Fossil fuels, climate advisory committee resolutions move to deputies

By ENS staff
Posted Jun 30, 2015

[Episcopal News Service – Salt Lake City] The House of Bishops passed two resolutions June 28 and June 29 aimed at environmentally responsible investing and creating a climate change advisory committee. The resolutions now move to the House of Deputies for approval.

Bishops passed Resolution C045, which calls upon the Investment Committee of Executive Council, the Episcopal Church Endowment Fund and the Episcopal Church Foundation “to divest from fossil fuel companies and reinvest in clean renewable energy in a fiscally responsible manner.”

The amended version of C045, one of four resolutions that called for fossil fuel divestment, passed the house in a voice vote after an amendment removed the Church Pension Fund from the resolution.

Retired Bishop of New Hampshire Gene Robinson, an outgoing Church Pension Fund trustee, proposed the amendment to remove the Church Pension Fund from the resolution.

“The church and the pension fund are two separate entities, and they have different missions,” he said, adding that the church’s mission is to “love God and do good in the world.”

The fund’s mission is to “provide and ensure all pensions promised to all our clergy and our lay employees,” Robinson said.

The pension fund is a corporate entity under New York law, Robinson said. “We are not allowed to defer from our fiduciary responsibility. If the resolution passed as written … the pension fund would have to say no,” he said. “It’s not as simple as it may seem.” He cited a similar problem that the United Church of Christ experienced.

A large number of assets in portfolios are combined, he explained. “You can’t just slip one or two or five out of there. You have to leave that fund.” In some cases, the Church Pension Fund worked for decades to get into these funds; once you leave, you can’t return, he said. “It would come at an enormous cost to us.”

At least four other bishops testified in favor of the amendment to remove the pension fund from the resolution, all citing fiduciary duty.

Bishop Suffragan Paul E. Lambert of Dallas warned of the unintended consequences of including the pension fund, which could affect pensions of younger clergy and those working in smaller congregations, he said.

Others, like Bishop Scott Barker of Nebraska whose diocese submitted one of the four divestment resolutions, opposed the amendment, saying, “Money is power.”

The Episcopal Church has financial assets totaling billions of dollars; more than $380 million in trust assets; $9 billion in clergy retirement funds; and another $4 billion among parishes and dioceses. “Importantly, the church endeavors to make a difference with its money – by investing in socially responsible ways,” according to a report on responsible corporate investment submitted to General Convention from the Executive Council Investment Committee.

The Church Pension Group, which includes the Church Pension Fund, is an independent agency of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society; its policies are not bound by General Convention resolutions. The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society is the name under which The Episcopal Church is incorporated, conducts business, and carries out mission.

Following a June 25 hearing of the Environmental Stewardship and Care of Creation Committee, T. Dennis Sullivan, retired president of the Church Pension Fund and a member of the Executive Council Investment Committee, said he doesn’t think there’s disagreement on whether or not there exists a need to address climate change, but rather whether divestment is the right strategy.

“I think it does come down to, when we’re considering divestment, a judgment about whether divestment is going to further the goals that we all share,” Sullivan told Episcopal News Service. “And here is where I think the disagreement can occur. I would argue that divestment not only is likely to be ineffective for a variety of reasons, but also counterproductive to the broad goal of improving the environment.”

Matt Gobush, a visitor from the Diocese of Dallas, and former chair of the Standing Committee on International Peace and Justice, came to convention to testify on both resolutions favoring creating an advisory committee that could empower individuals, congregations and dioceses to make everyday changes to reduce their carbon footprints.

“(Divestment) would be very costly to the church and have very little impact,” said Gobush, who is a senior adviser for integrated advocacy, public and government affairs at ExxonMobil, during a June 28 interview with ENS. “There are more effective ways that the church can do so. Now I’m speaking as an Episcopalian and an individual about what I can do personally to decrease my carbon footprint that ultimately is more effective than divestment.

“And ultimately divestment is divisive … it’s basically saying that we don’t want to talk to you anymore. We no longer want to be a shareholder, we no longer want to use our influence as a church to make our views know inside a corporate boardrooms.”

The global campaign to divest from fossil fuels has gained momentum and has become the most talked about divestment movement since that of apartheid South Africa. Cape Town Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who fought against apartheid in South Africa, is a strong voice in the movement to divest from fossil fuels.

A handful of dioceses across The Episcopal Church have passed resolutions in favor of divestment, including Western Massachusetts, Massachusetts and Newark. GreenFaith, an interfaith environmental organization rooted in Diocese of Newark, and others have called for divestment in fossil fuels.

“You might have been surprised to see a divestment and reinvestment resolution from Nebraska,” said the Rev. Betsy Bennett, a deputy from the Diocese of Nebraska. “This spring and early summer have brought record-breaking rainfalls to Nebraska and many areas have been flooded at least once this year. The little parish church in DeWitt, Nebraska, had 4 feet of water in its basement this spring and it’s still drying up.

“Nebraska’s prosperity rests on agriculture. Agriculture depends on climate stability. Don’t be surprised by our concern. We know something isn’t right. We know our way of life is threatened, our farms and ranches, and God have mercy on us, the lives of our children and grandchildren are threatened. More of us would like to be able to use clean energy instead. Help us choose life. Divest and reinvest.”

For two years, Episcopalians in favor of divestment have been working to facilitate the conversations that led up to the introduction of the General Convention resolutions, said the Rev. Stephanie Johnson, who serves on Executive Council’s Science, Technology and Faith Committee.

