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Greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels are the major cause of climate change. Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) leaders overwhelming agree on that.

What’s more contentious is what to do about it.

In keeping with the last two General Assemblies (GA221 and 222 in 2014 and 2016), this year's GA223 in St. Louis will debate whether or not the church should divest from companies heavily involved in the fossil fuel industry. The forum for those discussions is the Assembly’s Environmental Issues Committee, which holds its first meeting June 17.

An overture from the Presbytery of Hudson River, if approved by the committee and full Assembly, would direct the Board of Pensions and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Foundation to divest from fossil fuel and actively invest in securities that focus on renewable energy.

A like-minded overture from the Presbytery of East Tennessee would require the addition of “all companies that meet specific listed criteria” – such as deriving more than 50 percent of their annual revenue from extraction, production, and distribution of fossil fuels – to the GA’s list of companies from which to divest.

Forty-two presbyteries have concurred with one or both of the divestment overtures, including the Presbyteries of Boston and San Francisco, which brought similar overtures to GA221 and GA222.

National church agencies that have commented on the divestment overtures disapprove. The Presbyterian Mission Agency's Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI), Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP), Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns and Advisory Committee on Racial Ethnic Concerns maintain that divestment makes it harder to advocate for climate-responsible actions by corporations – at the board level and with regards to employees and the economically disadvantaged around the world who are disproportionately affected by climate change.

An overture by the Presbytery of New Covenant steers clear of divestment, instead directing the church to continue its work of corporate engagement and to encourage reduced greenhouse gas emissions at the national and congregational level through “adoption of lower-carbon and zero-carbon technologies and lifestyles.” A second overture by New Covenant stipulates that MRTI should report back to GA224 in 2020 with a list of companies that have made insufficient progress toward improved stewardship of the earth and that should be considered for divestment. 

The Environmental Issues Committee will also be considering a raft of overtures on issues other than divestment.

The Presbytery of Newton and the Presbytery of Monmouth have submitted overtures recommending increased dialogue around issues of environmental justice and environmental racism, focusing on communities struck by natural disasters, such as Puerto Rico and Houston in 2017.

ACSWP recommends that the church affirm the “Precautionary Principle,” which manages risks to the health and safety of human beings and the planet from new and existing technologies. MRTI asks the Assembly to affirm the methods the church is currently using to engage corporate entities regarding climate change, especially through the presentation of shareholder resolutions.

Two more overtures from New Covenant Presbytery complete the Environmental Issues Committee docket: one calling for reduced use of polystyrene (Styrofoam) by national church agencies and congregations, and another urging support for carbon pricing, which aims to “bring into effect national and international policies that create a consistent, rational, and escalating price for emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases” and thereby “reduce consumption and support investment in sustainable alternative energy sources.”


Fred Tangeman is director of communications and marketing for the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia. He is covering Assembly Committee 8 for the General Assembly News.