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Viewpoint: Why Quakers should divest from fossil fuels

Earth_by_NASA

Image of Arctic sea ice by NASA

Our Quaker faith, with its values of peace, stewardship of the Earth, simplicity, and equality points to climate change as one of the most pressing issues of our time, a crisis that calls for immediate action. In May 2013, the Earth’s atmosphere surpassed the carbon dioxide 400 parts per million level; climate change, with its ensuing extreme weather and rising sea levels, can no longer be stopped, only slowed, according to climate scientists. And slow it we must.

Recycling, reducing our carbon footprints, greening our meetinghouses are all valuable and important actions. But these actions feel inadequate in the face of a problem of such huge proportions.

Now Friends have an additional option: fossil fuel divestment. Bill McKibben, founder of 350​.org, notes that when Nelson Mandela was first released from prison after apartheid ended, he didn’t go to Washington, D.C., to thank our government. He came to the University of California at Berkeley to thank the students, faculty, and regents for divesting from stocks of companies that supported the apartheid régime in South Africa.

While there are some differences in this campaign—the major one being that we are nearly all dependent on fossil fuels—there are enough similarities to make this strategy worth taking seriously.

Selling stocks in oil, coal, and gas companies will not bankrupt these mega-rich companies. In fact, they may be happy to have pesky shareholders out of their meeting rooms.

But divestment could spur conversation at policy levels, bring awareness to the public, and weaken corporate political power of these powerful industries. Making fossil fuel corporations as unpopular as tobacco industries would pressure both the industries themselves and policymakers to change. In 2008, an election year, Exxon Mobil spent $29 million on lobbying.

Many feel that owning stock means that you take responsibility for what that business or company does. If it and you profit from the destruction of the Earth, you share responsibility for that destruction.

We hope that politicians will legislate needed changes, but so often politicians will be the last to change. They are, after all, dependent on corporate financial support come election time.

We must look at our own investments and consider the harm they are doing.

Friends Fiduciary Corporation (FFC), a socially responsible investor based in Philadelphia, Pa., with $250 million in assets, holds assets for many Quaker meetings and organizations. In May 2013, FFC divested from coal companies. During that same screening and evaluation of their holdings, FFC also released its shares in Exxon Mobil and Chevron. Recently, it established a Quaker Green Fund that is fossil-fuel-free. Those of us favoring total divestment hope that Friends meetings and other institutions will move their funds to this Green Fund, which also features “cleantech” investments (see friendsfiduciary​.org/​q​u​a​k​e​r​-​g​r​e​e​n​-​f​und for more information).

Regarding oil, FFC takes the engagement approach, or working from within. The summer 2013 newsletter from FFC states this clearly: “While divestment may be an appropriate strategy for some investors … Friends Fiduciary does not believe it is an effective strategy for those of us who are actively engaging with these issues.” FFC retains 3 percent of its holdings in oil and gas, which computes to about $7.5 million. In an ideal world, and perhaps eventually, FFC will divest totally from oil companies.

Some Friends will say that we are hypocritical to divest from oil if we are still driving our cars. Perhaps, but currently we have poor choices in public transportation, and few can afford an electric car.

Other Friends will say that reduction in demand and consumption, coupled with higher prices and higher taxes, are the only ways to achieve change. All these changes will help the cause. There isn’t only one way: divestment wasn’t the only tactic that dismantled apartheid in South Africa.

Funds divested from fossil fuel companies should be reinvested in companies expanding into renewable, efficient energy. Offering a green fund as an option is an important step in the right direction, though it is not as strong a statement as total divestment would be.

Some Friends meetings have begun discernment around this issue by watching the “Do the Math” video that 350​.org distributes, and holding meetings to discuss options. Dover (N.H.) Meeting issued an epistle advocating divestment after several discussions and decided to divest its Vanguard funds, which had significant amounts of fossil fuel stock. Dover Meeting has developed a packet, listing resources, queries, and FAQs that they would like to share with other meetings to facilitate this process. The materials can be found through the Quaker Earthcare Witness website at quakerearthcare​.org.

One of our most pressing tasks as a global civilization is climate change. Spirit calls us to act. Divestment is not a perfect approach, but it is one way to put faith into practice.

Image of Arctic sea ice by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center on Flickr under CC BY 2.0.

Kathy Barnhart lives in Berkeley, Calif.


Posted in: April 2014: Education, Forum

One Response to Viewpoint: Why Quakers should divest from fossil fuels

  1. Alan Eccleston April 24, 2014 at 11:27 am #

    City & State
    Hadley, MA
    Thank you, Kathy for calling attention to the challenge of climate change and your call to live up to our testimonies. The latest IPCC Report notes that previous estimates understated the actual rise in greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. It is much worse than predicted. Scientists now overwhelmingly agree and that we must bend this trend downward in the next 15 years or our planet may become uninhabitable.

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