In what the global fossil fuel divestment movement is claiming as a "major victory," the World Council of Churches has agreed to phase out its financial holdings in the world's dirtiest energy sources and will encourage the congregants in the churches it represents to do the same.
Passed by a vote taken Thursday in Geneva at meeting of the Central Committee of the WWC—comprised of over 300 Christian churches from around the world and representing some 590 million people in 150 countries—the council sited both its ethical obligations, the desires of its members, and Biblical scripture as informing its decision.
“There was an explicit wish at the Finance Committee to include fossil fuels as one of the sectors where the WCC will not invest in, based on decisions to divest from fossil fuels taken by member churches in different parts of the world,” said Guillermo Kerber, who coordinates the WCC’s work on care for creation and climate justice. “The general ethical guidelines for investment already included the concern for a sustainable environment, for future generations and CO2 footprint. Adding fossil fuels to the list of sectors where the WCC does not invest in serves to strengthen the governing body’s commitment on climate change as expressed in various sessions of the Central Committee.”
Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, which has spearheaded the fossil-free divestment movement, celebrated the news.
“The World Council of Churches reminds us that morality demands thinking as much about the future as about ourselves–and that there’s no threat to the future greater than the unchecked burning of fossil fuels,” said Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org, a global climate campaign that is supporting the divestment effort. “This is a remarkable moment for the 590 million Christians in its member denominations: a huge percentage of humanity says today ‘this far and no further.’”
The WWC is not the first church or religious organizations to endorse fossil fuel divestment, but it is certainly the largest. According to the Guardian, "studies have suggested the fossil fuel divestment campaign, which began in the US, has been faster than than any previous divestment movement such as tobacco and apartheid."
“The World Council of Churches may be the most important commitment we’ve received yet,” said 350.org’s European Divestment Coordinator, Tim Ratcliffe. “It opens the doors for churchgoers around the world to encourage their institutions to live up to their values and divest from companies that are destroying the planet and our future.”
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In the U.S., the Union Theological Seminary is just one among many religious institutions joining the effort, committing to divest its entire $108.4 million endowment from fossil fuels.
“Scripture tells us that all of the world is God’s precious creation, and our place within it is to care for and respect the health of the whole,” said UTS president Serene Jones. “As a seminary dedicated to social justice, we have a critical call to live out our values in the world. Climate change poses a catastrophic threat, and as stewards of God’s creation we simply must act.”
Earlier this year, South African Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu made headlines when he called for "anti-apartheid style boycott of the fossily fuel industry."
Tutu said, "It makes no sense to invest in companies that undermine our future. To serve as custodians of creation is not an empty title; it requires that we act, and with all the urgency this dire situation demands."
And in an op-ed published Thursday, 350.org's McKibben described why society's current struggle to release itself from the fossil fuel paradigm is so vital as he rejected the idea that those who have previously benefited from the production and use of coal, oil, and gas—including those who are invested financially in the industry—do not have the right to 'change their mind' without facing charges of hypocrisy.
"If we are going to make the transformative change away from fossil fuel," McKibben wrote, "we need thousands of institutions and millions of individuals to make the same choice that [the World Council of Churches and others are making]; to look at the emerging science and to understand that we can't go on as we did before. What used to be okay no longer is. Hypocrisy is when you say one thing and do another at the same time. Growth is when you weigh new information and then change your thinking and behavior."