GC2016: The impact of climate change

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For many United Methodists, taking care of the planet is not just a matter of “going green.”

As reflected in petitions to General Conference, the denomination’s top legislative body, the church is moving beyond the still-needed practices of recycling and household energy conservation to larger public policy issues related to fuel consumption and the impact of “business as usual” on global climate change.

Church members “are talking far more theologically than they used to” about environmental concerns, noted the Rev. Pat Watkins, a missionary with the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.

Another evolution in the denominational conversation, he said, has gone from making individual lifestyle changes “to really thinking and understanding more deeply about how our lifestyles in the West affect the lives of our brothers and sisters all over the world.”

That includes suffering through natural disasters made worse by climate change, such as 2013’s Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, and less dramatic but steady environmental changes that affect people’s daily lives.

Global Ministries is continuing to look at how to incorporate these factors into the mission of the church. Watkins has assembled a small creation care team whose members represent different regions of the world and the goal of a new program called “Earthkeepers” is to generate as many as 500 creation-care volunteers for the church.

“We cannot care for God’s people if we continue to trash the planet,” Watkins said.

Attending to ‘climate justice’

A foundational resolution on creation care, Our Call to Stewardship and Justice, is before General Conference from the United Methodist Board of Church and Society.

Proposed resolutions from United Methodist Women update statements on environmental racism and the protection of water and introduce new statements on environmental health hazards and industrial extraction and production.

Live at general conference

A climate vigil at General Conference, featuring prayers and paper lanterns created by church members especially for the event, is set for 7:30 p.m. May 12 on the plaza outside the Oregon Convention Center.

The event, sponsored by the Pacific Northwest Conference and other groups, is designed to highlight stories of the impact of climate change and create space for prayer outside the legislative sessions, organizers say.

Vigil participants will carry lanterns lit by small LED lights and the event will include music and testimony from United Methodists around the world.

United Methodist Women also is sponsoring a lunchtime “public witness” on May 16, “Don’t Poison Our Water: Water is a Human Right,” that will look at water crises in Flint, Michigan, and a Portland superfund site, and at local concerns in Liberia, the Philippines and Honduras.

The witness is linked to the UMW 2016 mission study on climate justice and proposed General Conference legislation on “Protection of Water.”

Climate justice is a major focus for the organization, which the Rev. Kathleen Stone, UMW executive, defines as climate disasters that usually affect those “who have contributed very little to the environmental pollution that is further hurting the climate.”

Compared to a climate change movement dominated by scientists and environmental activists, Stone characterized the climate justice movement as more raw and in touch “with very realistic solutions” on some levels. “It’s starting with the streams and the soils and the air right by where people live,” she said.

She is not optimistic about what will happen if climate justice issues are not addressed. “I think that the earth will go on, but it’s people that will be erased,” Stone said. “It’s really about our survival and our understanding of what it takes to survive, which means we need the animals and the plants and the insects to stay healthy.”

Hopes for action through Paris agreement

As U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was preparing to host an Earth Day signing ceremony for the Paris agreement on climate change, an Interfaith Climate Change Statement to World Leaders from 270 religious leaders was delivered at a ceremony in New York.

United Methodists were among the faith delegations attending the Paris climate summit last fall. The United Methodist Board of Pension and Health Benefits joined with United Methodist Women and the denomination’s boards of Church and Society and Global Ministries to issue a Nov. 16, 2015 letter to summit participants supporting limits on global warming.

Barbara Boigegrain, the pension agency’s top executive, believes the accord that was reached in Paris “will pave the way for more effective shareholder action.” Leaders at the summit recognized the need to hold warming to 1.5 degrees, while retaining the two-degree target.

Climate change is a key issue for the pension agency and Wespath, its investment division, said Dave Zellner, chief investment officer. Engaging companies in discussions on dealing with that issue allows the agency and the denomination “to be part of the solution.”

This spring, Wespath and Hermes filed a stockholder proposal with Chevron Corporation, to be voted on at Chevron’s May 25 annual meeting. The proposal requests “an annual assessment of long-term portfolio impacts to 2035 of possible public climate change policies.”

A similar proposal was filed by Wespath with the Nathan Cummings Foundation for a vote at the April 29 annual meeting of Occidental Petroleum Corporation.

Push for divestment

An advocacy group called Fossil Free UMC is pushing the church to move beyond shareholder actions. The Rev. Jenny Phillips, minister for environmental stewardship and advocacy in the Pacific-Northwest Conference, points to General Conference legislation that she says “walks into new territory” on a denominational response to climate change.

Fossil Free UMC is supporting petitions that create a fossil fuel investment screen and avoid the production of petroleum, coal or natural gas. The Board of Global Ministries and various annual conferences also are among the groups submitting petitions.

“We’ve had (investment) screens in place for a long time for every area of the Social Principles except for the Natural World principles,” Phillips said. “Now we need to take a look at how we’re doing with our investing.”

Phillips called the pensions agency “people of good will” working within constraints, one of which, she said, is that the Securities and Exchange Commission does not allow for shareholder resolutions “strong enough” to stop companies from removing fossil fuels from the ground.

“That’s the type of change we need and it’s not going to happen through shareholder advocacy,” she said.

Boigegrain pointed out that when the denomination adopts an investment screen “we take it very seriously.” The drawbacks of an investment screen, particularly in the case of fossil fuels, she explained, are that it limits available investment opportunities and that it essentially ends the pension agency’s ability to lobby for change.

In the same way, fossil fuel divestment is not effective, the pension agency points out in a guide to “Promoting Financial and Environmental Stewardship” posted on its website. While recognizing and sharing “the divestment movement’s concern for the environment and the urgent need to act on climate change,” the agency believes that “divestment from fossil fuel companies means walking away from the climate challenge.”

That challenge still includes the need to focus on consumption of fossil fuels, Zellner said, pointing to specific lifestyle choices, such as driving electric cars and utilizing more public transportation, that use energy more efficiently. “Fossil fuels are not harmful if used responsibly,” he noted.

For Phillips, the question is how to use the denomination’s moral voice on the climate change issue. She said she believes the time has come to say, publicly, “We’re not going to profit from this industry anymore.”

Cross-sector commitments

For John Hill, a Board of Church and Society executive, the church’s understanding and ability to deal with climate changes deepens through “the relationships with folks who are struggling and acting in their own local context.”

The Paris climate agreement, he explained, signaled that all the parties involved “understand more deeply that it will take a commitment across sectors to move forward” and, in some ways, the church is asking for the same commitment.

Working across different sectors, he said, “is conforming to our own understanding that we each have a role to play in this problem that is global in scale and local in its impact and in our ability to respond.”

A proposed resolution from Church and Society on “Climate Change and the Church” encourages such locally appropriate personal, institutional and civic actions by the denomination and its members.

But, whether the language is approved in Paris or Portland, “words are nothing until we give life to them,” Hill pointed out. “The agreement is the beginning and not the end.”

Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at https://twitter.com/umcscribe or contact her at (646) 369-3759 or [email protected]

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