How Faith Groups in the UK Have Been Calling for Fossil Fuel Divestment


Faith communities have lent a moral voice in the global divestment movement, building powerful grassroots campaigns permeating all aspects of society and heightening the case to keep fossil fuels in the ground.

Across many religions, there are strong links between the idea of the creation of the world and of men and the catastrophic impact climate change could have on humanity.

Activists within faith groups have been critical in highlighting these links and urging for ambitious action to be taken to keep average global temperature rise below 1.5C as recommended by scientists.

Among the Christian faith, most Church denominations have divested from coal and tar sands, a move welcomed by the divestment movement. But the Church of England, one of the world’s wealthiest religious institutions, still invests hundreds of millions of pounds into some of the world’s biggest fossil fuels companies including ExxonMobil, Shell and BP and calls for divestment are intensifying.

The Church of England, which holds billions of pounds worth of assets, has long defended its shares in the oil and gas industry by arguing it is in a position to change these companies’ activities from within.

As the Church of England is busy trying to convince ExxonMobil to recognise the risks of climate change on its business, other churches like the Quakers have taken the lead in taking ambitious climate action.

While the Muslim and Jewish communities do not hold big common funds in the UK, campaigners are active at the local level, spreading knowledge about climate change in schools, mosques and synagogues and encouraging bold action at every level.

As part of this year’s Global Divestment Week, campaigning groups representing a range of faiths and religions have organised events and discussions to highlight the issues of climate change to their communities. Their voices were added to thousands of others calling for institutions to work towards a more sustainable future and divest from fossil fuels.

Church of England’s engagement to fossil fuels

On the steps of Church House, in Westminster, London, an unusual wedding was being prepared on May 8 between the Church of England, as the Bride of Christ, and fossil fuels.

In the short sketch, staged by Christian Climate Action activists during last week’s Global Divestment Week, Jesus Christ persuaded the bride to break her engagement with fossil fuels.

Christian Climate Action condemned the Church getting richer by wrecking God’s creation and called for total divestment.

The Church Commissioners, which manages an investment fund of £7bn on behalf of the Church of England, were invited to the wedding, but said they were unable to attend.

Church of England investments derive mainly from two sources: funds which are managed by the Church Commission and pension funds, which are invested by the Church of England Pension Board.

In 2015, the Guardian published figures estimating the Church of England has about £101m invested in Royal Dutch Shell and £91.9m in BP.

Caroline Harmon, of Christian Climate Action, said the symbolic wedding aimed to “highlight the impacts of climate change and pray for more urgent action”.

The Church of England claims to be a responsible investor, and has a strong moral voice,” she said. “It claims to understand the threat and urgency of climate change, yet instead of divesting from the biggest fossil fuel companies, they continue to engage.”

In 2013, Operation Noah, a Christian charity which works to create leadership and respond to the threat of climate change, launched the Bright Now campaign, calling on all UK churches to divest.

James Buchanan, who works on the Bright Now campaign, told DeSmog UK the momentum for divestment has grown from being an ill-recognised issue a few years ago to now be at the forefront of the Christian climate movement.

In the spring 2015, the Church of England divested £12m from tar sands oil and thermal coal from its £9bn fund. But progress was halted when in the same year, the General Synod turned down a motion, which would have committed the church to threaten disinvestment from all oil companies, which had not committed to cease oil exploration within three years.

 Buchanan said there had been a financial argument for maintaining oil and gas investments which traditionally promised good returns. According to figures from the Church Commissioners’ fund, return on investment reached of 14.4 per cent in 2014 or an average of 9.7 per cent per year over the past 30 years.

He also said the Church justified its investment in oil and gas companies by arguing it enables them to influence the company’s business from within.

But when we look at the steps these companies have taken so far there is little evidence that they are moving fast enough. We believe it is not ethical for churches to invest in oil and gas companies,” Buchanan said.

The Church of England may have had some successes by engaging with oil and gas companies but the results are often measured through motions and reports rather than concrete actions.

BP adopted a Church-led resolution on climate change at its annual meeting in 2015. It called on greater commitment to moving to a low-carbon economy. This included additional transparency around the way the company manages its emissions, reports on the resilience of BP’s portfolio against post-2035 scenarios and investments for low carbon energy. A similar resolution, supported by Church Commissioners and other church investors, has also been adopted by Shell.

But the Church of England’s strategy has not always proved as successful and has faced strong opposition from the American oil giant ExxonMobil, where it also holds shares.

Last year, the oil giant voted down a motion presented by the Church of England during its AGM asking the company to report on how the business is affected by worldwide efforts to limit average temperature rise below 2C and keep fossil fuels in the ground.

This year again, the Church of England together with a group representing $10tn of assets will push ExxonMobil to disclose the climate change risks to its assets at the shareholders meeting on May 31.

Faced with staunch opposition from ExxonMobil, in January, the investment arm of the Church has also launched a tool, developed by the Grantham Institute and the London School of Economics and together with several leading asset managers, to identify and rank efforts to improve taken by companies that pose the biggest threat to climate change. ExxonMobil was ranked at the lower end of the scale.

For Buchanan, the Church of England is “serious about climate change” but should go further and “divest immediately from ExxonMobil.

The Church of England has sent positive signs that it recognises the impact of climate change but its ongoing support for the world’s biggest oil and gas companies suggest it is not ready to risk profitable financial returns over its conviction.

