By Laura Hamilton
The movement to divest from fossil fuels and invest in renewable energy and climate solutions has exploded, growing fifty-fold in the past year. To date, 430 institutions and 2,040 individuals across 43 countries and representing $2.6 trillion in assets have committed to divest from fossil fuel companies.
Faith communities cannot, in good conscience, be strong advocates for addressing climate change while continuing to profit from fossil fuel companies. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said, “[p]eople of conscience need to break their ties with corporations financing the injustice of climate change.”
It is the love that we have for each other and our love for creation and for peace that compels faith communities to publicly divest from their holdings of fossil fuels shares and to reinvest in clean energy solutions: renewable energy production, conservation and storage.
Boycotts and divestment are nonviolent strategies of resistance that often go hand-in-hand. Some will argue that as long as we are using fossil fuels (and are unable to boycott them) it is hypocritical to be divesting from this industry. Yet there is a profound difference however between being captive of a system based on fossil fuels and willfully profiting from investments in the industries that produce and market them.
Many faith traditions share common values concerning the ethical use of financial resources. Throughout history, faith communities have decided that profiting from certain economic activities is incompatible with their beliefs. When an industry persistently, over years, causes massive harm while obstinately resisting calls for change, faith communities have moved beyond education, beyond advocacy, to divestment. The fossil fuel industry is committed to burning five times more fossil fuel than our planet can safely take, and is lobbying hard to keep it that way. Investing in this industry as we work for a just and sustainable future is morally flawed.
But divestment is bigger than aligning our investments with our values.
Divestment is about power.
The movement to divest from fossil fuels is powerful because it brings to light Canada’s unfair climate politics.
A 2013 study comparing Canadian and US public opinion on climate change found that 84% of Canadians agree we have a moral obligation to show international leadership by reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. Leaders across the globe recognize that a vast majority of fossil fuel reserves must be kept in the ground to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. Yet in Canada, acknowledging that our country’s fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions - the oil sands - cannot expand is politically taboo. Our national narrative links our economic well-being with increasing fossil fuel extraction.
For obvious reasons, this narrative is being perpetuated by the fossil fuel industry as they wield undue influence over our political leaders. The fossil fuel industry’s attempts to subvert climate science, their funding of climate deniers, and their efforts to perpetuate misinformation in order to avoid regulation and legislation that could hurt their profits, is well documented.
The parallels to the behaviour of big tobacco are obvious: they knowingly do this at the expense of our public good, and at the expense of our children’s future. This has resulted in substantial public subsidies to support this industry’s expansion, the gutting of environmental regulations, low tax and royalty rates, and the absence of meaningful regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
To challenge their influence by diminishing their social licence, we in the divestment movement are compelling our culturally and morally powerful institutions - our faith communities, universities, and charitable foundations - to publicly remove their investments from an industry whose self-interest threatens the long-term livability of our planet.
While dramatically reducing our greenhouse gas emissions and halting the expansion of oil sands projects are urgent imperatives, building viable, clean energy alternatives is equally important. Such bold policy initiatives require both political will and funding.
We can publicly divest from the root of the problem and reinvest in solutions. This demonstrates leadership in the just transition to our clean energy future and contributes much needed capital in support of this transition. It also clearly demonstrates support for public investments in these solutions, which should rival our historical support for the fossil fuel industry. In an election campaign dominated by concern for our economic well-being, we should see this as a new way forward. As the world de-carbonizes, Canada should seize the opportunity to become a global leader in clean energy solutions.
The climate crisis is coming to a head, and nothing short of clear, transformative action by a broad cross-section of society can bring about the change necessary to protect ourselves and the world we love. We are asking faith communities to have the courage to make a bold public statement - to be on the right side of history. We need champions for an ambitious vision, for a just transition to a low carbon economy – and to call for the decisive, large scale action that it will take to get us there.
We should expect this from our political leaders. But in the absence of political leadership, we are seeking moral leadership to compel our civic leaders to take action – bold action to address the root causes of the climate crisis and to create a future that is just and safe for generations to come.
Read CPJ's 2015 Election Bulletin, "Climate Justice is Public Justice."
Ask your candidates if they will end all subsidies to coal, oil, and gas producers and invest in renewable energy.
Christian organizations and churches that have divested from fossil fuels:
Laura Hamilton is a member of Divest Waterloo.