The group charged with advising the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) on socially responsible investing will review how the church might leverage its holdings in fossil fuel companies to influence their environmental impact under a referral adopted Friday by the 221st General Assembly (U.S.A.).
The Assembly voted 469-110 to refer a proposal from the Presbytery of Boston that would have ordered the church's Board of Pensions and Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Foundation to immediately stop such investment and liquidate any holdings within five years.
Instead, the Assembly opted to refer the proposal, with comment, to the Mission Responsibility Through Investment committee, "for action and discernment in accordance with its long-standing and detailed procedures to engage with individual corporations to advance their actions in support of important social policy issues."
In addition to asking MRTI to report to the 222nd General Assembly (2016), the Assembly Committee on Immigration and Environmental Issues added as comment that it "is deeply concerned about both the need for action and the need to remain in dialogue with companies that are in the fossil fuel industry.”
MRTI implements GA policy related to socially responsible investing. If the church has investments in a corporation whose activities conflict with church policy, MRTI attempts to get the company to change its behavior though methods such as correspondence, dialogue, voting shareholder proxies and shareholder resolutions. If engagement with a corporation fails, the committee may recommend divestment to the General Assembly.
The recommendation came to the floor of the Assembly by just a one-vote margin in committee.
On Friday, the Assembly rejected a minority report that urged the Assembly to declare that the church will “categorically divest from fossil fuels within five years.” The minority report also asked the moderator to appoint a seven-member committee to work alongside MRTI to “develop a comprehensive strategy for full divestment from fossil fuel companies.”
Those favoring the minority report contended that the urgency of the environmental crisis demanded a timeline be established. Action must be taken soon “to avoid catastrophic damage to our environment,” said Gina Struensee, a ruling elder from the Presbytery of Winnebago. Many scientists agree that greenhouse gas emissions caused by the burning of fossil fuels must be reduced or the world will face disastrous climate change.
Bobbi White, a teaching elder commissioner from the Presbytery of Western North Carolina, was among the commissioners who voiced confidence in MRTI. “They have done well on other things,” she said. “MRTI can work with companies to help move them away from fossil fuels” to alternative energy sources.
MRTI already has a record of engagement with fossil fuel companies, said MRTI Coordinator Bill Somplatsky-Jarman.
“MRTI is not starting from square one,” he said. “It has a history of 25 years on engaging companies on these issues.” He said the committee has successfully lobbied corporations to reduce carbon emissions and has used the church’s position as a corporate shareholder to encourage the development of environmentally friendly energy sources.
Some commissioners said changing corporate behavior is just one part of the solution. They pointed to the need for individuals to help reduce carbon emissions by consuming less energy.
“The root of the problem is us,” said Walter Jancura, a ruling elder commissioner from the Presbytery of Upper Ohio Valley. He noted that the United States consumes a disproportionate part of the world’s energy.
“I’ve spent the last 35 years as an electrical engineer, and I think we need to look at the log in our own eye before we try to take the speck out of someone else’s,” he said.