Churches Divest From Fossil Fuels: Will Industry Evolve to Survive?

Source: David McNew/Getty Images

Image Source: David McNew/Getty Images

The energy boom is reaping big benefits domestically, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is on board with it. Big oil — along with coal and other fossil fuel companies in the energy sector — have become big targets of a new round of political action and investment activity in which prevailing attitudes are shifting toward conservation and sustainability. President Obama recently fired a big shot in the direction of the fossil fuel industry, mandating a 30 percent cut in emissions by the year 2030.

That was simply the biggest recent political knock towards energy companies, but now investors are getting their shots in as well.

The World Council of Churches, which is an umbrella group that encompasses 345 member houses of worship, including the Church of England, has decided to divest from the fossil fuel industry altogether. Across the world, the group represents more than half a billion people, to shed a little more light on the gravity of the group’s actions. In fact, the group’s reach goes further than most might realize, encompassing 590 million people in 150 countries, its ranks are nearly double the entire population of the United States.

The divestment looks to be a major victory for environmentalists, who have had a hard time converting the religious right over to their line of thinking.  But the aspect of increasing extreme weather events due to climate change, along with rising sea levels and droughts appear to have won them over.

Read more: How Energy from Biofuels Can Match Crude Oil Levels

So how much money are we talking about, exactly? No exact figures are given, but it’s not a paltry sum. In fact, the Union of Theological Seminary, a American-based religious group, is pulling $108.4 million all on its own. Serene Jones, the group’s president, explained that the group was not complacent with sitting by and doing nothing as the world faces a dire threat.

“Scripture tells us that all of the world is God’s precious creation, and our place within it is to care for and respect the health of the whole,” she said. “As a seminary dedicated to social justice, we have a critical call to live out our values in the world. Climate change poses a catastrophic threat, and as stewards of God’s creation we simply must act.”

Many Christians view themselves as protectors of the Earth, as it is God’s creation and must be taken care of. In contrast to some prevailing attitudes in the United States and other regions, where many times the conservative, religious right’s view seems to assume a prevailing attitude that the world is ripe for pillaging, a ‘manifest destiny’ idea of sorts when it comes to natural resources. Of course, this doesn’t hold true across the entire spectrum of the faithful, but those are some of the major talking points espoused by politicians and leaders of the conservative base. But the views of the religious look to be shifting, at least on an international scale.

Read more: The Top 5 Non-Energy Sources of Climate Change

“There was an explicit wish at the Finance Committee to include fossil fuels as one of the sectors where the WCC will not invest in, based on decisions to divest from fossil fuels taken by member churches in different parts of the world,” said Guillermo Kerber, in a statement released by 350.org, a campaign fighting climate change and leading the charge in the divestment effort. Kerber coordinates the World Council of Churches’ work when it comes to issues like climate change.

“The general ethical guidelines for investment already included the concern for a sustainable environment, for future generations and CO2 footprint. Adding fossil fuels to the list of sectors where the WCC does not invest in serves to strengthen the governing body’s commitment on climate change as expressed in various sessions of the Central Committee,” he said.

Now, losing the investments of one group of people is no reason to panic for the tycoons of the fossil fuel industry. But the problem is that the WCC is jumping on board what appears to be a bandwagon. Another area where the industry is losing investors is in academia.

Several divestment campaigns have swept across college campus around the country, and have included big names like Stanford. Although it’s not entirely surprising to see calls for divestment being made by students and younger generations (who will be dealing with the fallout of global climate change), the unlikely pairing of the academic world with the religious should be enough to get the fossil fuel industry’s attention.

Read more: Obama’s Climate Plan Is Leaking Methane

The Washington Post reports that divestment campaigns have sprung up on more than 400 college campuses across the country, indicating that it’s probably not a passing phase, and that young people are genuinely passionate about the future of the planet. Considering the millennials and the generations they precede will be faced with monstrous economic costs in the future, it’s hard to blame them.

“We have a government that has been taken over by the fossil-fuel industry, so we’re going to pressure the fossil-fuel industry itself,” said Chloe Maxmin of Divest Harvard. The costs of inaction in terms of energy policy will come due within “a time frame well within my generation’s lifetime,” she added.

The students may be making their voices heard, along with the actions of the religious. But does divestment actually have an effect? It’s hard to say for sure.

It’s safe to say that Big Oil will persevere in the short run, and find other places to find financing. Of course, the industry really doesn’t need all that backing, considering that, as a whole, the business has become one of the most profitable in the history of the world. The industry is going to fight back, with armies of lobbyists and PR professionals at its beck and call, not to mention considerable political clout. Just think about how fast BP made everyone forget about the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

That doesn’t mean the fossil fuel industry is immune to changing attitudes and priorities. If the sentiment being expressed by students and large church groups continues to spread, energy companies could have a legitimate crisis on its hands. Climate change is becoming forever more etched in the political lexicon, and younger generations are not nearly as likely as their older counterparts to ignore the problem, or discard it without taking a serious look at the economic effects in coming decades.

When the churches start to pull away, it’s a fair warning sign that it’s time to make some changes. For the fossil fuel industry, evolution may be, ironically, its only chance for survival as things progress further into the 21st century.

More From Wall St. Cheat Sheet: