In a world where too many institutions now worship power and wealth, the Church remains a citadel of the word, a place where ideas matter. And words have rarely been used with more power than by Pope Francis in his majestic Laudato Si. I spent several weeks living with it, as I wrote a detailed review for the New York Review of Books, America’s principal journal of letters; but I have a feeling I will be returning to it for the rest of my life.
Of course, the eternal question is how to make words real. And a Vatican conference on "Laudato Si and Catholic Investing" offers a remarkable opportunity. Because if we’re serious about "drastically reducing" carbon emissions in "the next few years," as both the Pope and the world’s scientists recommend, then we have to begin by reducing the power of the fossil fuel industry.
We know now that that industry has spent decades trying to cover up the truth about climate change—remarkable investigative reporting in the U.S., for instance, has shown that the largest oil company, Exxon, learned from its scientists as early as the late 1970s that the planet was set to warm quickly and dangerously. But instead of sharing this sign of the times, the company—and its industry peers—papered over the warnings.
"Simply put, those who are still trying to make money by overheating the planet are failing the test of stewardship."
This kind of behavior continues to this day, as across the world the fossil fuel industry funds politicians who delay action. That’s because their bottom line is dependent on digging up their reserves, which contain five times more carbon than scientists think we can safely burn. Their business plan guarantees an earth where poor people starve as crops wither, where refugees flee sinking cities and eroding coastlines, and where the natural world that we were charged with stewarding loses so many of the creatures that God put here among us.
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In response, the most massive divestment movement in history has grown up to try and press for change. It began with religious direction—Nobel laureate and Anglican archbishop Desmond Tutu recommended that we use this tool, which had helped take down South African apartheid a generation ago, in the fight against what he called the great human rights challenge of our time. His call has been answered by institutions both religious and secular around the world, everyone from the California employees retirement fund to the World Council of Churches. Catholic institutions have played an important role already: the University of Dayton in the U.S. was one of the first colleges to join the effort, followed by others like Georgetown. They’ve been joined by stalwarts like Trocaire and the Franciscan Sisters of Mary; by Brazilian dioceses and the Missionary Society of St. Columban; by Passionists from New Guinea and Vietnam; by French Catholic anti-hunger activists; by faithful Catholics everywhere.
But now’s the moment for greater, more central action, following the lead of Cardinal Turkson, who pointed out on the release of Laudato Si that "a genuine examination of conscience would recognize not only our individual failings but our institutional failings." Simply put, those who are still trying to make money by overheating the planet are failing the test of stewardship. As Catholic Cardinals, Patriarchs and Bishops from across the planet said in an important 2015 statement, we must “put an end to the fossil fuel era.” Those words are serious, and should have clear consequences for the investment policy of the Vatican and other Catholic institutions.
Many have argued, convincingly, that there’s a strong economic case to be made for divestment, as the fossil fuel industry begins to falter in the face of challenge from renewable industry. And indeed those who have divested have reaped financial gain. But at least for faith-based institutions, that’s not the reason they did so. As the head of the Catholic University of Dayton said when they divested their $600 million portfolio in 2014, "We cannot ignore the negative consequences of climate change, which disproportionately impact the world's most vulnerable people."
2016 was the warmest year we’ve ever measured on the planet, smashing the record set in 2015, which in turn smashed the record set in 2014. 2017 must be the year when we set records for action, for caring—for turning fine words into finer reality.