Catholic religious orders call for urgent action on fossil fuel divestment


On Thursday 14 February, 65 people from more than 20 Catholic religious communities attended a conference hosted by Mount Street Jesuit Centre in London entitled ‘Fossil fuel divestment for a zero-carbon future: A conference for religious’. James Buchanan reports on the day.

Conference participants in Church following a ‘Creation Mass’ (credit: Bernadette Kehoe / Conference of Religious)

The conference, which was co-sponsored by Operation Noah, CAFOD, Global Catholic Climate Movement, the National Justice & Peace Network, the Conference of Religious and the Association of Provincial Bursars, was the first event of its kind in the UK. It sought to encourage Catholic institutions from England and Wales to join future divestment announcements coordinated by the Global Catholic Climate Movement.

In recent years, Catholic organisations around the world including dioceses, religious orders and Bishops’ Conferences, have played an increasingly prominent role in the global divestment movement. More than 120 Catholic institutions are among the 1,000+ organisations to have divested from fossil fuel companies in response to the climate crisis, including the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Caritas Internationalis, the Passionists in England & Wales, the Columban Missionaries and the Franciscan Sisters of Mary in the US.

Rev Dr Martin Poulsom SDB, a Salesian of Don Bosco, trustee of Operation Noah and Senior Lecturer at Roehampton University, spoke on the topic of Laudato Si’ and religious life. Echoing the recent report published by researchers at the University of Leeds, he emphasised that limiting global temperature rises to the 1.5°C target of the Paris Agreement can be achieved ‘if the energy transition speeds up’. He added: ‘Religious congregations can play an important prophetic role today, showing that they care for our common home, not just by the lives that their members lead, but also by where they invest their money. By divesting from fossil fuels and reinvesting in zero-carbon energy generation, they can be signs of hope for our world, making possible the brighter, cleaner future that is needed for all who live on this Earth that we share. The time to act is now.’

‘Laudato Si’ and religious life’, Rev Dr Martin Poulsom SDB

Keynote speaker Dr Lorna Gold, Coordinator of the Laudato Si’ Project at Trocaire and Vice Chair of the Global Catholic Climate Movement, spoke about the ‘urgent and radical change’ needed as she shared the experience of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference, which divested its fossil fuel investments in August 2018. She said that ‘the key message of today is the urgency of the crisis and the important role the Church and the orders can play through the use of their resources, and deciding when to remove their investments from fossil fuels and divert to renewables.’

The Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference was the first episcopacy in the English-speaking world to take the step of divesting from fossil fuels and they said they were doing so in response to Pope Francis’ call in his 2015 encyclical letter Laudato Si’ to move away from fossil fuels ‘without delay’. As well as the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference, 60 religious orders and all 26 Catholic dioceses in Ireland are now on a path to follow suit, representing hundreds of millions of Euros in combined investments.

Lorna Gold expressed her hope that UK-based Catholic organisations would soon follow suit: ‘Today’s event is critical for getting this message across to the Catholic world in the UK. People have two concerns, that they will lose money and that they might be able to achieve more as ‘active shareholders’, trying to minimise the damage of fossil fuels through influence.  I’d say we have had 30 years to do that and it hasn’t made a difference. A more radical approach is needed.  Now is the time to divest because zero-carbon solutions are now viable – with the rise of effective solar and wind power technologies. As the experience of the Irish Catholic Church has shown, their major fund is fossil free with no detriment to their income.’

‘Laudato Si’ and divestment in Ireland’, Dr Lorna Gold

Fr Martin Newell CP of the Passionists and Ellen Teague, JPIC Media Worker at Columbans in Britain, then presented examples of the divesting process. Fr Martin Newell emphasised the importance of a clear ethical investment policy and not being deterred by fund managers who state that it isn’t possible to divest. Both Martin Newell and Ellen Teague stressed the tension between the urgency of the environmental crisis and the need for time to complete the divestment process, which should be completed within five years of the initial announcement. In the case of the Passionists in England and Wales, the process took nine months from start to finish.

