Enough of sitting still
In a time of grim news about the planet, an important act of hope happened in New London. On Jan. 8 St. James Episcopal Church’s Vestry – its governing body – voted unanimously to divest of its fossil fuel stocks, becoming the first Episcopal church in Connecticut to do so. Totaling just 3 percent of the total endowment, the amount in fossil fuel stocks may not seem significant enough to make a difference against the overwhelming challenge that climate change and continued dependence on oil, gas and coal presents. But as people of hope called to care for all of creation, we’d had enough of sitting still. We decided to do something, refusing to let cynicism, hopelessness or willful blindness about climate change paralyze us.
That same week came two scientific reports that sounded the alarms once again about climate change. After three years of declines, carbon dioxide emissions fueling sea level rise, intensifying storms and many other adverse effects reversed course and climbed 3.4 percent higher than the previous year. A second report found that the world’s oceans, which are buffering most of the excess heat generated by carbon emissions, are warming 40 percent faster than predicted just five years ago, threatening marine ecosystems worldwide.
Last year was the warmest year for oceans on record, breaking records set in 2016 and 2017. This follows warnings this fall that the world must cut its carbon emissions in half by 2030 to prevent the worst consequences of climate change, a task that looks ever more daunting.
What good can one church do to stop this runaway train? We asked ourselves that in the months that led up to the vote. Discussions remained respectful but frank, with at times passionate expressions of support, skepticism and apprehension.
As trustees of the church’s assets − both spiritual and worldly – we wanted to act responsibly both as stewards of St. James and as a church that exists not to perpetuate itself, but to serve God and the wider world. If some of our key assets are part of a system that is harming the Earth, and if it’s in our power to remove our assets from that system, shouldn’t we take that step?
After improving our building’s energy efficiency, taking initial steps toward getting rooftop solar panels (a new roof must come first), hosting a well-attended public forum on wind power, and becoming more environmentally conscious overall, St. James was looking to continue trying to set a good example. Divestment, a tool used successfully in helping bring about the end of apartheid in South Africa, is a strategy advocated to advance the needed transition of the energy economy to renewables.
But, since there is no practical alternative yet to the church’s dependence on fossil fuels for heat and electricity, wouldn’t it be hypocritical for St. James to divest? And wouldn’t divesting be taking an unnecessary risk with the church’s investments?
Grappling with these questions yielded surprising answers. We faced the fact that we’re all hypocrites already, by virtue of living in the modern energy economy. It’s unavoidable if we say we care about the planet yet continue burning gas and oil. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to do what’s possible now, while we wait for what’s currently impossible to become reality.
Divesting is a way to use the power of our assets to make a statement about our values and give us the authority to advocate for the kinds of broader policy changes needed on local, state and national levels. Of course the actions of individuals or single churches aren’t going to stop climate change. That’s not the point. The point is to show we’re engaged in trying to bring about change in our own lives as well as on a larger scale.
We also learned that divestment makes sense financially. Fossil fuel stocks have been underperforming and many institutional investors are advising clients to move their money elsewhere. According to a recent article in The Guardian, as of September 1,000 institutional investors have divested of $6 trillion in fossil fuel investments, with the insurance industry – hardly known for rash actions − responsible for half.
But while the economic argument helped, it wasn’t in the end what convinced the Vestry to divest. It was the hope that St. James could inspire other faith communities to do the same, and that together we would ignite the collective will. Science has so far been unable to motivate the kind of broad grassroots movement needed to demand our political leaders take bold action on climate change. Churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and other places of worship, whatever the faith, share a common home on Earth and have the power to appeal to people’s hearts and consciences to make change happen.
That may be our only chance.
Judy Benson is a member of the Vestry of St. James and chairwoman of its Caring for Creation Committee. The Rev. Ranjit K. Mathews is the 22nd rector of St. James Episcopal Church.