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Church of England Announces Divestment from Coal and Tar Sands

Words by Leon Kaye

If you thought the church was becoming less relevant in the West, or worldwide for that matter, think again. Something is brewing within our religious institutions, and we are not talking about the time-worn battles over birth control, human sexuality and, of course, sectarian differences.

Pope Francis has spoken out on climate change in a way none of his predecessors dared, to the annoyance of climate skeptic organizations such as the Heartland Institute. This summer he will issue a high-level papal encyclical (policy paper) on the environment, and based on Francis’ track record so far, this will be no papal bull.

Meanwhile, the powerful Church of England is putting its pounds and pence where its mouth is: The body that administers the worldwide Anglican Communion last week announced it is divesting from thermal coal and tar sands.

The £12 million (US$ 18.2 million) divestment is only 0.15 percent of the church’s total investment portfolio, according to Reuters. Nevertheless, this announcement sends a signal to energy companies that, despite their massive public relations campaigns, climate change is an ever-growing risk and a transition to a low-carbon economy is one way to confront this reality. And for the 25 million Brits who have been baptized within the church, last week’s announcements shows that the church is listening to the concerns voiced by younger generations.

The church’s pension board and commissioners are now bound by a new policy to not invest in any company in which more than 10 percent of the firm’s revenues are from the extraction of oil from tar sands or thermal coal, the church said in a press release issued on Thursday. The announcement is aligned with the church’s new climate policy developed by its Ethical Investment Advisory Group (EIAG). This board is tasked with guiding how the church’s three national investing bodies will support the shift towards a low-carbon and clean energy-based economy.

According to the church’s leaders who announced this change in investment strategy, the decision was made because in their view, “Climate change is the most pressing moral issue in the world.”

That is quite a contrast to the debate, or lack thereof, happening on both sides of the pond. Prime Minister David Cameron, in a tough race for re-election, has stated that manmade climate change is one of the greatest threats to the United Kingdom, but the debates leading up to the May 7 parliamentary elections have largely left environmental issues on the sidelines. With the 2016 election cycle approaching, Washington, D.C. is no place for meaningful dialogue on climate change, where any initiative by President Barack Obama relies on executive orders, much to the snark and dismay of Republicans in Congress.

What is compelling about the Church of England’s stance on fossil fuels is that, while it insists its divestment from some fossil fuels is in line with the church’s beliefs, theology and practice, it also seeks engagement with conventional energy companies. The church plans to work “more intensively with those companies in which they are invested that make a significant contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions ... to encourage them to assist in the transition to a low carbon economy.” Some environmentalists may be disappointed that the church is offering the energy sector seat at the table instead of issuing this directive with an iron fist, but this maneuver puts energy companies in an awkward position: Be part of the solution, or risk even more of a backlash.

Incidentally, other religions are having a lively dialogue about how their beliefs can have an impact on the climate change debate. Jewish organizational leaders have debated how they can reduce risks from climate change, and Islamic finance has played a major role in clean energy investment so far this decade. These three religions may agree on little, but their collective work on climate change is an encouraging sign, as spiritual leaders are starting to fill a void left empty by politicians.

Image credit: Hans Musil

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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