Peter's Blog

Disinvestment Debate

Written by Peter Johnston on .

One of the debates that took place at this year's General Assembly focussed on the progress of the engagement that the Church & Society Council, of which I am a member, has had with the oil and gas companies BP, Shell and Total, all of which the Church of Scotland held investments with during the previous year. This was an instruction given to the Church & Society Council following a passionate debate at last year's GA when the Council reported. The instruction to engage was instead of a move to disinvest from oil and gas companies.

Over the course of the year that has followed, the outcome of that engagement has been negligible. We should not be surprised by that. Some call it "green-washing": the attempts of the oil and gas majors to project a message of their support for renewable energy when they are investing hugely in further oil and gas reserves. The Church & Society Council reported back on this and was seeking to bring a report to next year's GA on the matter. With support from a group of youth representatives, a move was made to push a decision about whether the church should be holding investments in firms that are selling products that we now know are harmful to the environment.

We already do this over alcohol, tobacco, armament manufacturers, gambling and pornography, for instance. This is not the same as saying we must stop using oil and gas products immediately, which is often the argument that is thrown back. Just as I enjoy the odd pint or G&T, I also know that alcohol products are the source of terrible pain and abuse by others, and that we, as a church, should not be profting from the harm that is done to others. So it is the same, I know that it is going to take time to move away from using oil and gas products. Yes, personally, I use an electric car for most of my driving around, but we still have a diesel car for the whole family. We are moving towards the end point we seek, and it is a process. But, when we acknowledge the pain and harm that is being done to communities and the world by the current climate mergency, then should we be profiting from it, as we do when we are shareholders in companies that produce the world's oil and gas?

The countermotion that was moved at the GA stated:  “Note the disappointing outcome from the engagement to date with oil and gas companies and in order to support a just transition towards a sustainable carbon neutral economy urge the Investors Trust to disinvest from oil and gas companies by the end of 2020.”

This is what I said as part of that debate:

In Ferryhill Kirk, at Harvest Thanksgiving over the last few decades when the Communion Table is being dressed for worship, adorned with flowers and fruit, wheat sheaves and fish, alongside these items was placed a glass jar filled with a litre of Brent Crude. It has been entirely natural over those decades to recognise the contribution made to the city of Aberdeen from the oil and gas industry. Fossil fuels have driven much of the prosperity that the industrialised world has known. Generations have rightfully given thanks for the cheap energy that fossil fuels have provided.

In the last few years, however, at Ferryhill we have not put that jar in its traditional spot. We are in a different place now as the costs we and future generations are paying by burning fossil fuels have become overwhelmingly evident. We now know better.

Climate campaigners disrupted yesterday’s BP AGM, mass activism by Extinction Rebellion has dramatically raised awareness, school children speaking truth to power have taken to the streets, the UK and Scottish parliaments have declared that we are now in a climate change emergency: we are at a tipping point – a moment of decision about whether we take seriously the ramifications of our actions on the world and pledge to change.

Today we are much wiser about the affect we have on the planet’s climate, the science is increasingly clear and the evidence of how climate change is affecting communities is obvious. We now know better.

In the speech the Convener gave at last year’s Assembly he said, “We find it deeply uncomfortable that the Church, as an organisation concerned about climate justice, is investing in something which causes the very harm we seek to alleviate. There are profound transformations that are taking place moving us to a low carbon economy. Yet oil and gas companies… continue to make exploration and development of new resources the centre of their business model.”

I love chocolate, Moderator – hard to believe, I know – and if I have a bar of Divine chocolate sitting on my desk, right there, my greed overwhelms me, I am going to eat it. If oil companies like BP, Shell and Total have vast reserves of oil and gas sitting in front of them, they cannot help themselves, they are going to extract it. I am only saved from myself when someone takes the chocolate bar off my desk – usually one of my kids. The oil and gas companies are not going to change. As this year’s report states: “the oil and gas business is too vast and too profitable to withdraw from despite its shocking consequences for global warming.” Engagement is well and good and it should continue and can continue through the Churches Investors Group of which we are a part. But the need to engage is increasingly outweighed by the moral imperative to put our money where it will do no harm to others, but rather do good, as we have done previously by withdrawing from sectors like alcohol, tobacco, armaments or gambling. We now know better.

In Aberdeen we know that the need for a just transition away from an oil and gas-based economy is essential. In a discussion group held on “just transition” in Aberdeen we heard of the skills available amongst engineers which could be deployed to find solutions to technical problems in renewable energy production and storage. We also recognised that for someone to move away from a job in the oil and gas sector there must be a job available in other sectors such as in renewable energy. It is unreasonable to expect someone to give up their livelihood without another option being available.

As a prophetic church, speaking truth amidst the chaos, stewarding our resources with wisdom, caring for creation, it is time to reckon with the morality of our investments in relation to fossil fuels and disinvest from oil and gas companies. To do so without equivocation. And to make this a part of our stewardship: bringing about a just transition to a carbon neutral economy.

In making that choice we will be joining our friends in the United Reformed Church who just last week made a similar decision, and over 1,000 other institutions from the University of Edinburgh to the Church of Ireland who have done the same. Even MPs in London on this very day are going to be debating the ethical and financial risks posed by fossil fuel companies to pension funds. We are at that tipping point. And we now know better. May we act upon that knowledge.

The countermotion was defeated, albeit it just by forty votes. Over seventy commissioners signed a dissent to that decision.

In approving the Council's original section of the deliverance, the GA instead agreed that a further year of engagement with oil and gas companies take place before the Council reports to next year's GA. A holding pattern, in other words, as the world moves on and the church falls behind.