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United Church to divest from fossil fuels

By: | August 12, 2015

Global movement grows in Canada’s faith community, strengthening the call to combat climate change on moral and ethical grounds.

Members of the United Church of Canada are convening in Corner Brook this week for the Church's General Council 42 conference. On Tuesday they voted to divest the Church's holdings in fossil fuel companies. Photo by United Church of Canada / Flickr.

On Tuesday, at a national conference in Corner Brook, the largest Protestant denomination in Canada voted to join the growing worldwide fossil fuel divestment movement.

The United Church of Canada has vowed to pull nearly $6 million of its holdings in oil, gas and coal companies and reinvest the money in renewable energy.

“The United Church of Canada has voiced its concern about human-induced climate catastrophe for decades,” said Christine Boyle, General Council Commissioner for the Church, in a news release yesterday.

“Given the lack of political and industrial leadership to address climate concerns in a way that matches the scale of the problem, we wanted to signal that we are so serious about averting climate crisis that we are willing to put our money where our mouth is,” she added.

Jeanne Moffat, a member of the Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church in Toronto and a spokesperson for the Church on climate change and divestment, told The Independent on Tuesday that members of her faith community are “concerned about the impact of increasing global warming on the climate and on vulnerable communities.”

She said the United Church of Canada has partnerships with people living in areas vulnerable to the rapidly changing climate, including on the Islands of the South Pacific and other low-lying coastal areas around the world.

“It’s a justice issue for us, [so] we work to try to diminish the impact on them. It’s a moral issue for us because as a Church we have in our creed that we will live with respect in Creation, and we feel that this whole trend toward continuing to pour carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at rates that are untenable for the planet require our moral leadership,” Moffat said.

The United Church of Canada’s decision was prompted a movement that began early last year, when Moffat’s Church in Toronto decided to divest from fossil fuels, a move that was then followed by other churches around the country.

“It was a movement that was across the country by the time it got to [Corner Brook] this week,” she said.

Growing movement

The fossil fuel divestment movement has burgeoned over the past year, after a number of American universities were pressured by students and faculty members to divest their holdings in an industry largely to blame for the global climate crisis.

Last summer the Church of England voted to divest its holdings in oil companies, as did the World Council of Churches, which has 345 members worldwide.

Earlier this summer Pope Francis released his encyclical, urging the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics to join the movement to confront global warming. He also criticized capitalism and called on the world’s rich nations to begin paying their “grave social debt” to the poor through economic and social change.

“The Pope’s encyclical has been a huge step forward, to have that coming at this time as we are leading up to the Paris meetings in December 2015,” said Moffat. “So all of these things are prompting lots of energy and lots of encouragement to the faith community.”

In Newfoundland and Labrador a divestment movement is underway at Memorial University. Last year a group of students and faculty members at MUN’s Grenfell Campus in Corner Brook organized to start sharing information about climate change with their colleagues.

The group has now grown to include the university’s main campus in St. John’s, though it has met resistance from senior administration.

In May, after MUN’s faculty union voted to divest from fossil fuel companies, university president Gary Kachanoski defended the oil industry and said the university has a “special obligation” to the people of the province by researching and supporting the offshore oil industry, including the development of Arctic oil, even though expansion of the oil industry into the Arctic contradicts the warnings of climate scientists who say the majority of known fossil fuel reserves must be left in the ground to avoid exceeding 2 degrees warming.

The World Health Organization estimates climate change is responsible for 150,000 deaths annually, a number that is expected to grow in the coming years.

“Many in the United Church see Jesus as a friend of the poor and an advocate for the marginalized,” Boyle said in the press release Tuesday. “Today we have committed to journeying in his footsteps, raising our moral voices to address the burdens of climate chaos that disproportionately affects those living on the margins.”

Conor Curtis of Divest MUN welcomed the news Tuesday, saying the group is “extremely happy about the [Church’s] decision to divest from fossil fuels.

“The decision sends a clear message that the time has come to begin investing in the solutions to climate change instead of in the causes of climate change, and that the time has come to promote and encourage a transition to renewable energy economies and communities.”

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