Money is Not God: Reflections on the UM Pension Board's Coal Screen

by Rev. Sharon Delgado, California-Nevada Annual Conference

On January 22nd the United Methodist Board General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits announced that it is going to screen thermal coal out of its investment portfolio.  For those of us who have been organizing for months to get the United Methodist Church to screen out coal, oil, and gas, this is a great success.  It is just a first step, but it is a step the Board wouldn’t have taken without the coordinated efforts of many people across the United States, especially advocates involved with Fossil Free UMC. 

We need to keep moving forward.  We need to create a comprehensive investment screen in the United Methodist Church on all fossil fuel companies because of the accelerating rate of planetary warming, because of the unethical behavior of coal, oil, and gas companies, and because the core business plan of these companies is to extract and utilize all of their reserves.   

Institutions around the country and world are divesting from fossil fuels.  The "Go Fossil Free" campaign was started by Bill McKibben, a United Methodist Sunday School teacher, climate activist, and author of many books including The End of Nature and Oil and Honey.   The Go Fossil Free website states:  "If it is wrong to wreck the climate, then it is wrong to profit from that wreckage. We believe that educational and religious institutions, city and state governments, and other institutions that serve the public good should divest from fossil fuels.”

I agree.  Because I am a retired United Methodist pastor, I receive a monthly pension from our denomination’s General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits (“Board of Pensions”).  To me it is a moral dilemma to be receiving money from United Methodist investments in coal, oil, and gas companies, including Exxon Mobile, Conoco Phillips, and Occidental Petroleum.  These global corporations contribute directly to global warming through the greenhouse gas emissions of their products and operations.  They degrade the earth, harm communities, and pollute the atmosphere through hydraulic fracturing ("fracking"), mountaintop removal, offshore oil drilling, and the mining of tar sands and other forms of so-called “dirty fuels.” 

At the same time, many companies that produce fossil fuels, including those in the Board of Pensions portfolio, engage in unethical and egregious behaviors.  They divert earnings from pension plan participants to fund skepticism and denial about the reality of climate change, lobby governments to defeat climate-friendly legislation, sue to recover damage claims resulting from spills, and refuse to convert their business plans to focus on sustainable energy sources.

The primary rationale for creating a fossil fuels investment screen is this: Scientists warn that any warming above a 2°C rise would be dangerous, and governments of the world have agreed to work together to limit warming to that level.[i]  Scientists estimate that humans can emit roughly 565 more gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere and still have some reasonable hope of staying below 2°C.  But proven coal, oil, and gas reserves, mostly held by fossil fuel companies, total about five times that amount--2,795 gigatons of CO2.  If companies extract and burn all these reserves, there will be no way to limit warming to 2°C, and we will have runaway climate change.  [ii] [iii]

Fossil fuels companies also carry some financial risks.  There is a risk of sharp losses in the value of stocks held by fossil fuel companies based on an over-valuation of these reserves, which will be unburnable if international agreements to hold warming to 2°C are honored.  If the world transitions to less polluting and more sustainable forms of fuel, this “carbon bubble” could burst, leaving the unburnable carbon as a “stranded asset.”   

Screening out coal, oil, and gas from the church’s investment portfolios will not cause the collapse of the fossil fuels industry.  But such actions by churches, universities, foundations, and other institutions can highlight the urgency of the climate crisis, reveal the moral bankruptcy of the fossil fuels industry, expose the financial vulnerability of investments based on fossil fuel reserves, and demonstrate a way of being that values life more than the financial bottom line.  It is a way to demonstrate concretely that money is not God. 

See the United Methodist News Service announcement and the Wall Street Journal Story about the United Methodist General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits creating an investment screen on fossil fuels.

 

 

 

[i] World Bank Warnings on Why a 4 Degree Rise in Global Temperatures Must be Avoided:  http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/2013/06/17862361/turn-down-heat-climate-extremes-regional-impacts-case-resilience-full-report

 

[ii] “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” Bill McKibben, Rolling Stones, July 19, 2012--These scientific concepts as written for a mainstream audience:  http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/global-warmings-terrifying-new-math-20120719?page=2.

 

[iii] See also the original scientific paper, “Greenhouse-gas emitting targets for limiting global warming to 2 degrees C,” Malte Meinshausen, et al, in Nature, April 30, 2009