Why I changed my mind about church disinvestment


By Operation Noah Board member Bishop David Atkinson.

Operation Noah’s Ash Wednesday Declaration is based on the belief that our life in this world – including our economics and investment policy, and including our response to climate change – needs to be congruent with our faith in God, Creator, Redeemer and Giver of Life.

One of the concerns of the Bright Now campaign is that the current ethical investment policy of the Church does not take the situation caused by climate change seriously enough. Yet when I first heard about Bright Now I had some difficulties.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

I have worked in a cathedral and know how very important the Church’s invested money is – there is no state subsidy to cathedrals. I have worked in parishes and know the value of the mission fund that the Church Commissioners made available to support the most disadvantaged parts of inner cities. I draw a pension from the Pensions Board, along with many thousands of others, and I know the Pensions Board are legally obliged to maintain their assets to cover their pension obligations. I also know that investment bodies usually make disinvestment the very last step, having sought as shareholders to exercise influence on policy.

But the question becomes: is investment in fossil fuels in the same sort of category as unethical investments in tobacco, weapons, pornography? I took a bit of persuading.

But what convinced me was the discovery that fossil fuel companies are holding so much in the way of reserves for future extraction, that there is likely to be little incentive for them to move substantially away from that and towards renewables. Also, if it is true that the planet can only ‘safely’ burn another 500 billion tons of carbon without the likelihood of catastrophic climate change, and that the fossil fuel companies already have reserves of nearly 2,800 billion tons, then that makes it wrong to extract anything further.

I know this is complicated. There will be those who say that we are just trying to keep our hands clean, or that we can exert more influence on fossil fuel companies by not disinvesting. But if the earth is the Lord’s, to continue to pollute the atmosphere when we know the dangers is contrary to cherishing God’s earth, is a misuse of his gift, and will force our grandchildren to say to us: ‘You knew – why did you not do something?’

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Bishop David Atkinson

David Atkinson was the Bishop of Thetford in Norwich Diocese from 2001 until his retirement in 2009. His most recent book is 'Renewing the Face of the Earth: theological and pastoral responses to climate change'. David currently holds the post of Honorary Assistant Bishop in the Diocese of Southwark.