“We met with Church Pension Fund, we met with the Episcopal Church Foundation, to tell them we wanted to move divestment; we wanted to be straightforward with them, tell them what we were working on and tell them we are committed to this,” she said in an June 29 interview with ENS.

“We heard a lot from them, they heard a lot from us, and that was part of our strategy, to have a lot of conversations. And Committee 16 (Environmental Stewardship and Care of Creation), this new environmental committee, did a phenomenal job of taking four resolutions and putting it together into a robust, thoughtful resolution that offers the church a way forward in this and gives it a really prophetic voice.”

Johnson praised the House of Bishops for passing C045.

“I’m so energized by this, this is huge,” said Johnson. “I mean this is what we’ve been hoping for, and as for dioceses and individual congregations, the resolution that was crafted said we are inviting them into conversation and reflection. This is not a call for them to do it, this is an invitation for them, if they would like to participate in divestment.”

In April, the Church of England, citing “a moral responsibility to protect the world’s poor from the impact of global warming” announced it would divest from tar sands oil and thermal coal, two of the most heavily polluting fossil fuels. It did not completely divest from all oil and gas companies where its corporate engagement has had some success.

The Episcopal Church engages in shareholder advocacy through the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility.

The House of Bishops adopted Resolution A030, which originally called for the creation of a task force, but was modified to call for the creation of a climate change advisory committee with one representative from each of The Episcopal Church’s nine provinces. The resolution also calls on each province to create a Regional Consultative Group composed “of no fewer than five experts in areas of environmental sustainability appropriate to the demographic, ecological, cultural and geographic specifics of each region.”

Diocese of Florida Bishop S. Johnson Howard offered an amendment, adding language stipulating that the advisory committee membership would represent what he described as “the diversity of scientific opinion on climate change and global warming” in order to give the committee’s work credibility in the wider world.

Two bishops responded that they believe, with the scientific community decidedly on one side of climate change at this point, little credible diversity could be added. The amendment failed.

Bishop of Rhode Island Nick Knisely, the resolution’s proposer, testified during a hearing of the Committee on Environmental Stewardship and Care of Creation, that the resolution was not intended to start an argument about the existence of climate change, but rather to provide the church with the resources to respond pastorally to people who are affected by climate change.

— Lynette Wilson, an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service, and General Convention correspondents Tracy J. Sukraw and Sharon Sheridan contributed to this report.


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Comments (5)

  1. Paul Hausman says:

    Seriously!

    is the house of bishops that shallow. Or is the ecotheology movement within the episcopal church that stupid.

    The moral right becomes wrong when it impacts the pocketbooks of our retired clergy?!!!
    Because beneath the thin veneer of jargon, that’s what our bishops just voted.

    Perhaps it’s not best to divest in fossil fuel companies. But if that’s true, then it must apply equally to the funds that support the Jesus movement as it does to the funds that support the retirement lives of people who led that movement . Elder clergy must be respected. But so must the needs of the poor, the bereft, and all others served by the church of Jesus Christ!

    Some thoughtful companies have been founded on the principle of “doing well by doing good”. They have found ways to marry moral and ethical principles with business success. And their efforts are worthy of admiration. Some organizations and individuals have made personal sacrifices in the name of moral values. And their efforts are worthy of admiration.

    I make no judgment on the value of divestment in fossil fuel businesses, nor on investment in alternative energy. But a person or group who calls others to sacrifice without a willingness to participate themselves is generally referred to as “hypocrite”. Today I am embarrassed by our bishops, whom I call hypocrite. I pray that the deputies have the wisdom to wrestle this issue to the truth. And to avoid the hypocrisy of today’s decision.

    1. I couldn’t agree with you more. I’m so tired of hearing about fiduciary responsibility when it applies to divestment from fossil fuels. What about our responsibility to the earth and to the humans, animals and plants who are suffering from global warming? Doesn’t God say something about our responsibility to care for creation? I’ve been involved in trying unsuccessfully to get the Diocese of California to divest, but I’m not giving up. And, clearly, the Church Pension Fund needs to stop stonewalling us on this issue. Where do they think all that money comes from that they are investing? It is basically a part of my salary and the salaries of other clergy, who want our money to be invested wisely for retirement. We deserve to have a say on how that investing is done. Not only is investment in fossil fuels immoral, but it is not even a good investment. Those who maintain investments in fossil fuels will inevitably find their investments decrease in value as the severity of global warming becomes worse.

  2. peter bnarrett says:

    The church continues to focus on global warming and ignoring the 103rd Psalm. The church will not be happy until we are all living in poverty.

  3. Rani Fischer says:

    Shareholder advocacy with fossil-fuel companies is futile. Here is an article of the results of shareholder advocacy with fossil fuel companies. By the SEC’s Rule (§ 240.14a-8), any company may exclude a shareholder proposal that challenges its business model. Since fossil fuel companies rely on mining and emitting carbon as their source of income, any challenge to them will go unheard.

    http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/06/29/us-climatechange-oilcompanies-governance-idUSKCN0P90DQ20150629

    1. Leslie Watson says:

      And speaking of Fiduciary responsibility, the enormous amount of potential stranded assets on the balance sheet of oil companies, plus potential carbon costs globally is a large threat to oil company balance sheets making these investments highly risky!

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