Webinar explores divesting from fossil fuel companies

Presbyterians for Earth Care (PEC) hosted a webinar Wednesday, 12 June, during which representatives of the Church of Scotland and the United Reformed Church—as well as the World Communion of Reformed Churches—shared some of what they experienced during and following divestment from fossil fuel companies.

The speakers were:

  • Adrian Shaw, the former climate change officer for the Church of Scotland
  • Val Brown, head of Christian Aid Scotland, who chaired the Church of Scotland’s special commission on ethical investments and now chairs the Ethical Oversight Committee that grew out of that work
  • Roo Stewart, head of public issues for the United Reformed Church, which has 1,200 congregations in Scotland, England, and Wales
  • Philip Peacock, executive secretary for justice and witness at the World Communion of Reformed Churches.

PEC’s moderator, Bruce Gillette, hosted the gathering attended by nearly 50 people. Watch the webinar.

Among the overtures PEC is following at the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s 226th General Assembly are ENV-02, “On Removal of Investments in and Subsides for Fossil Fuels”; ENV-03, “On Becoming Free from Plastic Pollution”; and ENV-01, “Adoption of the Sustainable Peace Pledge.”

About 10 years ago, young people began asking why the Church of Scotland continued to invest in oil and gas companies, Shaw noted. In 2018, a working group brought a divestment proposal to the Church of Scotland, but it failed, as it did again the following year.

“In 2021, we were surprised to see the Church of Scotland’s Investors Trust [which had been established in 1994 by an act of Parliament to offer church councils and congregations a simple medium for investing their funds] had disposed of their [oil and gas company] shares on financial grounds,” Shaw said. Shaw had left the church position in 2020, and Brown said she was given “the daunting task” of leading a special commission to look at ethical investment.

“We didn’t want any more fraught and unhelpful conversation on the floor of the assembly,” Brown said. “We gave people all the information we could.” The commission developed five marks of mission “so investment managers can see clearly what the church is interested in,” Brown said.

“It’s unlikely we’ll invest in fossil fuel companies, but it’s not a policy,” Brown said. “If you look at the portfolio, we are investing in banks that facilitate fossil fuel development. There’s still a tension there, and that’s going to be a tricky part of the conversation.”

“For the General Assembly to hear from the Ethical Oversight committee has been a helpful starting point,” Brown said. “We are still learning from friends in different church-based organizations.”

Stewart, who joined the webinar from London, noted the United Reformed Church began in 1972 by the union of some, but not all, Presbyterian and congregational churches in the United Kingdom.

In 2019, the URC’s Mission Council made the decision to disinvest in between General Assemblies. The church refocused its investment portfolio by scaling up investment in renewable energy and clean technologies, Stewart said. The Mission Council also encouraged URC synods and churches to divest and reinvest their funds in clean energy alternatives. “We use language like ‘strongly urge’ or ‘encourage,’” Stewart said. “We try to show by example and hope local congregations and synods will follow suit.”

During 2020, the first year of the pandemic, the Mission Council met online. The church’s youth assembly urged the church to “recognize the climate emergency” and “challenged all councils, committees and local churches to do everything possible to make [URC] events and activities eco-friendly,” Stewart said. “Our youth voice is really important to us. They urged us to declare a climate emergency, and therefore we must act on it.”

By 2022, all URC synods had divested. “We were delighted that in three years, there was a move across the whole URC to embrace this and take it seriously,” Stewart said. “Things don’t often happen at that speed.”

When the church decided to disinvest, “we thought it would have more impact not to have our money in these companies,” Stewart said. One investment company the church works with tailored a fund to align with URC’s investment polity, even naming the fund the “URC Fund.” “It’s not something we wanted, but it’s been a huge encouragement for us,” Stewart said.

“It’s just the start,” Stewart said of the disinvestment efforts to date. “There’s still so much work to be done.”

Peacock noted the WCRC “doesn’t have much of a core budget. Our investment portfolio is much smaller than our member churches, and there is less scrutiny on how we make our investments.”

“We root ourselves to the Accra Confession,” Peacock said. “It sees justice as a matter of faith, and it names neoliberal capitalism as contributing to the deep economic and ecological crisis we are in.”

“We realize we are in the midst of a climate catastrophe,” Peacock said, “and we recognize that governments have let masses of people down.”

During a question-and-answer question, Gillette noted the sharp increase in the number of wind turbines along the Scottish coastline.

“Throughout the winter, the wind blows, and the rain falls. We are blessed with these sources of energy,” Shaw said, so much so that production now exceeds demand. There have been “enormous investments in offshore wind off the eastern coast of England. It will fill an enormous part of the UK’s demand for years to come.”

During Church of Scotland General Assemblies, some people say, “why wash our hands of this? The church has a powerful voice at the table” while engaging with fossil fuel companies, Brown said. “It sounds good, but in reality, it’s hard to do. Where we are in the Church of Scotland is, there is some benefit to using our voice collectively with other churches … With the size of the investment we hold, we really don’t have a seat at the table.”

“We can’t just say, ‘it’s business, and our religious life is separate from this,’” Peacock said. “The present economic system is causing the death and destruction of the planet and the people who live on it.”

“Ultimately, it’s not so much what we say as what we do,” Gillette said, praising the work of PC(USA) groups including the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy and Mission Responsibility Through Investment. “Now it’s a question of a sense of urgency.”

Studies mentioned during Wednesday’s webinar can be found here and here.

(Article courtesy of PC(USA). Image: Life on Earth/Sean Hawkey.)

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