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Stop profiteering from climate destruction

18 January 2012

Investment in oil companies should be treated as unethical, and the Church should pull out, argues Siobhan Grimes

We have only five years to stop the worst effects of climate change. The Church has a crucial part to play here, and, in order to realise this, it must stop profiting from the burning of fossil fuels.

Scientists, campaigners, poli­ticians, and theologians agree that a transition to a low-carbon world is needed to prevent the most damag­ing effects of climate change: the acceleration of plant and animal extinction; the deepening of world poverty after more natural disasters; the destruction caused by floods and droughts; and the fight for survival of all future generations. Action on climate change is central to our faith — it is our commitment to love our neighbour as ourselves, especially when our neighbours live without Western privileges.

Yet the implementation of carbon-cutting policies is slow. Instead, economic short-termism finds encouragement in our per­vas­ive self-doubt that we can make any difference.

In the midst of this, many Anglicans turn to our Church for guidance and for ideas about green spirituality. How disappointing it is then to discover that the oil company Shell stands at the top of the list of main Church of England share­holdings.

Last year, the Church Com­mis­sioners, on behalf of the C of E, held investments valued at £89.9 million in Shell. Furthermore, their most recent annual report says that the Commissioners hold invest­ments valued at a total of £170.8 million in Shell, BP, and Exxon Mobil.

The Ethical Investment Advisory Group (EIAG) does not consider oil to be an unethical investment, despite the devastating environ­mental consequences of this indus­try, and its continuing human-rights abuses. In the Niger Delta, Shell is intimate with a repressive regime that does not spread its oil wealth or protect its citizens from water contam­ination and polluted soil.

There are, on average, three oil spills each day, and the current mess will take more than 30 years to clean up. This is the legacy of the relentless pursuit of oil. The Commissioners’ profits come at the cost of Nigerian lives and of our global environment.

In Canada, both Royal Dutch Shell and BP have invested in the Alberta tar-sands projects. The exploitation of the tar sands is the most environmentally destructive method of oil extraction. Not only does it involve mass deforestation and the displacement of First Nations peoples: it also emits five times more carbon than conven­tional methods of extraction. The profits made from these investments render meaningless a faithful com­mit­ment to climate justice.

Oil is a dangerous industry, and the consequences of oil-drilling accidents are severe. Last summer, we witnessed the biggest oil spill in a decade off the coast of the UK, in the North Sea, and, the week before Christmas, the worst oil spill in a decade off the coast of Nigeria. Shell has accepted liability for both these incidents, and yet its profits, and therefore the financial health of the Church of England, depend on further exploitation.

I hope that Shell and BP will not profit from injustice indefinitely. Like slavery 150 years ago, oil-dependency is a cultural norm from which only the privileged benefit. There are moves to respond to the havoc that the industry wreaks. Ecuador and Bolivia, two countries that are especially vulnerable to climate change, have made a pion­eering step in recognising ecocide in law. An environmental lawyer, Polly Higgins, hopes to create new legis­lation that would criminalise ecocide further.

Such a step, made internationally, would end the recklessness of the Church’s investment model. I hope that our Church will take an ethical lead by disinvesting from the oil industry before legal changes force it to behave well.

Disinvestment is the strongest criticism that the Church could make of the oil industry. The EIAG holds on to a mistaken belief that it is able to exert an ethical voice in private meetings with oil companies, as the Church is a significant share­holder. Yet these same companies are spending millions lobbying against environmental policies that are needed if we are to create a low-carbon future.

The Archbishop of Canterbury called recently for politicians and communities to take responsibility to prevent the worst of climate change. It is now time for the Church Commissioners to take their share of responsibility in deeds rather than words.

Past disinvestment from the arms trade, and companies such as Caterpillar and Vedanta, prove the Commissioners’ commitment to raising the ethical standards of Church investment, and to reflecting our theology through our invest­ments. Yet, while they commit funds to the oil industry, they sully the moral credibility of the Church.

British Quakers have set an in­spiring example by disinvesting from BP: a faith community does not need to be oil-dependent to survive finan­cially. Christians can contribute to this movement by writing to bishops, signing online petitions, and preaching about climate change.

Socially responsible investment is a profitable and visionary alterna­tive, and disinvestment is a decision that we must make in order to bear witness to the integrity and compassion of our faith.

Siobhan Grimes works for the Good Steward campaign (http://goodsteward.org.uk/). She is co-ordinating a workshop on this subject at St Andrew’s, Short Street, London SE1, on 21 January.

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