The fossil fuel divestment spirit is sweeping faith communities around the world. Today, the trustees of the Union Theological Seminary in New York City voted unanimously to begin divesting the school’s entire $108.4 million endowment from fossil fuels, becoming the world’s first seminary to take this dramatic step in the fight against global climate change.
Union’s decision is especially significant because of the seminary’s reputation as a center for progressive social change. Union’s faculty has included great thinkers like Walter Rauschenbusch, Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, James Cone, Cornel West, and others.
As 350.org founder Bill McKibben put it in our press release about the announcement, “Union is the cradle of progressive Protestantism in the US, so I expect this decision will have a major impact. Not only is Union a moral leader, it’s also a resident of Manhattan with long ties to the city’s leaders, meaning that divestment now has a foothold in the world’s financial capital. I predict this will be the first of many seminaries that heed the call to stand up for God’s creation.”
Over the last year, the financial case for divestment has become increasingly clear. Earlier this spring, the Natural Resources Defense Council partnered with BlackRock, one of the world’s largest investment firms, to offer a fossil free fund–a sign of how the movement is becoming more mainstream.
For Union, however, the financial argument was secondary to the moral imperative to divest. “Scripture tells us that all of the world is God’s precious creation, and our place within it is to care for and respect the health of the whole,” said Union President Serene Jones. “As a seminary dedicated to social justice, we have a critical call to live out our values in the world. Climate change poses a catastrophic threat, and as stewards of God’s creation we simply must act.”
“Climate change is affecting this globe, it’s killing people, and it’s going to destroy what the world looks like as we know it,” said Michael Johnston, the head of Union’s investment committee and a former Executive Vice President with Capital Group Companies, one of the world’s largest investment management organizations. “As a seminary we have a moral obligation to no longer profit from the misery inflicted on God’s creation by the production of fossil fuels. I hope that people see our actions as a beacon of hope, and recognize that there are things we can do as a country and as a people to cut down on our greenhouse gas emissions.”
Union is part of a growing movement of religious institutions around the world who have taken up the divestment campaign. Dozens of churches, from Anglicans in New Zealand to Quakers in the United Kingdom, have divested their holdings. The United Church of Christ of Massachusetts and Minnesota, the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Oregon, the Maine Council of Churches, and others have all supported divestment.
Union’s announcement will hopefully build momentum for other religious communities to take action. Next week, the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) will consider a fossil fuel divestment proposal at its General Assembly in Detroit. Twelve regional Presbyteries across the country have already voted to affirm the climate-change overture. Just this February, the Mid-Kentucky Presbytery, in the heart of coal country, joined the effort. The Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations is expected to debate divestment this summer, as well.
According to divestment organizers in NYC, Union’s decision will also increase pressure on the city to divest its pension funds from fossil fuels. “Now that divestment has a firm foothold in Manhattan, the pressure is building on New York City to divest its pension funds from fossil fuels. Union Theological Seminary has helped make the moral case crystal clear: it is wrong to invest in companies that are wrecking the planet and imperiling the future of NYC,” Lyna Hinkel from 350 NYC.
“Union’s vote to divest is prophetic and strong,” said the Rev. Fletcher Harper of GreenFaith, an interfaith environmental group which has advocated fossil fuel divestment and clean energy reinvestment by religious institutions. “The seminary’s commitment highlights the grave danger posed by climate change and the fossil fuel industry, and is a model for seminaries globally.”