First, what is fossil fuel divestment?
It simply involves re-allocating any investments a person or organization has in the 200 largest publicly traded fossil fuel companies.
This constitutes a moral stand and sends a message to the industry.
Divestment is a strategy that has worked in relation to the tobacco industry, Darfur and, or course, apartheid.
Divestment is also an opportunity for re-investment. That is, dropping investments in companies that benefit from climate change and increasing investment in companies whose business model involves moving the world away from climate change.
Divestment does not involve shutting down the fossil fuel industry or abandoning life as we know it.
The case for divestment (and some common objections)
Fossil fuel divestment is an ethically imperfect, strategically important chance to move the climate discussion forward (hopefully toward further action).
To sign the Open Letter on this site is to say, in essence, that we need to keep looking at what more we can do to address climate change and we need to do so collectively.
That said, there are some objections to divestment that are worthy of consideration:
1.) It’s hypocritical. I just filled my tank with gas, how can I call for divestment?
Even if we use fossil fuels, we don’t have to pad our portfolios with global warming profits. There is an undeniable element of duplicity, but are two wrongs (burning fuel and investing in climate change) somehow better than one (just burning the stuff)?
If it’s wrong to wreck the planet, it’s doubly wrong to profit from the wreckage.
But of course, things are more complex than just that.
Divestment is a carefully thought out strategy to address climate-related public policy by weakening the companies that have successfully lobbied against policies that would make it easier for all of us to reduce our climate impacts. These companies not only provide us with what have become the necessities of our lives, they actively and aggressively resist public policy that would reduce carbon emissions.
The case for the movement has been made most clearly by Bill McKibben, who wrote one of the first books about climate change for a general audience in 1989 and who Time Magazine calls “the planet’s best green journalist.” He is also vocal about his Christian faith. Many of you will be familiar with him.
In summer 2012, Rolling Stone published a passionate article in which McKibben laid out his argument for divestment. The summary:
– We’re headed for climate doom.
– Efforts to date to halt global warming have failed.
– Change on an individual level is important but such change takes something we don’t have: time.
– Broader policy change is really the only hope, esp placing a price on carbon (proceeds to be invested in energy alternatives).
– Despite public support for such policy, fossil fuel companies have successfully stymied it.
– Divestment is a long shot, but maybe the best shot we have.
– It worked in relation to tobacco, Darfur and apartheid.
McKibben’s argument isn’t perfect, but it may be the best we have.
Let not the perfect be the enemy of the good. Let not a measure of hypocrisy paralyze us from doing the halting good we can. If only people of 100% ethical purity did good, there would be a whole lot of us wringing our hands on the sidelines of our childrens’ and grandchildrens’ unenviable future.
Some day, younger generations will ask our generations what we were thinking.
Encouraging Mennonite Church Canada to study divestment in no way precludes individual measures to reduce GHG emissions. Nor does it preclude faith communities from lamenting our oil entanglement and working through the spiritual stress around that (as per the pipeline prayer event last year).
Freeing ourselves completely of oil is a paralyzing thought, and we need to be attentive to that reality. At the same time we need to act creatively and collectively to take the reasonable, life-giving, earth-saving measures before us (as many of you do).
2.) Shouldn’t we encourage big oil companies to change instead of ditching investments in them?
Some investors go this route, encouraging change by means of shareholder resolutions and direct communication with company executives. Other people say not only that there is little evidence that this works but that the fundamental core objective of these companies is to burn as much fossil fuel as possible. Shareholder action won’t change that.
In his 2012 article, Bill McKibben noted that some of the big oil companies––he uses BP as an example–—made forays into alternative energy. “But,” he writes, “its investments in alternative energy were never more than a tiny fraction of its budget for hydrocarbon exploration, and after a few years, many of those were wound down as new CEOs insisted on returning to the company’s ‘core business.’
“In December, BP finally closed its solar division. Shell shut down its solar and wind efforts in 2009. The five biggest oil companies have made more than $1 trillion in profits since the millennium – there’s simply too much money to be made on oil and gas and coal to go chasing after zephyrs and sunbeams.”
One case for investor engagement vs. divestment can be read here:
Insights for Investors Working for Bolder Intervention on Climate Change (Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility)
For those who choose engagement over divestment, that engagement should be active and concerted, lest it become an idle justification for continued profits.
McKibben’s case for divestment vs all other options can be found here:
“Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math”
3.) The Open Letter is not theological enough.
The letter is about ethical and moral responsibility. It is about responding to a global phenomenon that directly affects growing number of “the least of these” every year. It is about respecting the earth that God created. It is for, within and about church.
Theologians have been slogging away on this stuff for a long time. We wanted a concise call to action, not a theological treatise. We assume that those who sign bring the full weight of their faith and theology to this matter.
4.) The letter is an affront to our faith leaders; that’s not how we operate.
MC Canada leaders have shown considerable willingness to address climate issues. The letter acknowledges this and encourages continued work. It is meant as respectful, constructive participation in church process.
5.) I’m not into click-here-to-change-the-world schemes.
We’re not either. But this seemed like a logical, though imperfect, way to gather and focus the concerns and energies of MC Canada people across the country and beyond. It is a letter within a faith community, not an anonymous, out-of-the-blue-ether online blitz.
6.) Too political.
Mennonites of the MC Canada variety have long been deeply involved in many political matters—abortion, same sex marriage, voting, restorative justice, peace, Aboriginal issues, etc. Much of what we do and buy has political implications. Perhaps it is time to give this old, generic, go-to Mennonite excuse a rest and talk about what is really at stake and what our public responsibility is.
Finally, the following are a few resources that might help you discern whether divestment is a sound strategy in our collective efforts to engage climate change.
- Combating Climate Change: is divestment a good idea? (The Guardian, Nov. 2013)
- Frequently Asked Questions about Divestment (Go Fossil Free, December 2013)
- 11 Reasons to Divest From Fossil Fuels (CommonsenseCanadian, July 2013)
- The Case for Fossil Fuel Divestment (Bill McKibben, Rolling Stone, February 2013)
- What Would Jesus Divest? (Ecojustice.org, May 2013)
- The Parable of the Talents & Fossil Fuel Divestment (Greenfaith.org, acc. Dec. 2013)