Congregations divest to make statement against profiting from practices that contribute to climate change.
College students were among the first to pick up on climate activist Bill McKibben’s Do the Math tour last winter, which was focused on the increased perils of the continued use of fossil fuels. Speaking on campuses and elsewhere, McKibben urged students to lobby their schools to divest themselves of investments in fossil-fuel companies. McKibben makes connections between extreme weather events and the fossil-fuel industry, whose emissions are blamed for accelerating climate change.
As students put pressure on college administrations, religious institutions are also taking up the cause. At least four Unitarian Universalist congregations have voted to divest themselves from investments in fossil fuels. The governing board of First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee, Wisc., approved a resolution March 26 requiring the church’s endowment to divest itself within five years of fossil-fuel investments. That action makes it one of the first congregations of any denomination to take such action.
But it won’t be the last. The congregation of First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, Utah, voted unanimously May 19 to divest its endowment fund from fossil fuel investments. The congregation of First Parish in Cambridge, Mass., voted for divestiture June 2.
The Rev. Drew Kennedy, senior minister of the Milwaukee congregation, said, “This is an issue that I believe requires a mass movement to get our leaders’ attention. If we can get the divestment movement to catch fire, it has the potential to do what Selma did for the civil rights movement, Seneca Falls did for women’s suffrage, and the Stonewall riots did for LGBT rights.”
The United Church of Christ may become the first religious body to take a denomination-wide stand when it votes at its General Synod at the end of June for divestiture. The resolution prepared for that meeting says, “If fossil fuel companies simply fulfill their purpose the earth will become inhospitable to life as we know it.”
Tim DeChristopher, a member of the Salt Lake City congregation and a climate activist who spent nearly two years in prison for interfering with a federal energy lease sale in Utah, endorsed divestiture in an Earth Day sermon in April.
On May 19, the Salt Lake congregation voted unanimously to shed any investments in oil, gas, coal, tar sands, and oil shale from its $700,000-plus endowment fund.
The Rev. Tom Goldsmith said the decision wasn’t hard. “We did the math and we realized that the difference between green investments and fossil fuels is miniscule.” He noted that the endowment would probably lose some income, but the congregation is committed to social justice and is willing to absorb that loss.
First Unitarian members had met earlier to discuss “What would Jesus divest?” said Joan Gregory, who leads the congregation’s environmental ministry.
She emphasized this one step might not change anything. She said the congregation hopes to develop a workshop in the fall on personal divestment, spreading the movement beyond institutions to individuals. “This vote is just step one. Now we need to get other congregations on board.”
McKibben has noted that it doesn’t make sense for religious institutions to invest in companies that are, in effect, “running Genesis backwards.”
At First Parish in Cambridge, the Rev. Fred Small told the congregation, "We have a moral obligation to leave our children a livable planet. We're just one congregation, but we're part of a growing movement calling the fossil fuel industry to account for the destruction wreaked by global warming." Rosalie Anders, co-chair of the congregation’s Environmental Justice Task Force, added, "Whatever the future holds, we can tell our grandchildren we didn't stand idly by while the climate collapsed."
The congregation voted twice, once to shed all current investments in fossil fuels and to ban any new investments, and second, to authorize the task force to lead the congregation in taking public stands on the divestment issue, including working with other organizations. The votes were unanimous. In the Summer 2013 issue of UU World, Small wrote an article arguing for fossil fuel divestment.
Anders said the First Parish task force is meeting with other UU congregations in the area as well as student groups.
On May 21, the board of trustees of the South Church in Portsmouth, N.H., voted for divestiture. Judy Miller, chair of the congregation’s Green Sanctuary program, told seacoastonline.com that divestment “makes a moral statement that it is wrong to profit from the climate disruption of our planet."
More information on divestiture is at gofossilfree.org. The website notes, “If it is wrong to wreck the climate, then it is wrong to profit from that wreckage. We believe that educational and religious institutions, city and state governments, and other institutions that serve the public good should divest from fossil fuels.”
Advocates of divestiture hope that it will be as successful as a movement in the 1980s to end investments in companies that were doing business with South Africa during the apartheid era.
Not everyone believes divestiture is the best approach. Tim Brennan, treasurer and chief financial officer of the Unitarian Universalist Association, advocates staying in relationship with fossil-fuel producers and working from within to create change. Much can be accomplished, he believes, by putting pressure on corporations to acknowledge climate change and to lead them toward supporting responsible public policy solutions rather than blocking them. Activist investors can also help convince the companies to shift capital investments into low-carbon fuels and technologies.
In a presentation May 23 to the annual meeting of the Friends Fiduciary Corporation, a Quaker non-profit, Brennan made the point that with divestiture there is only one opportunity for public witness. With stockholder activism there are many. Divestment, he said, could be considered a retreat rather than a step up in pressure. And it means that those who sell their shares probably sell them to investors who will not push the company to do better.
He noted that the UUA is taking several steps to “be more accountable . . . to the generations to come.” They include making climate change a central focus of advocacy work; increasing investment in climate solutions funds; making the case to legislators that “placing a cost on carbon is pro-business, pro-jobs, and pro-investment”; and keeping divestment as a last resort.
Brennan also wrote an article in the Summer 2013 issue of UU World arguing that divestment from fossil-fuel companies is not the same as divestment in the 80s was from South Africa over the issue of apartheid.
In February, Brennan wrote a piece in the Huffington Post on engagement versus divestment. He wrote, “For some, divestment could be an option. But please, not quiet divestment. That would be truly the sound of one hand clapping. Investors who choose to divest must speak loudly about why they are taking this action.”
He added that whatever the course one takes, “It is essential for investors to speak intelligently, loudly, and boldly. And we should do it together, mutually supporting all who engage in the struggle through the means they judge most fitting.”
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Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.