United Church of Christ Takes Leading Role in Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement

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Posted Jan. 29, 2014

Interview with Rev. Jim Antal, national leader on the fossil fuel divestment, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

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In the summer of 2012, environmentalist Bill McKibben published his seminal article, "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math," which kicked off a national campaign among colleges, municipalities and religious organizations to divest their endowment or pension fund holdings from fossil fuel stocks. The divestment campaign, which is gathering momentum, was inspired by the international anti-apartheid divestment campaign of the 1980s that was an important part of the movement that helped topple South Africa’s racist government.

The first national organization to move forward with divestment was the United Church of Christ, which in June 2013, voted at its biennial General Synod to divest their fossil fuel holdings. The resolution was introduced by the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ, led by the Rev. Jim Antal, its minister and president. Seventy-two percent of the Synod's 800 delegates, representing some 5,000 congregations across the U.S. voted in favor of the resolution.

Rev. Antal, who has become a national leader on climate change and divestment, has been arrested a number of times protesting fossil fuel projects such as the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Antal about the United Church of Christ’s decision and what it means in practice, as well as the bigger picture of how fossil fuels trigger climate change.

REV. JIM ANTAL: In late July 2012, Bill McKibben wrote his now very famous article in Rolling Stone to initiate a divestment from the fossil fuel companies movement. So within a year, we were able to muster enough education so that our 800-plus delegates gathered for our national meeting every two years – that they felt both called by conscience and informed enough to say, Yes, divestment is, under these conditions, an appropriate move. As Desmond Tutu told us, it is very rare to use the tactic of divestment, but under these conditions you have a set of companies which, if all they do is carry out their business plan, they will wreck the earth. Under those conditions, shareholder activism doesn't work. What works is communicating unambiguously to those companies that they are part of a structural evil in the country – in the world, I should say – and that as people of conscience, as people of faith, we want to do everything we can to revoke the social license that society has granted them until now, and say, from here on out, no more.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Jim Antal, describe exactly what the resolution does.

REV. JIM ANTAL: We have in our denomination, two financial entities. One is United Church funds, and that's an investment agency which holds the endowments of many of our congregations and other parts of our denominations, and invests them in socially responsible ways. One of the things they signed onto was that within 18 months – they currently have 11 funds – they would create a 12th fund that would be fossil fuel-free, and they are well on their way to doing that. And what that would mean is that any congregation or other entities of our denomination who were investing their holdings – their endowments – with United Church funds, they would be able to say, "We want our investments to be held in the fossil fuel-free fund."

We also have a pension board, and the pension boards hold the pension contributions from about 20,000 United Church of Christ ministers and employees. And they are somewhat supportive of this resolution, but they have made no promise as to whether or not they will allow people who have accumulated pension moneys to designate a fossil fuel-free fund as the fund in which their pensions will go. What they have done is ramp up their shareholder activism on climate. And so both of these financial entities in our denomination are paying much, much more attention – they're prioritizing their attention to climate issues.

BETWEEN THE LINES: I'm a little confused about the 11 funds and the new 12th fossil fuel(-free) fund. Creating a new fund isn't the same as divesting fossil-fuel stocks from the existing funds, right?

REV. JIM ANTAL: We're basically a bottom-up denomination, not a top-down denomination, so the fact that our national body took this vote does not obligate any entity in the UCC to do anything. What it does is bear witness to our 5,000 congregations and other entities in the United Church of Christ that the discernment of our national body representing all aspects of our church, is that divestment is a path that we should follow. And as a consequence right now, there are scores and scores and scores of UCC congregations around the country who are having exactly that conversation.

BETWEEN THE LINES: I know the divestment campaign initiated by 350.org is a moral as opposed to an economic campaign, but do you think if it gets big enough it could have an economic impact as well?

REV. JIM ANTAL: Well, I mean, ultimately we have to – the world has to – bring together its kind of moral axis with the weight of the 150 years of history in which what we refer to as our current civilization depending on fossil fuels.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Due to fracking for oil, the U.S. is on track to be the biggest oil producer in the world in a few years, and natural gas is booming also, due to fracking. This seems like a juggernaut with no way of stopping, if profit is still the moving force behind it.

REV. JIM ANTAL: So, it falls to the movement to say to that momentum, "We have to stop." If we can get our politicians to stop it, that's fine. If we can get divestment to stop it, that's fine. If it takes placing our bodies over the railroad tracks that are transporting oil all over the place, we'll do that. There's a variety of tactics to be employed, but they must all be employed if we expect to have our children and our grandchildren live on a planet that's recognizable.

See the UCC Divestment Resolution.

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