Stewardship in a Changing Climate: Fossil Fuel Divestment and Reinvestment

By Andrew R. H. Thompson

From any perspective, climate change is a challenging issue. It is daunting in its scale and its complexity and in need of global action to respond to it. It would be naïve to expect such a difficult problem to have a simple solution. Selective divestment from fossil fuels, while not a simple step, is one of the most powerful and effective responses available. It is also good stewardship.

School of Theology students recently learned about the challenges of climate change. Participants in the “Climate Ethics” course studied the planetary systems behind climate change with Dr. Michael Coffey, a leading climatologist from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, before discussing the unique ethical questions the issue raises.

Several of the students from the class are joining students from the college in leading an effort to urge the University to divest itself from stock holdings in fossil fuels. The movement to divest from fossil fuels takes its cue from successful past movements to divest from companies in apartheid South Africa and manufacturing and selling tobacco. Religious institutions, universities, nonprofits, and cities all over the world have committed to divest and reinvest—that is, to sell their stock holdings in fossil fuels generally or specific fossil fuel companies and to reinvest some of those funds in renewable resources. This year’s 78th General Convention overwhelmingly passed a resolution urging the Episcopal Church to divest and reinvest.

Divestment is primarily a political statement. It is not likely to cause enough financial pressure to force fossil fuel companies to change course (although Newsweek reported this spring that the global bank HSBC has warned investors that the industry may soon become “economically non-viable” because of increased regulations and taxes, due in part to the pressure from divestment). Rather, divestment is intended to communicate a message. The content of that message may not always be clear and in any case it varies among different groups. At its heart, though, is the recognition that our consumptive, fossil-fuel driven culture is not only unsustainable in the most straightforward sense of the word but also unjust, and that those who divest refuse to profit by subsidizing that injustice.

How is divestment a matter of stewardship? Stewardship of the financial resources entrusted to churches, parishes, and faith-based institutions should not come at the expense of the creation entrusted to God’s people. Nor can financial stewardship sacrifice the millions of people who are most at risk from the effects of climate change, with whose care the Church is also entrusted. Divestment stands against fossil fuel companies, but more importantly, it stands with those most likely to suffer disproportionately from the effects of climate change.

Shareholder engagement, which involves keeping investments in fossil fuel companies in order to maintain influence on the industry, is often suggested as an alternative to divestment and reinvestment. From a practical perspective, this approach makes some sense, when it works. Indeed, for most institutions, the mere act of taking responsibility for the moral implications of investments for justice issues in any way, including through shareholder engagement, represents an important step toward good stewardship. Yet at this point, given the urgency of this issue and the absence of any real advances from decades of engagement, divestment seems the most appropriate action.

The message of divestment is not that fossil fuel companies are evil. It is undeniable that fossil fuel energy has brought about significant good in the world. But when the potential good is outweighed by the costs to the planet and its most vulnerable inhabitants—costs that are already being realized, in the form of droughts, crop failures, floods, and rising sea levels—it is time to move away from fossil fuels and explore other options. As consumers, this recognition calls us to humble self-reflection on and repentance of all the ways we support unsustainable and unjust practices, including through our investment portfolios. Divestment therefore only makes sense in the context of serious efforts to reduce consumption, but it is a necessary complement to those efforts.

Significant efforts to reduce fossil fuel consumption are already underway at the University of the South. The school’s Master Sustainability Plan includes a goal of going beyond carbon neutrality—removing more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than we produce—through energy efficiency, renewable energy, and the ability of Domain forests to take carbon dioxide out of the air. Divestment, which removes carbon dioxide not only from our energy production but also from our investment portfolio, can be a significant part of this strategy as well.

Churches and dioceses interested in exploring divesting and reinvesting could encourage their vestries, standing committees, and bishops to begin a conversation with their financial advisors or money managers. Find out what fossil fuel holdings are in your portfolio and decide what you want to exclude. Some institutions choose to divest from all fossil fuel companies; others focus on the most polluting fossil fuels, such as thermal coal or tar sands oil, or the 200 companies with the largest reserves. Ask your advisor or manager how to remove these investments and find appropriate alternatives, preferably in renewable energy.

Again, divestment and reinvestment make sense only as part of broader efforts. Improvements in a parish’s energy efficiency and the reduction of consumption represent both sound investments and responsible stewardship of resources. Supporting the work of organizations like Episcopal Relief and Development, who help the most vulnerable adapt to the uncertainty and instability of climate change, is another form of good stewardship in a changing climate.

For too long, stewardship of financial resources and the care of other human beings and of creation have existed separately, and at times, in opposition to one another. Yet, sound stewardship involves taking into account the whole of what is entrusted to us. In the face of climate change and the disproportionate impact it is already having on the most vulnerable in the world, divestment is good stewardship.

—This article was included in the Fall 2015 issue of From the Mountain

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