PITTSBURGH – A group of Protestant churches has become the first U.S. religious body to vote to divest its pension funds and investments from fossil fuel companies because of climate change concerns.
The United Church of Christ, which traces its origins back to the Pilgrims in 1620 and has about 1.1 million members in 5,100 congregations, voted on Monday to divest in stages over the next five years. But it left open the possibility of keeping some investments if the fossil fuel companies meet certain standards.
"Implementing the multiple strategies outlined in this resolution will demand time, money and care — but we believe creation deserves no less," United Church Funds President Donald Hart said in a statement. The affiliated group has managed church investments since 1909.
Harvard University professor Theda Skocpol, who has written about the politics of the climate change movement and divestment efforts, called the move significant.
Skocpol said she doesn't think the divestment movement is "going to bring the fossil fuel industry to its knees" but that it is symbolically significant, since action by a national church group brings the debate over climate change "into the heart of American communities."
"This is definitely part of changing community and elite opinion" in America, she said.
The Rev. Jim Antal, who is president of the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ and who helped lead the divestment campaign, said that they have a model "that other institutions can follow." Antal said he worked with the groups that manage the institution's investments to come up with a resolution they could accept, and the compromise included "an out" that could let the church hold some fossil fuel stocks that are "best in class."
The resolution calls on the institution to divest from fossil fuel companies by 2018, and to create investment funds that don't contain fossil fuel companies within 18 months. It also urges leaders and individual members to "make lifestyle changes to reduce the use of fossil fuels" and "highlight the dangers of climate change."
"I am close to 100 percent confident that within five years we will hold no fossil fuel stocks," Antal said. The Associated Press left messages for pension fund leaders, who did not immediately respond.
Antal said the group was motivated by the 350.org climate change campaign, which is also urging colleges and universities to divest from fossil fuel companies. The final vote came during a national convention in Long Beach, Calif.
The founder of 350.org, Bill McKibben, wrote in an email that the UCC vote "may be the most important moment yet in the divestment campaign" since the church has led many past campaigns for social progress. McKibben added that the vote doesn't just acknowledge the overwhelming scientific evidence about climate change threats, but makes clear that there is "also a profoundly moral argument: if it's wrong to wreck the climate, it's wrong to profit from the wreckage."
Last week, ExxonMobil company spokesman Alan T. Jeffers told The Boston Globe that the divestment campaign is "a symbolic measure that does nothing to reduce emissions" and added that fossil fuel makes modern life possible.
Jeffers told the AP in an email that "ExxonMobil believes the risk of climate change warrants action" and that their strategy to reduce emissions focuses on increased energy efficiency in the short term and "developing breakthrough, game-changing technologies for the long term."
The United Church of Christ, which is based in Cleveland, noted that debate on the issue included members from Montana, Wyoming and Kentucky who spoke of the potential impacts on people who are employed in the fossil fuel industry.
"I'm glad to hear that they also highlighted the issue of the workers in the industry," Skocpol said, since acknowledging the complexities of the issue may be a "more realistic" way of inspiring action on global warming that simply painting fossil fuel companies as the culprits.