God, money, and the environment: Religious fossil fuel divestments

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God, money, and the environment: Religious fossil fuel divestments

Churches preach ethics. They also invest. How do they view investments in – and divestments from – fossil fuels? Read on to find out!

Fossil fuel divestments – what is it and why has it caught on?

As the world goes through what may become the hottest year on record, [1] calls for governments, companies, and individuals to act decisively continue to grow.[2] Religious institutions are by no means immune from such calls.[3] Over the course of the past decade, faith institutions around the world have encouraged affiliated institutions to adopt fossil fuels divestments.[4] To the excitement of many climate activists, both in and out of the United Kingdom, the Church of England hardened its stance on investments in fossil fuels in June 2023.

The push for fossil fuel divestment has long been a rallying cry for climate activists.[5] The premise behind it is simple: fossil fuel companies continue to dig, mine, and manufacture petrol, and other such fuels, at levels that will continue to contribute to man-made climate change. As people use petrol, for instance, they release greenhouse gases, like CO2, which contribute to global warming.

Why, then, do companies continue to manufacture fossil fuels? And why do other companies invest in these endeavours? Quite simply, because it is profitable.[6] Therefore, to encourage companies and, by proxy, people to move away from fossil fuel use, adopt sustainable energy sources, and thereby help slow the release of greenhouse gases, the divestment movement has developed.[7]

The history of faith-based fossil fuel divestment

In May 2020, a spokesman from the Vatican enthusiastically noted that over 42 faith institutions from 14 countries had decided to divest.[8] The timing of the announcement was to celebrate five years since Pope Francis gave a speech on protecting the world’s ecology.[9]

The groups that joined the announcement came from a variety of faiths, including Methodists, Catholics, Quakers, and Buddhists.[10]

The majority of the signatories, 24 of them, come from Catholic faith groups spanning the globe. Such institutions include certain dioceses, like the Archdiocese of Semarang, Indonesia or the Diocese of São José dos Campos in Brazil.[11] While many of these institutions are not awash in as much finances as banks and hedge funds, they are not negligible. For example, in April 2020, a series of Catholic organisations, holding over $40 billion in assets, signed an ‘Investing Pledge’.[12] While not devoted solely to fossil fuel divestment, the group agrees to “incorporate impact investment into their portfolio in alignment with Catholic Social Teachings and the urgency for action on environmental and social justice issues.”[13] And, at the very least, the symbolism packs a punch.

The Church of England divests, citing environmental concerns

In the summer of 2022, church investments in fossil fuels generated controversy, as the press revealed that the chair of the Church of England pension board owned fossil fuel shares himself.[14] In the immediate aftermath, however, the Church of England remained invested. This differentiated it from its fellow Christian denominations, the Baptist Union and the United Reform Church, both of which had already divested.[15] [16]

Yet those deriding the lack of action from the Anglican Church finally had cause to celebrate in June 2023, when the Church of England announced a new divestment policy. Acknowledging that many fossil fuel companies have not lived up to their climate pledges, the Church of England announced it would divest from them unless they clean up their act.[17] According to the Church, the decision of several fossil fuel companies, like Shell and BP, to curb back on previously announced oil restrictions, forced the Church’s hand.[18] [19]

Echoing sentiments from Pope Francis’ 2015 speech, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the de facto head of the Anglican Church, emphasised our collective responsibility. He noted that the climate crisis “threatens the planet we live on, and people around the world who Jesus Christ calls us to love as our neighbors.”[20] Many celebrated this announcement, including Operation Noah, an organisation working towards this goal for years.[21]

Operation Noah and Catholic fossil fuel divestment

Throughout many of the divestment calls in the UK have been Operation Noah, a faith-based, Christian environmentalist group. The Operation has been pushing for divestment for years[22] and adopted a 40 Days, 40 Dioceses campaign earlier in 2023, advocating for the divestment of as many locales as possible.[23] The group largely targeted the Church of England and the Catholic Church.[24] Notably, dioceses in both of those had divested, but some remained uncertain.[25] With the Church of England’s announcement, certain Catholic groups remain the largest faith-based fossil fuel investors in the UK.[26]

Other religious divestment movements

Operation Noah and the Vatican are far from the only religious figures calling for environmentally motivated divestment from religious institutions. In December 2022, Dayenu, a climate change organisation led by American Jews, released a report on how Jewish groups could better invest.[27] The report emphasised the benefits of cleaner energy and the moral underpinnings of divestment.[28] Muslim groups, at least in North America, have chimed in for divestment, too.[29]

Impact of faith-based fossil fuel divestment

While many environmental groups have celebrated the recent actions of the Church of England, sceptics remain about the efficacy of the whole movement. While fossil fuels have certainly contributed to climate change, less certain is how effective and persuasive divestment movements will be. That being the case, many are still pleased with the symbolic nature that the Church’s investment has on public perceptions.

Tyler Mikulis

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[1] Fears of hottest year on record as global temperatures spike

[2] Policy Watch: Europe beefs up Green Deal in response to Biden’s climate subsidies

[3] ’40 Days, 40 Dioceses’ – Which Dioceses Haven’t Made Divestment Commitments?

[4] 42 faith groups in 14 countries announce divestment from fossil fuels

[5] A beginner’s guide to fossil fuel divestment

[6] Big Oil doubles profits in blockbuster 2022

[7] A beginner’s guide to fossil fuel divestment

[8] 42 faith groups in 14 countries announce divestment from fossil fuels

[9] Laudato Si’

[10] 42 faith groups in 14 countries announce divestment from fossil fuels

[11] 42 faith groups in 14 countries announce divestment from fossil fuels

[12] Catholic Impact Investing Pledge

[13] Catholic Impact Investing Pledge

[14] Church of England pension boss’s shares in Shell ‘shocking’, say campaigners

[15] All 13 synods now divested from fossil fuels

[16] Divestment resolution passed by Baptist Union Council

[17] C of E divests of fossil fuels as oil and gas firms ditch climate pledges

[18] C of E divests of fossil fuels as oil and gas firms ditch climate pledges

[19] Church of England divests from fossil fuels after oil and gas companies fail on climate

[20] Jesus vs. Big Oil: Church of England divests

[21] PRESS RELEASE: Operation Noah Reacts to Church of England’s Divestment Announcement

[22] Church Investment in Climate Solutions

[23] 40 Days, 40 Dioceses’ – Which Dioceses Haven’t Made Divestment Commitments?

[24] 40 Days, 40 Dioceses’ – Which Dioceses Haven’t Made Divestment Commitments?

[25] Half the Catholic dioceses of England and Wales have now divested from fossil fuels

[26] C of E divests of fossil fuels as oil and gas firms ditch climate pledges

[27] Bechol M’odecha: With All Our Might – How the Jewish Community Can Invest in a Just, Livable Future

[28] Jewish Institutions Should Divest Billions in Fossil Fuels New Report Says

[29] Muslim group divests from fossil fuels