Buchanan warned “we only have a narrow window of time left to act” and said faith institutions have “a moral voice that is recognised across society”, encouraging parishioners across the UK to write to their church and call on them to divest.

St Anne’s Church in Highgate, north London, is an example of a community, which turned commitment into action, when following a successful crowdfunding campaign, it installed 19KW of solar panels on the roof of its Grade II listed building.

Brighthelm United Reformed Church in Brighton was also one of the first individual churches to complete its own divestment in 2014, when it sold its shares in Shell and the Rio Tinto Group, a major player in the coal industry in Australia. With the money, it decided to revamp its building and optimise its energy use.  

Reverend Alex Mabbs told DeSmog UK: “The decision was taken by our trustees and it was just done. It was easy. Now we are calling for others to do the same at national and regional level. There has been some form of inertia around the issue for years and this needs to change.”

Methodist Churches around the country are also putting pressure on the Central Finance Board to divest by organising campaigns within their local circuits.

According to Buchanan, several circuits, including central Scotland, Stratford and Evesham and Bradford North, have already passed a motion on the issue ahead of the Church’s June conference.

The Church of England is still pouring hundreds of millions of pounds in the oil and gas industry – effectively gambling on whether or not oil and gas companies will take action on climate change. Meanwhile grassroots movements are paving the way to take climate action.

Leading the way: Quakers and United Reformed Church of Scotland

In 2013, the Quakers were the first to completely divest their central funds from all fossil fuel industries. Two years later, they were followed by the United Reformed Church of Scotland.  

The Quakers held assets in Norwegian oil and gas company Statoil and in British BG Group worth at the time around £21m.

Around the world, the Church of Sweden, the World Council of Churches, the Uniting Church of Australia, Anglican dioceses in New Zealand and Australia, and the United Church of Christ in the United States have also all committed to divest.

Last week, a further 19 local Quakers meeting announced their commitment to divest, joining more than a quarter of meetings in the UK, which have already made the pledge.

For the Quakers, the urgency of divestment is intrinsically linked with the communities’ values of “peace, joy and respect” and its vision for “a new economy”, based on a belief in a fundamental human equality and respect for the earth.

The act of divestment and investment into low carbon solutions also fits into a long history of Quakers’ concern about the ethical use of money.

Christian Churches are divided between those who have and those who have not ended their support for the fossil fuel industry altogether. For the Church of England to join those that have chosen divestment would demonstrate leadership on climate change said Buchanan.

Islam and climate change education

The Muslim community in the UK has no centrally-held funds to invest since mosques operate thanks to community fundraising and manage their own funds. But at the local level, activists work to ensure each community is aware of what is at stake.

The Muslim Action for Development and the Environment (MADE) is a wide network, which aims to inspire young British Muslims to take social action and protect the environment.

MADE‘s “litter heros” help keep Britain tidy. Photo: MADE via Facebook.

Most of MADE’s actions include work in schools, mosques and community centres to raise awareness about the impact of climate change and offer practical solutions to reduce individuals and communities’ carbon footprint.

According to MADE’s own figures, the programme has engaged 10,000 young Muslims across the country and 4,000 people through its Green-Up campaign, which encourages mosques and Islamic institutions to become more environmentally sustainable.

Speaking to DeSmog UK, Fatima El-Meeyuf, from MADE, said the organisation focused on implementing small changes among the many.

Our main aim is education and awareness and it does really resonate with a lot of people,” she said.

Quoting a verse from the Quran, she said: “Allah does not change the condition of people until they change what is in themselves.”

She explained that, like in other holy books, the Quran had plenty of references to human’s duty to “tread softly on the earth”.

The earth is green and beautiful and we have been made stewards of it,” she quoted.

The important thing is to make small changes and create a cohesive movement and to put pressure on the government for more action. This is something everyone can be a part of – beyond religious lines,” she said.

As communities grow more environmentally aware, mosques take action at their level to become part of the fight against climate change. From installing solar panels on the roof of the Palmers Green mosque, setting up a beehive on the top of the East London mosque, or switching to renewable power sources, El-Meeyuf believes all actions should be encouraged.

Individual, small-scale actions are, however, described as “pale” by Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik of Oil Vay, a Jewish divestment campaign group, which is using the issue to open up a wider debate about climate justice within religious communities.

Judaism: on the road to climate justice

Macmillen Voskoboynik, who started Oil Vay with a group of colleagues in Britain in 2014, told DeSmog UK the campaign quickly expanded from divestment to facilitating conversations about climate induced displacement, by making echoes to the Jewish people’s own history.

For Macmillen Voskoboynik, religious groups have a duty to go beyond changing individual consumer behaviour to transform entire communities’ attitudes.

Small gestures are not enough. To green our synagogues is a start but we need to be taking much bolder actions.

We need to ensure that our temple and community building reflect what we want in the world,” he said.

Using its divestment campaign as a platform for social awareness, Oil Vay has since connected with other parts of the climate justice movement.

We need to elevate our actions as a collective community and it needs to be so much stronger and so much more in teaching the moral basis around the world,” Macmillen Voskoboynik added.

He said it was sometimes difficult to raise the debate beyond local communities but he believes there is a place for faith groups to become leading voices within a global movement for bold action.

He concluded: “The issue of climate change is fundamentally a moral one and faith groups are to define the society of the future. It is fundamentally about human life and as a community we feel we need to speak against injustice and persecution.”

Photo: Christian Climate Action. Updated 16/05/2017 and 17/05/2017: Some quotes from James Buchanan were amended for clarity.

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