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Synod urges investors to act on climate change

13 July 2015


Looming: floodwaters rise on the main shopping street in Nandi, Fiji, in January, 2012

Looming: floodwaters rise on the main shopping street in Nandi, Fiji, in January, 2012

THE Church of England will continue to invest in fossil-fuel companies, but will pull out its money if they stop listening to its demands that they tackle climate change, the General Synod agreed on Monday.

Two measures on climate change were overwhelmingly passed, after the Synod heard that climate change was a “spiritual problem” and that there was a “moral imperative” to act, given the impact of rising temperatures on the world’s poor. The debates were informed by pleas from Anglicans across the Communion. The Bishop of Fiji had told his equivalent in Salisbury: “The waters are coming up to our necks.”

The first motion, on combating climate change, anticipates the global summit due to take place in Paris in December. It urges governments to “agree long-term pathways to a low carbon future” and endorses the World Bank’s call for the ending of fossil-fuel subsidies. It also looks inward, requesting the development of new “eco-theological resources” and encouraging parishes and dioceses to encourage a fast for climate change on the first day of each month.

It was passed by 205 to 6, with 4 recorded abstentions.

The second motion, on investments, says that “urgent action to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels” is required, and speaks of achieving this “without creating damaging and unintended consequences” through “political subtlety, flexibility, and a focus on achievable change”.

It welcomes the recent disinvestment by the Church’s national investment bodies (NIBs) from oil sands and thermal coal (News, 1 May), and urges them to “engage robustly with companies and policy-makers on the need to act to support the transition to a low-carbon economy”.

It was carried by 255 to 0 with no recorded abstentions.

For some, the threat of disinvestment did not go far enough

The Revd Hugh Lee (Oxford) wished to amend the motion to threaten disinvestment from oil companies within three years “unless they have committed to ceasing oil exploration and reducing production consistently with limiting the global temperature rise to two degrees Celsius”. Having earned his living in fossil-fuel companies for 48 years, he reported that they continued to rely on the Government to initiate change, meanwhile focusing on profits and spending billions on exploring new fossil-fuel reserves.

“There is a danger of being too reasonable, said Revd Janet Appleby (Newcastle), who supported the amendment. “Surely the threat of disinvestment will only be taken seriously if it is time-limited and specific. Deadlines focus the mind.”

Clive Scowen (London) described the threat of disinvestment as “rather peculiar”. He argued that oil companies “like nothing better than be shot of troublesome activist shareholders. It will not leave the boards of BP and Shell quaking in their boots but singing in their bars.”

The amendment fell after the Bishop of Manchester argued that more exploration was “prudent” and that global demand was still rising, in poorer parts of the world and elsewhere.

“Make no mistake: our support for companies we engage with is not unconditional,” he said. “The investment bodies will divest from companies if, after engagement, we do not think they are taking seriously their responsibility on climate change.”

This month, the Church Commissioners announced that they would dump their £1.6 million holding in the British oil-exploration company SOCO International (News, 3 July).

The Revd Professor Richard Burridge (University of London) compared the engagement approach to that of Jesus to Zaccheus. Although the tax collector had only pledged to give away half of his possession rather than all, Jesus had declared that salvation had come to his house.

Other amendments were passed. The motion urges the NIBs to “encourage the work of those energy companies committed to carbon pricing and investing in research into cleaner fuels, natural gas and carbon capture and storage”, and “proactively to seek and scale up investment in renewable energy and other low carbon energy sectors and to track low carbon indices”.

Speeches made reference to the need to make progress in alliance with developing countries.  

The Archbishop of Canterbury warned against “deterministic or selfish nationalist policy” that would “kick the ladder away from the rest of humankind which is struggling to find the prosperity which we enjoy”.

Others voiced misgivings.

The former national secretary of the Green Party, and self-proclaimed “devil’s advocate”, Martin Sewell (Rochester), questioned whether this was a “time to move rapidly out of a carbon economy”. He used the analogy of trapeze artists. “Working from one trapeze to the next is possible, but timing is crucial. You have got to be sure the next trapeze is on the way. Move too quickly, and you crash.”

He said that the Green movement, of which he had been a part, would win the “Nobel prize for failed apocalyptic warnings . . . every year by a country mile. . .

“Thirty years ago, I and others were predicting that human life would be impossible by 2015. Unfortunately, in the past 30 years, that pesky capitalism that we all despise has enabled more people to live longer, better-fed, better-medicated lives. Infant mortality has reduced.”

He acknowledged that “lifting the poor out of poverty is unfinished business”, but said that the progress that had happened to date had been made possible through “cheap energy and free trade”.

The encouragement to fast caused some consternation. An amendment from the Archdeacon of Norwich, the Ven. Jan McFarlane, who felt “uneasy” about it, fell narrowly.

She feared that it “could set us up for failure. If I were a mischievous journalist, I would wait a month or two, then ring round a selection of bishops and Synod members to check they were fasting.” She feared that it “looks as if we are using fasting to make a political statement” and questioned why this issue had been chosen for a fast and not human trafficking or domestic abuse.

Prudence Dailey (Oxford) wanted to restore the C of E’s traditional discipline of fasting, “which it chooses to ignore”. She said that much could be learned from Muslims who “put us to shame during Ramadan”.

By an overwhelming majority, however, clergy and laity were keen to voice their support for motions that were, the Bishop of Salisbury said, “looking forwards and outwards”.

Bishop Holtam, who chairs the environment working group, said: “At root, this is a spiritual problem. We get things fundamentally wrong, especially when we behave as though we are the centre of everything. What is needed is a change of heart and direction, a humbler, smarter, and more urgent approach to our care of God’s earth.”

The poor had been “forced to be realistic about what is happening to our common home. A similar commitment and sacrifice is asked of us now.”

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