A majority of delegates from synods of the diocese of Montreal and the diocese of Ottawa recently voted to divest from fossil fuels, joining 430 other institutions and 2,040 individuals representing $2.6 trillion in assets who have chosen to pull fossil fuel stocks from their investment portfolios.
While many faith organizations already have policies in place to prevent investments in tobacco, alcohol, weapons, gambling or pornography, as awareness about climate change becomes more widespread-and concern over its effects more heightened-an increasing number of churches are choosing to divest from the fossil fuel industry as well. (In May, the Church of England’s governing body moved to sell its 12-million pound investment in coal and tar sands.)
“We know what the effects [of climate change] are now,” said Lenore Fahrig, a biology professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, who led the environmental group that helped bring the divestment resolution to the Ottawa synod on October 31. “And we know how to stop it-and we know why we’re not stopping it, which does come down, essentially, to money.”
It logically followed, she said, that money would be the place to start when looking for ways to respond to the crisis. While only about $1 million-less than 10% of the diocese of Ottawa’s total investments-were tied up in coal, oil and natural gas, the amount of money was only part of the point.
“I think it’s a way of putting pressure on governments. It’s a symbolic act in the sense that symbols can be very powerful,” she said.
While it is not yet clear how much money the diocese of Montreal has invested in fossil fuels, its synod-held October 16-17-passed a resolution urging the finance committee “to take, in a timely manner, all reasonable measures in its power” to divest from companies trading in coal, oil and natural gas.
A press release posted on the diocesan website on November 4 notes that “the diocese does have holdings in such companies but diocesan staff could not provide details right away,” and goes on to explain that the diocesan investments are largely held in a mutual fund, the Anglican Balanced Fund.
“It was expected to take some time to cross-check the holdings of the fund against the lists of the Fossil Fuel Indexes and report back to a diocesan council on a detailed divestment policy,” the release stated.
Although the finance committee of the diocese of Ottawa has already isolated the assets it needs to sell, the executive archdeacon of the diocese of Ottawa, David Selzer, said it is not yet sure how that money will be reinvested once it has been freed up, and couldn’t say whether it will be put toward green industries or sustainable energy.
“It’s up to the investments committee,” he said. “We didn’t want people micromanaging investments, especially when investment people know a lot more than we do.”
But as the diocese of Montreal made clear in a backgrounder to the divestment motion, the reasons for divestment were financial as well as moral. While “it is wrong to profit from an industry whose core business threatens human and planetary health,” the diocese also finds that “fossil fuels are risky and volatile. In recent years, they have not performed well, and the long-term picture looks grim.”
Selzer said that the diocese of Ottawa followed a similar logic, and in the lead-up to drafting the resolution, the finance committee and the environmental group worked in concert.
“It wasn’t as if it was environment vs. investment,” Selzer said. “It was really a coming together of the minds and how to craft a resolution that would meet both the concerns of folks concerned about the environment and folks concerned about investments-some of whom are the same people.”
While divestment can be an important symbolic act, does it have any effect on the actual fossil fuels industry? Fahrig says that is “much less clear.”
“It’s a public statement, and it is an effort to influence public opinion and public policy,” she said. The power of divestment lies in the number of people choosing to divest, and the message that sends to governments.
The resolution to divest from fossil fuels was only one of four climate-change related resolutions brought before the Ottawa synod; there was also a call to bring the matter of divestment before General Synod 2016, to encourage the entire Canadian church to bring its investments in line with its teachings on environmentalism, to educate Ottawa Anglicans about climate change and to make the diocese carbon neutral.
Carbon neutrality, or a net zero carbon footprint, means balancing carbon emissions against an equal amount of carbon sequestered or offset. Selzer noted that while “it is not something that we have passed [effective] immediately,” it was an aspirational goal.
“We know that we are very dependent on fossil fuels to run our own lives-transportation and so forth-and in Ontario we are not fossil-free in terms of our use of electricity, so it’s something to work toward,” he said. “Ontario, on the other hand, is far and away ahead of other provinces and states when it comes to fossil free fuel, which is a great thing. How do we support it? Let’s try to do it in our churches.”
Selzer suggested that green audits and increased use of solar power would be a good place to start.
“It’s a coaching mechanism-to say to congregations, you’re not doing this alone, this is part of a discernment of the diocese, and we will help you through the whole process.”