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Climate Change Divestment Campaign Spreads to America's Churches

Religious communities were crucial participants in many great American social movements. Is climate change next?

Jan 10, 2013
Minister and community activist Rev. Lennox Yearwood speaks during one of Bill M

A fast-spreading movement to persuade universities to rid their endowments of fossil fuel assets is now taking root in America's churches.

"With the civil rights movement, the youth led and the churches followed," said Fred Small, minister of the Unitarian Universalist First Parish Church in Cambridge, Mass. The church is one of dozens of congregations across the country exploring how to divest their portfolios of coal, oil and gas companies.

"If young people see divestment as a key issue in the climate fight, then it is important for us to get involved," Small said.

The furthest along is the 1.2 million-member United Church of Christ, which will hold a national vote in June to adopt a fossil fuel divestment measure. Since November, divestment campaigns have spread to 210 universities in the United States and Canada, and to the city of Seattle, the first municipality seeking to divest its $1.9 billion pension fund.

The campaign is organized by 350.org, a grassroots climate organization founded by author turned activist Bill McKibben. It is part of a larger effort to boost the moral case for action by drawing attention to what McKibben calls global warming's "terrifying new math." Based on peer-reviewed science, the numbers say energy firms must keep 80 percent of their carbon reserves in the ground to limit the global temperature rise to the critical 2-degrees Celsius mark.

In an interview, McKibben said involvement of faith communities is crucial for climate action to become a great American movement.

"It's hard to think of a significant social advance in which churches didn't play a powerful role," he said. "And since the very first page of the good book asks us to exercise careful dominion over the earth, environmental stewardship is a key tenet of many synagogues, mosques, and churches."

Climate activism is nothing new for some American religious communities.

When legislation to tackle global warming was being seriously debated in Congress a few years ago, Roman Catholic, evangelical, Jewish, Muslim and interfaith leaders, among others, were part of campaigns to pressure Washington to set greenhouse gas limits on moral grounds. "Every religion teaches us to honor creation and care for the poor and vulnerable," who will bear the brunt of climate impacts, Small of First Parish said. "Clearly there is a religious imperative for us to get involved."

But the defeat of federal climate legislation, the failure of leadership at the United Nations Climate Conference in Copenhagen, the struggling economy and the rise of global warming skepticism in U.S. politics dampened prospects for climate policy. As a result, vocal church campaigns seemed to die out.

"I wouldn't confuse a lack of noise with a lack of action," according to Ben Lowe, director of young adult ministries at the Evangelical Environmental Network, one of the oldest religious groups focused on environmental issues in the United States.

Lowe said churches have been more focused on educating members about climate issues in the past few years, building up a base of support. He said that while evangelical churches typically don't have endowments, he has been watching the divestment campaign with interest and expects church leaders across the country to grow more vocal as global warming resurfaces in political debate.

Among evangelical Christians, the largest single religious group in the United States, there are still sharp divisions over the need for climate policy. The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), the country's biggest evangelical organization, doesn't have an official stance on climate action. Some evangelical-affiliated churches and political leaders maintain that Earth cannot be drastically affected by human activities. 

The NAE told InsideClimate News it doesn't have a position on fossil fuel divestment.

First Vote in June

The United Church of Christ, a liberal Protestant denomination and the fifteenth-largest religious collective in the United States, has been at the forefront of faith-based climate efforts. In 2009, it passed a resolution asking its 5,600 churches to go carbon neutral by 2016. The church holds carbon fasts during Lent and often participates in climate protests, such as those against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

This year, the UCC will hold a vote at its annual national meeting in June on a resolution urging its churches to divest from the 200 largest fossil fuel companies. The resolution is being introduced by the Massachusetts branch of the UCC. The chapter is also looking into how its 386 statewide congregations can divest ahead of the national vote.

National resolutions aren't legally binding, but most churches end up complying, according to Jim Antal, minister and president of the Massachusetts branch who is leading the effort. The UCC has a national pension fund worth $2.9 billion. Each local church controls its own endowments.

The UCC Pension Boards did not respond to requests for information on how much of its pension is invested in fossil fuels. Antal said UCC churches across the country have reached out to him to pledge their support or learn more about divesting their endowment funds.

Julie Fanselow, a spokesperson for Interfaith Power and Light, a campaign aimed at helping churches address climate change, said she has heard rumblings that religious leaders of several faiths are looking into divestiture, including Episcopalians, Methodists and Presbyterians, among others.

Small at First Parish in Cambridge said his congregation will discuss divesting its roughly $5 million endowment at its investment meeting next month, and said he has talked with several other Unitarian Universalist churches interested in following suit. There are roughly 1,000 Unitarian Universalist churches across the country, which are non-denominational and socially liberal.  

Advocates say divestment is largely symbolic in terms of its ability to affect the fossil fuel industry, but they believe participation of religious institutions could advance their larger cause. Forty percent of Americans—nearly 125 million people—attend religious services every week or almost every week, according to polls.

"Our political system has thus far shown itself incapable of facing this issue," Small said. "Hopefully millions of people taking a stance on this issue through their involvement with religious communities will resonate with politicians."

In his role as president of the Massachusetts Conference of the UCC, Antal said he spends each Sunday preaching at a different church in the state and tries to incorporate climate change into roughly every other sermon.

"The difference in the number of people that take offense or oppose my sermons [about climate change] from seven years ago to now is incredible," he said. "The question has shifted from, 'Is this happening?' to 'What can we do about it?'"

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