Church divestment away from fossil fuels

In June 2016, days ahead of the first anniversary of Laudato Si', the Global Catholic Climate Movement made its first joint divestment announcement, consisting of four religious orders in the Pacific, one of the parts of the world most threatened by rising sea levels tied to global warming. Among them were the Marist Sisters in Australia.

“Dependence on fossil fuels is contributing to adverse climate change, which affects everyone but especially the poor and vulnerable,' the Marist sisters wrote in a statement at the time. 'In his encyclical, Laudato Si, Pope Francis calls on us to reduce carbon emissions and develop sources of renewable energy. Divesting of fossil fuels is one way that we can be stewards of God's gift of creation so that life in all its forms can be sustained now and into the future.'

When the Sisters of the Holy Cross in England divested in November, they cited 'limited success' in urging companies as shareholders to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. And divestment supporters point out that investors and corporations, including Royal Dutch Shell and Peabody Energy, increasingly recognize divestment as a risk to future business.

Over time, the once-fraught relationship between the divestment and engagement camps has eased, said O'Shaughnessy, who serves as Global Catholic Climate Movement treasurer.

Although Daly doesn't agree with divestment, she sees the approaches as complementary. She gives divestment activists credit for bringing far greater attention to climate change and for educating and mobilizing young people on the issue.

Nevertheless, the veteran shareholder activist believes the divestment movement must recognize how dependent society remains on fossil fuels, and says there must be more focus on the lifestyle changes necessary to address climate change.

Shareholder engagement advocates argue that divestment has not really had an impact on energy companies and is constrained by the number of state-owned fossil fuel companies, which lack independent shareholders.

The pope weighs in

The Catholic debate about divestment predates Francis, but his election in 2013 and Laudato Si' fuelled the push to rid church finances of fossil fuels. While the encyclical did not address divestment head on, in it Francis offered hints of what he believed.

In Paragraph 165, he wrote: 'We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels — especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas — needs to be progressively replaced without delay.'

The line quickly became a rallying cry for divestment advocates, and the encyclical gave impetus to the decisions of many Catholic divesting institutions.

In May 2020, the integral human development dicastery included fossil fuel divestment and reinvestment in renewable energy among the benchmarks in its Laudato Si' Action Platform, an ambitious initiative to mobilize the full church toward sustainability in the spirit of the encyclical over a seven-year timeline.

Today, Global Catholic Climate Movement divestment campaigners sense momentum building.

In 2019, a finance summit in South Africa recognized the role of faith communities in the divestment campaign to date, with 22 religious organizations pushing the movement at that time past $11 trillion redirected from coal, oil and gas companies.

With its last three joint announcements, more than 100 Catholic institutions have moved away from fossil fuels. The two most recent, in November and earlier this week, came despite the pandemic and staff changes that limited the campaign's outreach.

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18 June 2021

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Think Global

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Brian Roewe - NCR

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