A Seat at the Table?

By Mark Davies, Dean of the Petree College of Arts and Sciences and Wimberly Professor of Social Ethics at Oklahoma City University

When churches consider divesting from companies for reasons of social and/or ecological responsibility, those who argue against divestment sometimes use the argument that we should not divest from a company or from an industry because doing so would cause us to lose our seat at the table with that company or that industry and make it more difficult to influence and effect change.

The “seat at the table” argument is now being used to make the case against churches divesting from the fossil fuel industry. Speaking at a Forum on the Climate Change Crisis on March 24, 2015, the presiding bishop of the U.S. Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori, made an impassioned plea for addressing climate change. She even claimed that climate denial is immoral. Although Bishop Jefferts Schori calls on her church and all persons to take seriously the scientific evidence that human activity is contributing to climate change, and although she recognizes that climate change is a significant threat to human civilization and to the well-being of all life on earth, she stops short of calling for divestment from the fossil fuel industry that profits from the production and distribution of the fuels that when used create the greenhouse gases that accelerate climate change.

In her opposition to fossil fuel divestment, Bishop Jefferts Schori says ““If you divest you lose any direct ability to influence the course of a corporation’s behavior. I think most pragmatists realize that we can’t close the spigot on the oil wells and close the coal mines immediately without some other energy source to shift to” (As reported in The Guardian). In other words, the bishop seems to be saying that we will lose our seat at the table with the fossil fuel industry if we were to divest from it. So apparently, Bishop Jefferts Schori is arguing that the U. S. Episcopal Church should do everything it can to address climate change, but it should also continue to invest in and profit from the industry that is most responsible for funding the denial of climate change and that is most responsible for slowing a responsible shift towards renewable energy that could mitigate against the climate change that she says we most urgently need to address.

This is neither a prophetic nor a pragmatic witness. This is continued investment in and profit from an industry that is ruining our climate for the sake of being at the table of the fossil fuel industry under the excuse that somehow the U.S. Episcopal Church’s relatively small investment in the fossil fuel industry will give it some leverage to make the fossil fuel industry behave more responsibly. The positive use of that money invested in renewable energy would be much more effective than holding on to some naive hope that continuing to invest in fossil fuels will enable us to have a positive effect on the behavior of the fossil fuel industry.

As my own denomination, the United Methodist Church, discerns what to do concerning fossil fuel divestment at our 2016 General Conference, I hope we will consider that when it comes to responding to industries that contribute to the injustice of climate change or any other situation of great injustice in our world, those of us who are followers of Jesus must ask ourselves, “”Are we seeking seats at tables that we should be turning over?”