Reformed (Calvinist) churches in the world. It has 230 member denominations, including the PC(USA), in 108 countries, together claiming an estimated 80 million people. Concerning fossil fuel divestment, the WCRC Executive Committee adopted divesting without debate in 2019, and divesting is part of the ethical investment policy of the WCRC. (Presbyterians for Earth Care presented a June 12 webinar, covering ten time zones, with speakers from Scotland, the U.K. and Germany (WCRC) on June 12, 2024.)

The United Nations Secretary-General had his staff write a letter supporting the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) divesting from fossil fuel industries. Carlos Davidson, a professor of environmental studies at San Francisco State University, has written two important articles relevant to our conversation. The first is “Shareholder Engagement With Fossil Fuel Companies Is a Failure for Climate Change,” which advocates that shareholder engagement promotes the image of fossil fuel companies as good corporate citizens and strengthens their political power to fight climate legislation. The second is “Why Fossil Fuel Divestment Works,” which explains that divestment is the start of a process of reducing the tremendous influence of the fossil fuel industry on our political system and thereby making it possible to win government action on climate change.

It is time for the PC(USA) to join other churches from across the world and respond to the climate crisis by divesting from fossil fuels.

It is time for the PC(USA) to join other churches from across the world and respond to the climate crisis by divesting from fossil fuels. As Christians, our love of neighbor means we need to respond quickly and not continue to profit from the destruction, suffering and death.

Please read the entire ENV-02 overture, including the rationale: “On Removal of Investments In and Subsidies for Fossil Fuels.” The Bible guides us, and our hurting world needs us, to “Strongly encourage all congregations, presbyteries, synods, the Board of Pensions and the Presbyterian Foundation, as well as Church-related educational institutions and individual church members, to align their investment decisions with this declaration with all due speed and diligence,” as the overture recommendation states. We can make a real difference for the world and the church.

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