Faith action on climate: Presbyterians will initiate climate action in June

  • Published on June 10th, 2018

At the national level, Presbyterian action on climate change goes back to 1981 and has been discussed and debated at most General Assembly (GA) meetings since. The Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA), a 1.5 million member denomination, has long acknowledged the realities of climate change, the adverse impacts on the poorest communities and people of color, and the urgent need to reduce fossil fuel consumption.

Anni Betts wind power solar farm Bob Taylor
Citizens Climate Lobby

At the GA meeting in St. Louis, Missouri, June 16-23, commissioners will be considering 10 climate-related overtures from some of its constituent presbyteries (regional groupings of congregations). The proposals include calls for divestment of Church funds from fossil fuel companies, increased investments in renewables and/or energy efficiency, expanded efforts to educate and engage members so they will take individual and collective actions to slow climate change, promotion of environmental justice on behalf of those most impacted by climate change, and advocacy for policies which support carbon pricing, including Carbon Fee and Dividend.

Attention on fossil fuel divestment

The overture calling for the Church to divest from fossil fuel companies has received the largest support (endorsed by 40 of its 173 presbyteries) and will probably receive the most media attention. Divestment supporters are planning a 260-mile walk, departing June 1 from the denomination’s headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky, to arrive 15 days later in St. Louis for the opening of the GA meeting. Echoing divestment movements at universities, public institutions and pension funds around the world, proponents assert that it is no longer ethically right for the Church to profit from companies that are creating ecological destruction and human suffering on such a monumental scale. For over a century, the denomination has prohibited investment in companies producing alcohol, tobacco, gambling or weapons of war. They divested from companies doing business in apartheid South Africa.

However, since 1986, with the creation of an Office of Mission Responsibility through Investments (MRTI), the denomination has focused on dialogue with corporations, voting proxies, and supporting shareholder resolutions. Divestment supporters claim that this effort has had little effect on corporate behavior. Those opposing divestment believe that MRTI will have more influence on fossil fuel companies since recently joining forces with Ceres, a sustainability nonprofit organization working with investors who together represent $30 trillion in assets. PCUSA’s investment funds total about $10 billion, but only about $300 million is currently invested in fossil fuel companies.

Members of Citizens Climate Lobby move overtures forward

Five of the 10 overtures emanate from presbyteries where CCL members participated in preparing or supporting them. Bill Bray, a retired architect and engineer who worked with ExxonMobil, and Ron Spross, a scientist in the oil service industry, are leaders of CCL chapters in the greater Houston, Texas, area. Carbon pricing, they contend, is especially important in the Houston area where the economy is dependent on the petroleum industry. “Every part of society and every individual consumes that energy and incentivizes its consumption,” Spross asserts. “

Carbon pricing legislation recognizes our collective responsibility and provides a way for the PCUSA to support climate action across the political spectrum. It’s supported by a wide range of businesses, including the major petroleum companies, since it gives them a way to plan and the incentive to move their business into a carbon neutral future.”

CCL influence can be seen in this quote from their presbytery’s overture: “Consistent rational pricing of emissions will enlist market forces to drive those changes in individual and institutional consumption necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and will provide the economic incentive necessary to promote investment to develop and implement low-carbon or zero-carbon infrastructure and technologies.” If the GA adopts carbon pricing or CF&D, Bray says, “It will allow the Presbyterian community and the CCL nation to work together to develop the political will for Congress to enact Carbon Fee & Dividend that much sooner.”

Tomie Evans is a tech systems architect with Wells Fargo and a CCL member from Minneapolis, Minnesota. Last summer her employer gave her a three month paid leave to pursue her passion, which in her case is an urgent concern for climate change. “My job and climate work are similar,” Evans says. “Both involve discovering and explaining solutions for large, complex needs with contradictory requirements.” Fired up from her focused study, Evans, along with others, convinced her Presbytery to specifically endorse Carbon Fee and Dividend as a just and effective approach to pricing carbon. This overture invites all 9,541 congregations of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to learn about CF&D and to promote it as they engage with their elected officials.

“The goal,” Evans says, “is for tens to hundreds of thousands of the 1.5 million Presbyterians to engage Congress with respect, appreciation, and love, each month, either as church activity or partnering with CCL.”

If you know members of the PCUSA, urge them to contact their GA commissioners to encourage them to support these climate actions.

(Bob Taylor is a volunteer in the Orange Coast chapter of Citizens Climate Lobby in Newport Beach, California. Image by Anni Betts.)

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