The Catholic Case for Fossil Fuel Divestment

June 14, 2016

By Erin Lothes, Ph.D, Assistant Professor of Theology at College of Saint Elizabeth  – June 16, 2016

The earth is a gift from God, our common home.  God has blessed us with an abundant and beautiful earth whose good things are meant for all.  Pope Francis has called us to attend faithfully and prayerfully to the plight of the poor and our moral obligation to protect the living communities of earth.  Laudato Si’ teaches clearly that “fossil fuel technology needs to be replaced progressively without delay (165).”

With the impacts of climate change already felt, disproportionately impacting the poor around the world, and evidenced by growing numbers of climate refugees, shifting to safe, renewable energy is a moral obligation, a commitment under international treaty, and a technical possibility—when investments and subsidies are shifted to clean energy.

This essential shift to renewable energy only takes place through re-investment, the liberation of funds divested from fossil fuels, through individual, institutional, and societal deployment of currently available technologies.

Divesting commands moral attention to climate change, an attention which has been tragically lacking and critically needs awakening.  It fosters active commitment through responsible investing and advocacy for further structural change.  It is a great sign of hope that our global economy is already transitioning to clean, sustainable, renewable energy, a transition hailed by global political, economic, and religious leaders.  Global economic growth is already decoupled from carbon emissions and fossil-free portfolios perform as well as better as index funds.  The divestment actions of faith communities are an institutional witness that unites fiduciary and faith responsibility.  They are signs of hope for the sustainable and just economy and culture of life that protects the poor and future generations, a transition Pope Francis calls us to create without delay!

Care for creation has a longstanding presence in Catholic social teaching since the 1972 Vatican delegation to the UN Stockholm Conference.  Subsequent magisterial texts include Saint John Paul II’s World Day of Peace Message, Benedict XVI’s Caritas et Veritate, the USCCB’s “A Plea for Prudence and the Common Good,” and most definitively, Laudato Si’.  All teach the converging moral obligations of care of poor and earth in care of our common home, God’s creation.

These teachings are rooted not only in a firm call to solidarity, but the recognition of how energy intersects all forms of social, economic, technological, and political, and moral globalization.  The Catholic Church recognizes the scientific consensus that human-induced changes to climate are observed and measured, attributable to the burning of fossil fuels.  The Vatican teaches that energy must “be thought of, produced, distributed, and used, according to a new paradigm.” [1] This calls for “new behavioral patterns based on justice, responsibility, altruism, subsidiarity and the conception of the integral development of peoples with a view to the common good.”

We are a Church with many, many outstanding institutions committed to service: hospitals, churches, migration services, youth outreach, elder care, preschools, hospice, justice ministries of all kinds– countless institutions being the sacramental presence of the Body of Christ in the world.  We are proud of these institutions and want them to be full witnesses to mercy.

It is now evident, that our investments are undermining the stability of the world’s families by degrading the actual geological stability of our home.

Multiple strategies are needed to solve the climate crisis.  There is no silver bullet.  But solutions exist (such as the rapidly expanding choices in renewable and microgrid technologies, and the market mechanism of a carbon user fee).  Divestment conveys a uniquely powerful moral message that people can do something—without waiting for the impact of policies – and should do something.  But we nonetheless must work for policies, with the moral clarity and resolve created by the message of divesting.

Divestment need not preclude retaining minimum shares to continue in shareholder engagement; multiple strategies can coexist.  But divestment is necessary in the face of intractable resistance to the renewable energy transition which is essential a pragmatic and essential liberation of funds for the renewable energy systems that are critical.

[1]  Andrea Gagliarducci, “Pontifical Council Considers Energy’s Relation to Justice, Peace,” Catholic News Agency (April 13, 2014), news/pontifical-council-considers-energys-relation-to-justice-peace/. See also Erin Lothes, “A New Paradigm for Catholic Energy Ethics,” Catholic Moral Theology (January 28, 2015) A Reflection on Energy in the Current Context of Development and Environmental Protection  (Citta del Vaticano: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2014).