Just over a week ago here in Australia, the Uniting Church of New South Wales and ACT made the bold pledge to divest it’s investment funds from the fossil fuel industry, directing them into renewable energy instead. It made headlines, and is the start of a coming wave of divestment campaigning in Australia. Justin Whelan, Mission Development Manager at Paddington Uniting Church explains how they got the Church Synod to make the decision – and one that was made by consensus!

There is an etiquette in the church that we don’t clap resolutions when they pass, but this time excitement got the better of too many people. A wave of applause broke out. Was it only in this moment that people realised the significance of what we had done? Or was this the bursting dam, a community waiting a long time for a little nudge to help them be the radical, prophetic people they want to be?

For those of us who brought the divestment proposal to the 400-member council meeting (known as a ‘Synod meeting’) of the Uniting Church in New South Wales and the ACT, there was relief to go with the excitement. We had been negotiating with key leaders over the first three days of the meeting, soothing concerns and making small amendments as needed. The ethical investment managers had legitimate operational concerns, and by working with them they were addressed.

Another key leader, whom we had pegged as an ally, told us he would oppose it in the strongest terms. A long conversation ensued about theories of social change and comparisons with other campaigns he is passionate about. At the time we thought we hadn’t convinced him but when the public debate came, he too supported the resolution with a minor change: he wanted to add to the decision!

So now we have committed to investing in renewable energy instead of fossil fuels, and a communications strategy will be devised by ‘head office’ staff to encourage and support individual members taking their own action, such as moving their superannuation (pension) funds to ethical investors.

All this by consensus. Our church’s decision making process was a potential problem but in the end we need not have feared. This proposal followed a string of resolutions about the environment and climate change over the last two decades. The church has been an outspoken advocate for climate action for at least ten years. At the same meeting we heard from farming communities being ‘fractured’ by the coal seam gas industry, and passed a resolution calling for the protection of valuable land and water resources. The divestment proposal was both an effective way to dramatically ramp up that advocacy, as well as putting our money where our mouth is. In this context, “we refuse to profit from destroying the earth” was a pretty easy message to sell.

If anyone was in doubt about the significance of the Synod’s decision, the media interest will have set them right pretty quickly. With nothing more than a media release, our resolution achieved national print and radio news coverage, a string of interviews and a social media storm (thanks 350.org for helping with that!). One journalist asked me whether I really thought this would have any impact – whether anyone would care what the church does with its money. I felt like saying “well, you called me, didn’t you?”

There are still questions of implementation for the investment managers to consider, and we are starting to get some backlash from coal mining companies that give grants to church-run community services. In  Australia, the resource sector is so significant to the economy that it was inevitable that even churches find themselves enmeshed in it. These are challenges we all face as communities living in the world as it is now. These are challenges we must all face head-on if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change.  

The Uniting Church in NSW-ACT has had an ethical investment policy for about 30 years, making it something of a world leader in that regard. We already refuse to invest in the tobacco, armaments, uranium mining and gambling industries, as well as companies with poor records on human rights, working conditions, and so on.

Now fossil fuel companies have been added to that list. For some this link to other toxic industries was a cognitive breakthrough: we weren’t saying they were ‘bad’ companies, we were saying their once vital business has become a threat to human and ecological life.

As Bill McKibben says, and we emphasised, “there is no flaw in their business plan. The flaw is their business plan.”

Justin Whelan, from the Uniting Earthweb Group

You can read more about the church’s divestment decision here.

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