Sr Sheila Kinsey FCJM, Executive Co-Secretary of the JPIC Commission of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG) in Rome, spoke of the new UISG campaign 2018-2020, ‘Sowing Hope for the Planet’. A key element of the campaign is the promotion of fossil fuel divestment among religious orders and supporting Pope Francis in his mission to ‘hear the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor’. She spoke of the importance of responsible stewardship, highlighting that ‘it is not enough to do good things by ourselves; we need to do these things with others’.

‘Sowing Hope for the Planet campaign’, Sr Sheila Kinsey FCJM

Mark Campanale, Founder and Executive Director of the independent think tank Carbon Tracker, who commissioned the groundbreaking Unburnable Carbon report on the risk of stranded assets in 2011, underlined that there are several times more proven fossil fuel reserves than can be burned if we are to avert dangerous global warming. As well as supporting divestment, he identified signs of progress on alternatives to fossil fuels including electric cars, which he said ‘will be cheaper than the combustion engine in two years’, and the rapidly falling costs of renewable energy, which is already cost competitive with fossil fuels.

Sian Ferguson of the Ashden Trust, Mark Leonard Trust and JJ Charitable Trust, said: ‘we have had a wake-up call today and heard how you can move your investments’ and simultaneously warned that the corporate culture of major oil and gas companies is difficult to shift. She highlighted the fact that ‘business models are not changing’ and ‘more is still being spent on exploration for oil, gas and other fossil fuels than on renewables’. She said that religious groups have a key part to play in investing their money according to the sort of sustainable and just society they want in the future.

She invited participants of the conference to make a pledge to DivestInvest and outlined how the divestment movement has already made significant achievements in just a few years. It has kept the spotlight on climate change; challenged institutions on their investment goals; pushed the envelope on the limits of impact investing; and helped to activate politically people and groups who might have otherwise remained on the sidelines.

James Buchanan of Operation Noah’s Bright Now campaign spoke about progress made on divestment by other Churches across the UK, as well as some of the limitations of engagement with fossil fuel companies. He shared the example of major oil and gas companies BP, Shell and Chevron having spent $31.2 million (£24.8 million) to oppose a carbon pricing measure in Washington State in November 2018, which could have generated billions of dollars for clean energy and air programmes.

Maria Elena Arana, Campaigns Coordinator at CAFOD, spoke about CAFOD’s Our Common Home campaign, which is calling on the UK government to commit to reaching net zero emissions by 2045, and encouraged participants to join the mass lobby of Parliament being organised by members of The Climate Coalition on Wednesday 26 June.

Edward de Quay, who works for the Environmental Advisory Group at the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, invited religious orders to switch to a green energy tariff. While no Catholic dioceses and the Bishops’ Conference in England and Wales have so far made commitments to divest from fossil fuels, there have been positive steps in switching to green energy: 20 out of 22 Catholic dioceses in England and Wales now get their electricity from renewable sources.

Cecilia Dall’Oglio from the Global Catholic Climate Movement offered a call to action: she invited religious orders and other Catholic organisations to join one of the next global Catholic divestment announcements taking place in May and September 2019. James Buchanan from Operation Noah’s Bright Now campaign is also available to support with the process and answer any questions that people may have.

The conference rounded off with a Creation Mass, which was celebrated by Fr Dominic Robinson SJ, parish priest at Farm Street Church.

James Buchanan, Bright Now Campaign Manager at Operation Noah and one of the organisers of the conference said: ‘It is wonderful to see so many members of religious orders here who are keen to respond to the call of Pope Francis to take urgent action on climate change. It is very positive to see religious orders considering divestment from fossil fuels in order to accelerate the transition to a zero-carbon future, and we hope that many will join the future global Catholic divestment announcements.’

For more information email James Buchanan on james.buchanan@operationnoah.org

Catholic organisations wishing to register their divestment commitments can do so by completing the form on the Global Catholic Climate Movement website: https://catholicclimatemovement.global/divest-and-reinvest/commitment

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