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Church of England divests

Anja KüppersJuly 7, 2015

Last month's papal encyclical on climate change told Catholics to go green. Meanwhile, the Church of England has gone a step further. Anglicans are now also part of the fast-growing fossil fuel divestment movement.

Reverend Rob Weekes
Image: Anja Kueppers

"If creation is the great orchestra, humanity is the great conductor. And we have bunked off."

When ​Reverend Robin Weekes - the ​vicar at Wimbledon's Emmanuel Church in southwest London - speaks to his congregation on Sundays, he often refers to the natural world. He's even been known to gather his flock on grassy Wimbledon Common on a sunny summer's evening.

"We abuse it. We don't take good care of it. That's why the world is a mess," says Weekes. "So creation care is an important part of Christians' responsibility … and a concern for climate change would be part of that."

In step

The Church of England was born back in the 16th century, thanks to King Henry VIII's decision to split from the Roman Catholic Church. He wanted a divorce​. The Vatican said no.

Nearly 500 years later, with the papal encyclical on climate change following on the heels of the Church of England's divestment announcement, Anglicans appear to be in step with the Vatican - on one topic at least. And it's just in time, say some climate change activists, to help influence the outcome of this December's United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris.

A "divestment party" held outside St. Paul's by Operation Noah
Using colorful tactics, campaigners have convinced the Church of England to divest from fossil fuelsImage: Operation Noah

"We've divested from 13 companies that are in the highest-carbon fossil fuels," says Edward Mason, head of Responsible Investment for the Church Commissioners of the Church of England. "That's companies involved in thermal coal mining and oil sands extraction."​

The Church still works to engage with - and help - some fossil fuel companies communicate to investors on climate issues. But it won't be investing any more of its time or money, Mason says, in the biggest polluters.

Joining the movement

With this move, the Church of England has joined more than 220 institutions in a fossil fuel divestment campaign launched in the United States in 2012. That push includes universities, local governments, pension funds, foundations and other religious institutions.

The church's message of environmental responsibility, combined with ​its brand-new climate change policy,​ is good timing, Mason says.​ With the Paris talks upcoming, there's a sense of momentum building, he says. "Comment from global faiths is an extremely important part of that picture," he added.

Greater impact than apartheid divestment?

Research at the University of Oxford says the fossil fuel divestment movement is the fastest in history - faster even than the anti-apartheid campaign in the 1970s and 80s to stop investment in South Africa. But has it caught the attention of the world's powerful fossil fuel industry?

British environmentalist, economist, and Director of the Stranded Assets Programme at the University of Oxford's Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment (Photo: Anja Kueppers)
Caldecott is convinced divestment can bring changeImage: Anja Kueppers

Ben Caldecott, a British environmentalist and economist who leads University of Oxford research into fossil fuel divestment, believes it has. The act of divestment itself isn't going to bankrupt fossil fuel companies, he says. But the credible threat of divestment is affecting the reputations of the companies - and therefore their ability to recruit high-caliber employees - to raise capital and to win political influence.

"It sends a signal that results in this process of organizational stigma," Caldecott says.

The success of the fossil fuel divestment campaign is thanks in part to campaigners like Ellie Roberts of the London-based ecumenical Christian charity, Operation Noah. Roberts is driven by her own faith. As a Quaker, she's a member of the first denomination in the UK to divest from fossil fuels.

After working with the United Nations climate negotiations in recent years, she says she saw how "stuck" the process had become, and decided the divestment movement was a better way of shifting political power.

"There's ever more research showing fossil fuels are becoming increasingly risky investments," says Roberts.

"If governments do pass legislation that curbs carbon emissions, many of their reserves will be unburnable or be much less profitable," Roberts says.

Ellie Roberts (Photo: Anja Kueppers)
Roberts campaigned against fossil fuels through Operation NoahImage: Anja Kueppers

Weekes of Emmanuel Church in Wimbledon also believes that, with patience and pragmatism, divestment can be effective: "I'm absolutely convinced that in the long term, there'll be a huge difference."

The Church of England has so far withdrawn some 17 million euros ($18.7 million) worth of fossil fuel investments. That's not a large part of its total investment portfolio - but it does make the church part of a movement with the potential to change the way the world uses energy.

And it follows the lead of a divestment campaign that changed the course of South Africa's history.