After prolonged, impassioned debate, General Conference 2016 chose not to add a fossil fuels investment screen for the United Methodist Board of Pension and Health Benefits.
The question came down to divestment vs. engagement as the better way to use church investments in influencing energy companies to address climate change.
A minority report with the fossil fuels screen lost 258-461. Ultimately, the legislative committee-approved petition without that screen was supported by delegates overwhelmingly.
Delegates heard from Barbara Boigegrain, top executive of the Board of Pension and Health Benefits, who described the climate change issue as “urgent” but argued against a fossil fuels screen.
She said the denomination would have more influence by working on the inside to change corporations’ behavior.
“If we divest with companies, The United Methodist Church loses a voice at the table,” Boigegrain said.
She added that if General Conference approved a fossil fuels screen, to go with screens in place for private prisons, alcohol, munitions, tobacco and pornography, “nine to 15 percent of the investable universe” would be off limits to the pension fund.
“It would greatly reduce our flexibility” in trying to support energy companies making positive change, Boigegrain said.
But the Rev. Jenny Phillips, coordinator of Fossil Free UMC, told delegates that the denomination had a chance, by adding the fossil fuels screen, to be a witness to countries that signed the Paris Agreement on climate change.
Phillips argued that such countries will need encouragement to follow through with changes to clean energy.
“Their leaders need clear signals from their constituents that people support a rapid transition … A major global denomination’s commitment to divestment would provide such a signal,” Phillips said.
The Rev. Denise Honeycutt, a Virginia Conference delegate who has served as the top executive of the United Methodist Committee on Relief, noted that United Methodists have a strong record of responding to natural disasters.
It’s crucial, she argued, that the denomination recognize climate change is causing or worsening such events.
“Whole communities are being displaced because of the rising sea levels,” she said. “We have an opportunity to be proactive by ensuring that our investment does not add to the crisis.”
But the Rev. Amy Lippoldt, a Great Plains Conference delegate, said she generally favors engagement over divestment, and feels it’s too early for United Methodists to go to a fossil fuels screen.
“Responsible engagement is what the board … is asking us to let them do – to let them stay at the conversation table until there is no other option,” she said.
The Financial Administration Committee had voted 41-14 for Sustainable and Responsible Investments language in the Book of Discipline that does not include the fossil fuels screen.
Jessica Vargo, East Ohio Conference delegate and chair of the committee, urged delegates to stick with the committee’s recommendation.
The delegates did, after turning back a minority report that included the screen, and also defeating an amendment that would have prohibited investment in companies active in illegally occupied territories.
This General Conference saw a climate vigil, organized by the Pacific Northwest Conference, as well as a handful of daily demonstrators outside the Oregon Convention Center, raising awareness of the climate change issue.
United Methodists were among the faith delegations attending the Paris climate summit last fall. The Board of Pension and Health Benefits joined with United Methodist Women and the denomination’s Church and Society and Global Ministries boards in a Nov. 16, 2015, letter to summit participants urging limits on global warming.
Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].