by Patrick Cage
After historic news this week, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that we are approaching the optimal moment to chart a course for fossil fuel divestment. And not for the reasons you might expect.
Typically, church conversations around fossil fuel divestment take from a moral tack, because, as cities on a hill, lamps on lamp stands, and the salt of the earth, talking morality is one of our churches’ specialties. Our churches come to terms with issues such as exploitative coffee plantations, unwelcoming houses of worship, and individualistic consumer culture. Then, we envision moral solutions like Equal Exchange tables during Fellowship Hour, marching in the local Pride parade, and church rummage sales.
So when it comes to climate change, we think of ways in which we can live morally when we feel locked into a system where our food, our transportation, and our hobbies produce greenhouse gases that have disastrous consequences a generation down the line. We respond by living more sustainably – decreasing our personal emissions by eating local vegetables, biking to work, recycling adamantly.
Sometimes we move our moral response to climate change a step beyond sustainability. As I learned halfway through this writing, First Congregational Church in Amherst just voted this spring to divest their endowment “for moral reasons,” wrote member Lydia Vernon-Jones, “because of the way these companies continue to worsen the climate change crisis that confronts humanity now.” Divestment is one creative moral reaction to a business plan that spurns any attempts to limit climate change.
Major news this week hints at an emerging timeliness for fossil fuel divestment – not only as a means of wise environmental stewardship, but for financial stewardship as well.
This breaking news two days ago, the report from the G7 Summit, “Think Ahead, Act Together,” indicates that, like white foam on a wave, the political tides may be finally turning towards climate action. The G7 countries have renewed their commitment to limit climate change below 2 degrees C, the ceiling beyond which we would begin to see disastrous and accelerating effects of climate change. Together, they have stated their commitment to entirely phase out fossil fuels by century’s end.
Comprised of the United States, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, Canada, and the United Kingdom, the G7 countries contribute 27% of global CO2 emissions, and all seven countries have per capita emissions above the world average, most by a factor of several times (data as of 2010). Combined, these countries have the emissions, wealth, and political clout to make an international climate agreement happen –or not, as they so choose. If the G7 is as serious about climate change as their document indicates, they can bring the clout to the table to make international political changes – and it seems that they may be, pledging to collectively locate $100 billion dollars a year for climate change mitigation, with substantial funds allocated to implement renewable energy technologies throughout the African continent and other developing countries, allowing them to leapfrog over the high emission fossil fuel route for electricity.
What is so encouraging about this document is that it comes half a year before the COP 21 United Nations climate change talks in Paris, the most widely anticipated chance of substantive international agreement at any of the annual COP meetings since COP 15 at Copenhagen in 2009. It’s no coincidence that this deal comes in the lead-up to COP 21 – it’s a signal flare to the rest of the world that the wealthiest nations are willing to tackle climate change, and will cough up equity to make sure the solution is equitable.
As Joe Romm’s article in Climate Progress points out, “Combined, the United States, France, Canada, Germany, Japan, and Great Britain emit roughly the same amount of carbon per year as China does, according to data from the World Bank.” Which is precisely what makes the November 2014 US-China climate deal so momentous, and points to the second piece of breaking news this week: a new study from the London School of Economics shows definitively that China is fulfilling their side of the bargain ahead of schedule – on track to peak their emissions at least full five years earlier than they committed to publically. This is yet another sign that the world could take major strides towards yoking itself to a stable future on climate change this December at the COP in Paris.
From my whole time here at the Conference, these two pieces of news might together be the most exciting. Both the developed and the developing world are demonstrating in unprecedented ways that they will commit to climate action. This is the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era.
So first, take a moment to celebrate this landmark moment!
Second, raise the conversation – might now be the financial prudent time to move towards divesting your congregation’s endowment and your personal funds from fossil fuels?
A world approaching a strong climate deal is bad news for fossil fuel companies. As the financial logic of divestment goes: a bet that fossil fuels stocks will keep profiting is a bet that atmospheric CO2 levels will keep increasing as well. A world moving to collectively limit emissions leaves a massive amount of coal, tar sands, natural gas, and oil that remains in the ground as stranded assets. In a world that has a handle on climate change, fossil fuel stocks are hugely overinflated. Like an overzealously pressurized balloon, the “carbon bubble” can only float so much higher into the lower stratos much it pops.
In one all-too-relevant piece of scripture, Jesus tells his audience,
“You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don't know how to interpret this present time?” (Luke 12:56b)
And what this week indicates is that the world is interpreting the appearance of the sky and that climate action is the sign of the times. Which means that, to steward both our Earth and our assets for the next generation, the present time is the best time to divest.
With this in mind, we have an exciting opportunity for a church in the Central area of the state to get involved: the Worcester/Central node of 350MA is looking for a nearby church that can host a workshop on personal divestment they are putting together. This could be a great chance for members of your congregation to learn about divestment of their personal assets, and to offer up one of the special blessings of our churches – our buildings. In March, First Church Cambridge hosted and similar session and it was a great success. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested.
And, you can visit FossilFreeUCC.org, the new divestment web portal MACUCC has cooked up, to find resources that can inform and guide your congregation’s conversation about divesting from fossil fuels.
Note: MACUCC does not give definitive financial advice nor endorse any particular fund. Always consult with your financial adviser prior to making investment decisions.
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