UM Pension Board Ranked in Top 10 on Climate Risk: Good News or Greenwashing?

By Rev. Jenny Phillips

It’s understandable that a person might read the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits’ (GBOPHB) recent announcement of its rank among investors mitigating their exposure to climate risk and assume that the board is doing all it should when it comes to climate change. But many United Methodists agree that the board is not doing nearly enough.

The board announced that it ranks tenth of 500 international investors in the latest index from the Asset Owners Disclosure Project (AODP). The AODP examines how successful pension funds and other long-term investors are at avoiding losing money due to climate change, and also how adept they might be at making money in a low carbon future. To be clear, this assessment doesn’t measure asset owners on the ways in which they are helping to usher in a low-carbon, sustainable future, but rather how they will weather the volatility of the fossil fuel market and the transition that will come when governments finally implement strong carbon regulation.

The United Methodist pension board is one of just two faith-based organizations on the entire list of 500 investors. Unlike other investors on the list, the pension board is called to integrate the United Methodist Church’s values into its investment strategies. While the board’s tepid expression of the church’s values on climate change might elevate it above institutions that don’t consider any values at all in their investment strategies, its significant investments in fossil fuels signal grave disregard for the impacts that these products have on God's people and on God's creation. The board's climate position is particularly weak relative to the strong ethical positions it has taken on other serious issues like war, health and human dignity.

The pension board received its ranking, in part, because of its soft shareholder advocacy with a small number of the dozens of oil and gas companies in which it invests. But the board’s approach to advocacy won’t change the core business model of the fossil fuel industry: to sell fossil fuels for burning. Scientists say that in order to keep the planet’s warming within livable limits, most fossil fuels must stay in the ground. This is achievable, but it’s not something that shareholders like the GBOPHB are going to propose.

That’s why United Methodists throughout the connection are calling on the GBOPHB to stop investing in petroleum and natural gas, and are supporting legislation to add fossil fuels to the socially responsible investment screens in the Book of Discipline and Book of Resolutions. We believe that profiting from the companies that are accelerating climate change undermines our ministries with vulnerable people around the world. It makes little sense for a pastor to minister on the front lines of climate change for her whole career and then receive a pension check funded by fossil fuels.

As long as the GBOPHB invests in fossil fuels, it wants the same thing that fossil fuel executives want: to make as much money as it can from fossil fuels before regulation or market forces turn them into bad investments. The board’s strategy may include preparing for a low-carbon future, but it won’t do anything to hasten its coming. If this is the cream of the crop when it comes to investing for a future that includes life on this planet, we have a long ways to go.

Photo by Kyle Mortara on Flickr Creative Commons