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Should Churches Maintain Fossil-Fuel Investments?

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The climate is warming and this will continue as we burn fossil fuels.

There are already serious environmental effects. The poor suffer disproportionately and will suffer even more in the future if we do not take prompt action.

Most fossil fuel reserves should stay underground, but the church has substantial investments in fossil fuels.

Should we continue with these investments? How can environmental ethics inform our decision-making?

We could look at the question in a principle-driven (deontological) way. We do the right thing regardless of the consequences.

Carbon emissions cause huge problems for the environment and the world’s poorest people, and so the right thing is to divest even if it has potential problems for our pension funds.

Alternatively, we could investigate the question with outcome-driven ethics (consequential/utilitarian). Here we want the greatest good for the greatest number.

Prioritizing pensions, we could keep our investments, hoping the share price stays up.

We could engage with the fossil fuel companies in the expectation that they might change into energy companies.

However, one oil executive said in late 2014 that these companies are on a “decades-long transition away from a fossil fuels-dependent energy system.” Their time scale is too slow to avoid dangerous climate change.

We might decide that having shares in fossil fuels is very risky and could be a liability if world governments take action on carbon emissions as a result of the upcoming COP21 United Nations meetings in Paris.

Renewable energy sources will only continue to grow in their market share. We may conclude that a staged withdrawal would best balance principles and outcome.

If everyone withdrew oil investments at the same time, it might trigger global recession with serious problems especially for poor countries.

The worst carbon sources are tar sands and coal, so start with them and move on to oil and gas later.

Environmental ethics provides a further basis for decision-making. What is our core value?

Taking an anthropocentric view, decisions are made on the basis of providing for human well-being.

A sub-category within this view has been described as money-centric, where the focus is making the most money.

An eco-centric ethic focuses on what is best for the whole ecosystem, humans included.

Finally, faith communities have theo-centric views, where choices are made that are most honoring to God.

For Christians, this acknowledges the priority of humans as made in God’s image but recognizes that we need to care for God’s creation.

If we want human well-being and functioning ecosystems, then we must deal with climate change and transition away from fossil fuels.

Even if we are money-centric, investing in fossil fuels may be hazardous.

Throughout the Bible, God shows his love for creation and his care for the disadvantaged. As Christians, this should be our priority.

Whatever your ethical view, divestment makes sense. A staged withdrawal might bring the best overall outcome, but the timescale is very short.

Martin J. Hodson is a plant scientist and operations manager for the John Ray Initiative. He has more than 90 research publications and speaks widely on environmental issues. Margot R. Hodson is an environmental theologian and an Anglican pastor of four churches near Oxford in the United Kingdom. The Hodsons have jointly taught environmental ethics at Oxford Brookes University and are authors of several publications in this area, which can be found through their website. A version of this article appeared previously on the JRI blog and was initially written as a contribution to a collection of essays for the Operation Noah “Bright Now” project. It is used with permission. You can follow Martin on Twitter @MartinHodson1 and Margot @MargotHodson.