PC(USA) General Assembly Committee 9 Preview

Immigration and Environmental Issues Committee will mull fossil fuel divestment

May 9, 2016

LOUISVILLE

[Editor's Note - May 10, 2016] This story has been updated to reflect items added to Committee 9's business page after the report was originally filed: item's 09-09 through 09-11. GB

Competing overtures—one seeking Presbyterian divestment from fossil fuel companies, the other placing that action on hold—will headline the work of the Immigration and Environmental Issues Committee during the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

The General Assembly runs June 18-25 in Portland, Oregon.

In item 09-01, the Presbytery of San Francisco overtures the General Assembly to call upon the Board of Pensions and the Presbyterian Foundation to stop any new direct investment in fossil fuel companies and to work over the next three years not to own such assets. Instead, those entities are charged with “actively seeking out and investing in renewable and energy efficiency related securities.”

Item 09-02, brought by the Presbytery of the New Covenant, seeks postpone complete divestment “because it does not meet the denomination’s long-standing process for consideration of divestment.” Instead, according to the recommendation, the General Assembly should request that the two affected agencies and the Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program “study ways that investments can best be leveraged to help care for God’s creation and mitigate the negative effects of climate change.”

Divestment will, according to the pro-divestment overture, place the PC(USA) alongside ecumenical partners, including Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists and the United Church of Christ, which have all committed to divest. It also protects the denomination’s financial interests, because, it is argued, “in the carbon-constrained world we are entering, the value of fossil fuel companies will decline.”

The divestment alternative argues that it’s possible for Presbyterians to address the issue of climate change by continuing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and approving lower-carbon and zero-carbon technologies and lifestyles. “Divestment has no direct effect on climate and makes no difference in individual behaviors,” as argued in the rationale. “In addition, divestment renders a moral judgment on thousands of good, moral Presbyterians who are employed within the fossil fuel sector.”

The Presbytery of New Covenant has two additional overtures on climate change – item 09-03, which is about faithfully engaging climate change, and 09-04, which is labeled “On Faithful Response to Climate Change.”

The first includes 15 recommendations for faithful engagement. Those include repenting “from our inadequate stewardship of God’s creation” and recognizing “the Gospel’s call and the moral mandate for humanity to shift to a long-term sustainable energy regime in ways that are both just and compassionate.” It calls on Presbyterians to work to establish a “consistent, rational and equitable global pricing mechanism for greenhouse gasses” while protecting the poor from “the regressive nature of the pricing mechanism” around emissions pricing. It also asks the foundation, Board of Pensions and PILP to allocate funds that target climate change solutions, such as PILP’s Restoring Creation Loan program.

Item 09-04 contains a seven-part response to climate change. Those include commending Mission Responsibility through Investment (MRTI) “for its long history of engagement with companies on issues related to climate change” and urging MRTI to continue that engagement, “applying the long-standing PC(USA) principles related to consideration of divestment.” It also asks Presbyterians to recognize “that divestment does not excuse us from the requirement for faithful responses that do alter behaviors.”

Item 09-07, an overture from the Presbytery of Boston, asks the General Assembly to approve an “Affirmation of Creation.” After tracing nearly 14 billion years of creation, the affirmation notes that God “has connected all life on Earth in a network of kinship by virtue of descent with modification from common ancestors.” By virtue of “the powers of intellect and creativity called forth in us by God, we bear exceptional responsibility for the future of the Earth and all its constitutive creatures,” the recommendation states.

In item 09-08, the Presbytery of Seattle asks the General Assembly to empower the Office of Public Witness in Washington, D.C., and the Presbyterian Ministry to the United Nations in New York “to witness against environmental degradation and to affirm public policy that supports good stewardship of natural resources.” With “firm biblical foundation and the policies of twenty General Assemblies to build upon,” those agencies can give voice to concerns like water quality; threats from hydraulic fracturing, crude oil transport and storage; and threats from methane that results from industrial processes.

The Presbytery of Santa Fe’s item 09-05 seeks General Assembly approval for encouraging throughout the PC(USA) the study of Pope Francis’ encyclical, “Laudato Si.” It’s available at https://laudatosi.com/watch.

Only one overture, 09-06, is on immigration. The Presbytery of New York City seeks to respond to people who are refugees or are internally displaced. It would direct appropriate agencies, office and staff to advocate for and seek to improve “matters related to United States government refugee resettlement policies and related issues.”

Those would include advocating for a shortened overseas processing period for refugees approved for admission to the U.S., increasing federal funding to expand the number of refugees and admitting refugees as lawful permanent residents to increase their personal security.

The overture also urges presbyteries, sessions and pastors to encourage congregations to host, co-sponsor and/or support refugee families. That can include basic support such as clothing, housing, furniture and food as well as “a social connection for refugees to assist their acclimation to the community—including a welcoming voice for Muslims.”

Item 09-09, is the Mission Responsibility through Investment report on divestment from fossil fuel companies. 

MRTI’s report calls for the church to commend companies – especially those in the oil, gas and coal sectors – that have addressed climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The report calls on corporations to increase efforts to address climate change through their corporate governance, strategies, implementation, transparency and disclosure, and public policies.

It also commends the PC(USA)’s Foundation for providing, through its New Covenant Trust Company subsidiary, the option of fossil-free managed portfolios to congregations, as well as the efforts of the Board of Pensions and the Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program for other fossil-free options and programs.

Rather than divest from fossil fuel holdings, MRTI asks the General Assembly for permission “to pursue its focused engagement process on climate change issues,” especially with companies in the oil, gas and coal sectors. MRTI would then report back to the 223rd General Assembly in 2018 with recommendations – possibly including divestment, “if significant changes in governance, strategy, implementation, transparency and disclosure, and public policy are not instituted,” the report states.

Item 09-10 is called “A Collaborative Agenda for Environmental Stewardship.” It comes from a variety of agencies, including the Board of Pensions, Office of the General Assembly, PC(USA) Foundation, Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program, Presbyterian Mission Agency and the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation.

The strategy lays out the history of how each agency has helped Presbyterians toward eco-friendly options and indicates the work ahead.

Finally the Presbytery of New Castle, in item 09-11, wants to add a 12th duty—caring for God’s creation—to the ministry of members found in G-1.0304 in the Book of Order. In a concurrence, Lake Michigan and Heartland presbyteries note that human “dominion” as intended in Genesis “is best practiced in care for creation, in stewardship, which according to Genesis Noah fulfills best by implementing God’s first endangered species act.”

Caring for God’s creation “is a critical act of faith in today’s world” and should be included in the Book of Order, the overture states.

But the Advisory Committee on the Constitution notes that the Book of Order is “a constitutional document, not a manual of operations. Although there is no impediment to approving this overture, there is no compelling reason to add this to the Book of Order.”

Ruling Elder Mike Ferguson is a member of St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Billings, Montana. He’s also a reporter with the Billings Gazette. He’ll be serving in the Communications Office at the 222nd General Assembly in Portland, Oregon, covering two committees: Immigration and Environmental Issues and Church Polity and Ordered Ministry.