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An Economic and Moral Imperative: Churches Around The World Are Divesting From Fossil Fuels

Faith organizations around the world are increasingly describing climate change to their members as an urgent moral issue, and taking action by divesting from fossil fuels. Will their members follow their example?

In July 2014, the World Council of Churches, which has 345 member churches including the Church of England and a constituency of over half a billion Christians, decided to rule out future investments in coal, oil, & gas companies.

In August 2015, the General Council of the United Church of Canada decided to divest from fossil fuels. They voted to sell their assets in the world’s 200 largest fossil fuel companies, and reinvest that $5.9 million in green renewable energy.

In September, Dan Misleh, executive director of the Catholic Climate Covenant, a Washington D.C.-based advocacy group, stated: “We have to stop seeing climate change in terms of economics… and start seeing it as a commonsense need to move quickly away from fossil fuels towards sustainable energy.”

The theology of climate change has never been so explicitly stated.

In the lead–up to Pope Francis’ visit to the US, the Vatican pressed for immediate action, releasing an encyclical on ecology and climate change. The encyclical – a statement of papal teaching – describes an “ecological crisis” and calls for a global revolution to address climate change, environmental degradation, and the policies and practices that have brought the “exploitation of the planet” beyond “acceptable limits.”

One of the Vatican’s urgent messages is to phase out coal in favour of renewable power from wind and solar. Pope Francis suggests repeatedly that since the chief source of greenhouse gases is human activity, it’s our “moral duty” to change our behavior, and consider in particular that the impact of climate change will be felt disproportionately by the world’s poorest people.

The economic imperative for reducing GHG emissions is well-established by impact studies from diverse sources including the insurance industry, the US military, and the World Bank. The UN Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Christiana Figueres, responded to the papal encyclical: “Coupled with the economic imperative, the moral imperative leaves no doubt that we must act on climate change now.”

The question now is how quickly, and to what extent, the papal encyclical and other strong moral calls to action on climate change will accelerate the market shift away from fossil fuels. How long will 2.2 billion Christians worldwide maintain support for fossil fuel investments in their personal and business holdings, against the call of their church leaders?