7 july 2018

Moral Christians must press the Church of England to pull its money out of fossil fuels

Only by flexing our economic muscles can we face down this existential threat to humanity

Rowan Williams, The Telegraph, 7 July 2018

A couple of weeks’ uncomfortably hot weather is, for most of us, a minor nuisance at worst. We’ll take it for granted that it won’t last and that we’ll pay for it later in the summer. But the truth is that the last four years have been globally the hottest on record. And the places most seriously affected by this are not in a position to laugh it off as a little temporary blip.

More than 40 million people in South Asia have been affected by floods in the past year. Severe drought still prevails in sub-Saharan Africa. And the succession of hurricanes – Harvey, Maria, Irma – hitting Texas, Puerto Rico and the Caribbean are part of a pattern of "extreme" weather generally agreed to be rooted in climate change.

The overwhelming consensus is that our levels of fossil fuel consumption play a significant role in the processes of climate change; hence the growing campaign to rein in fossil fuel extraction worldwide, and to put pressure on oil and gas companies to take prompt and effective action to reduce carbon emissions in line with the levels urged in the Paris Agreement of 2015.

The threat of significant divestment is increasingly being used to bring this pressure to bear. And it is something of a landmark that, in a ComRes poll conducted in October last year, 78 per cent of those polled agreed that it was morally wrong to invest in companies whose activities intensified climate change.

Morally wrong: profitable or not, certain kinds of industrial activity are now widely seen as simply not acceptable by many in the population, especially among the under-thirties. The university in which I work is still wrestling with the question of how it responds to the very vocal and consistent concerns of its student members about its investment policy and has already sketched the direction in which it wants to move, towards a carbon-neutral future.

So where in all this is the Christian Church, with its historic claim to offer a moral compass for society? This weekend, the General Synod of the Church of England will debate its holdings in some of the world’s largest – and most criticised – oil and gas companies, thanks to a motion from local churches in the Oxford diocese.

It will not be the first church to raise the issue. The Lutheran Church of Sweden, the Anglican Church in Southern Africa and the World Council of Churches have already agreed that they will not risk profiting from the suffering of their brothers and sisters around the world as a result of environmentally irresponsible behaviour by extractive industries. They have moved to disinvest from fossil fuel companies that are taking no steps to align with the targets set in Paris two and a half years ago.

So far, like many large institutions, the Church of England has argued for a strategy of engagement and influence from within. But the question has to be asked: how effective has this proved to date? At the AGM of Shell in May a resolution was put forward by church-based investors calling for the setting of clear carbon emission reductions along Paris lines. The motion was opposed by the management and received only 5.5 per cent of the votes. Is engagement working?

"What we are seeing in climate change is something that will move people on a scale that we have never dreamt of in the history of humankind."Archbishop Justin Welby

At the same time, it is clear that Shell and similar companies are apprehensive about disinvestment – and about the looming threat of litigation based on adverse environmental effects. It is a good moment to sharpen up the response.

The motion at Synod envisages disinvestment from any company that has not produced a Paris-compliant business plan by 2020. In other words, it is not calling for instant disinvestment or an instant turn-around by companies; what it is doing is giving notice that the church believes this matter to be too urgent to be left to what can be done through "engagement" alone. There must be a red line or two laid down.

The Church of England has a record of using its investment policy to advance what it believes to be Christian and ethical goals, putting pressure on South Africa in the apartheid era, dropping its investment in Vedanta some years ago in protest about that company’s environmental record and employment practices, monitoring any possible involvement in arms trading, and so on. It has been willing to step out as a moral leader in a number of areas, and its present leadership has been clear about the gravity of the climate change question.

Archbishop Justin Welby spoke forcefully last week at the London Stock Exchange about this as "an existential problem for the entire global community in a way that nothing else is", and warned of how, unless we could control it, it would control our future and our children’s.

This weekend’s debate is an opportunity for the Church of England to encourage our society to take control of a question which threatens to overwhelm us before it is too late. On Ash Wednesday in 2012, I and other church leaders signed a declaration committing the churches to "find joy in creation", to take responsibility for the world we inhabit, to listen to the voices of those most touched by the effects of environmental disaster and degradation – and to act with hope.

But our world needs more than encouraging words, and that declaration still waits to be put into full and energetic practice. The Church can do more than hand-wringing or exhortation. The environmental issue is one that so easily appears as too big for any of us to handle.

Reasoned but bold intervention, pushing the expectations laid down in Paris in 2015 and at other meetings since then a bit further towards realisation, is one clear way in which Christians can discharge their responsibility to witness to the possibility of a world where we have at last recognised that the only just human future is one where we acknowledge the neighbour’s jeopardy as ours too.

As Archbishop Justin says, no current issue brings this more dramatically into focus than the challenges of climate change.

Rowan Williams is the former Archbishop of Canterbury and Chair of Christian Aid

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