The case for the Irish churches to tackle climate change by divesting their pensions and other investments from fossil-fuels.
The Maldives are a place close to my heart. Though I’ve never been, its stunning seas, wonderful wildlife and beautiful people have long captured my imagination. I’ve also spent many a moment and meeting praying that its restrictive regime might become more open, allowing true freedom of religion: I believe the people of the Maldives deserve the chance to hear and see the good news of Jesus Christ.
But there’s more at stake here than religious freedom alone. That’s because the Maldives faces another existential threat, one that has the potential to wipe this entire island archipelago off the face of the earth: climate change.
Rising sea levels that threaten to submerge not only vulnerable island nations far away, but also many regions and cities closer to home, are but one symptom of our changing climate, brought about by our over-consumption of fossil-fuels: coal, oil and gas. Our recent warm, wet winter is yet another. The overwhelming scientific consensus – shared by 97% of climate scientists and by national academies of science worldwide – is that climate change is real, is already happening and needs to be urgently tackled now.
All is not lost, however. Building on the recent Paris agreement that commits the world’s nations to a maximum temperature rise of 2° Celsius, though ideally of 1.5°, the deal also aims for, in effect, the ending of all coal, oil and gas use by 2050. For this to happen, and catastrophic climate change to be avoided, 60 – 80% of all fossil-fuel reserves need to stay in the ground.
This is where divestment comes in. These fossil-fuel reserves that must not be burned represent a massive moral and financial liability for the companies that own them, and for the individuals and organisations that invest in them: us. Given the urgent necessity to move to an economy and society powered by 100% renewable energy, there is a considerable opportunity here for responsible, forward-thinking investors – that’s you and me, by the way, as well as our churches – to take their money out of the dirty energy of the past and reinvest it in the clean alternatives of the present and the future.
Nor is this a niche concern. The divestment movement around the world has gathered momentum, from small beginnings in the USA to a global phenomenon supported by the UN and committed to by investors large and small: universities, councils, charities and even some national pension funds, such as Norway’s. Various churches, including the Church of England and the World Council of Churches, have also signed-up. The case for the Irish churches to actively consider doing so as well is now more compelling than ever before, though, admittedly, different denominations are at different stages along the road to doing so.
With some stock market indexes, such as the American S&P 500, giving better returns on investment once fossil-fuel companies are excluded; with renewable energy sources now financially competitive with non-renewable ones, particularly once the $541 billion of direct subsidies for dirty energy (versus $120 billion for clean energy) are accounted for; with the opportunities for individuals, communities and organisations to take increasing control over their (renewable) energy production, with all the financial and employment benefits for them that this entails: these are just some of the many reasons why divestment makes sense.
In addition, the Irish churches are well known for their generous giving to both long-term and emergency aid and development appeals. And, via this wonderful legacy, we treat the symptoms and victims of climate change – be it floods in Malawi (or Ireland), or drought in Syria. But it is not enough. It also makes perfect sense to comprehensively address the causes of climate change – fossil-fuel overuse – right here at home.
Theses significant issues also raise pertinent questions that we must answer. What is the ultimate purpose of the economy? Are people and the rest of creation mere resources to serve its every whim, or is it the economy that should exist to help us, and all of the other species that we share this marvellous planet with, flourish?
And where does money fit within our Christian faith? Is the Son of God whom we serve a spiritualised pocket-Jesus, whom we shoehorn into a comfortable middle-class straight-jacket, and who is Lord of our souls only? Or is He King of heaven and earth, whose Lordship over all things – including our economics, our finances and our investments – we gladly acknowledge and actively pursue, so that, in the words of the Lord’s prayer, His ‘kingdom might come on earth as it is in heaven’?
And what of the Maldives, and many other places like them, near and far? Do we love them enough to pray for them and tell them Jesus loves them, but not enough, in light of climate change, to reform our investments and our ways? James 2:26 says ‘faith without works is dead.’ In short, do we love our God, His people and His world enough to literally put our money where our mouth is, by embracing divestment and becoming a fossil-free faith?
Gloria in excelsis Deo. Versions of this article appear in the Presbyterian Herald, the Methodist Newsletter and the Church of Ireland Gazette.
A panel discussion on fossil-fuel divestment by the Irish churches will be held at Queen’s University Belfast on the 23rd February 2016 at 7pm. More details here.