The 222nd General Assembly has voted not to divest from fossil fuel companies, but instead directed the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Mission Responsibility through Investment (MRTI) committee “to pursue its focused engagement process on climate change issues with all corporations, particularly with those in the oil, gas, and coal sectors, and report back to the 223rd General Assembly (2018) with recommendations, including possible selective divestment if significant changes in governance, strategy, implementation, transparency and disclosure, and public policy are not instituted by the corporations during the engagements of MRTI and ecumenical partners.”
A fiasco had taken place earlier in the week during the Immigration and Environmental Issues Committee when a straw poll against divesting in oil companies flipped into a vote in favor of divestment after a dinner break. Not only was the committee flummoxed by the unexpected vote, but the powers that be in the Presbyterian Church (USA) were chagrined.
This was reversed on the floor of General Assembly when a minority report to refer the matter to MRTI replaced the committee’s contentious majority report by a vote of 391-161. It was then adopted by GA by a 460-91 vote.
Both the majority and minority reports, along with several other alternative proposals rejected by the committee, all had the same basic presupposition: Since the use of fossil fuel is unsustainable — causing pollution, increasing global warming, and harming communities — the PCUSA should use its investments to reduce this impact. The question was not if this should be done. The question the committee and the assembly wrestled with was: How should this be done?
The writers of the initial overture, coming from the Presbytery of San Francisco, and the other 30 concurring presbyteries sought almost full divestment by the Board of Pensions from all investments in fossil fuels companies. The purpose of this was to be a symbolic action, show oil companies and the world that Presbyterians don’t like what fossil fuels are doing to the environment. But it was noted during committee deliberations that the current BOP investment in Exxon Mobile Corp. is roughly $4 million out of a total market value of $376 billion — just 0.001% of shares in circulation. While $4 million is nothing to sniff at, divesting that amount would make less than a ripple in Exxon Mobile’s pond.
Even though that $4 million is a drop in the bucket, members of the influential Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) suggested that it is enough to get them a foot in the door with Exxon Mobil so they can have conversations about the PCUSA’s environmental agenda. A seat at the table is better than an easily ignored symbolic gesture, they asserted. This is the argument that swayed General Assembly to reject divestment while accepting the minority report in Friday’s vote.
Several things are clear from all this:
- When ACSWP doesn’t get its way in committee, it gets its way on the floor of General Assembly.
- The conversation taking place is entirely within the progressive camp. There was no question about the destructive impact of fossil fuels and the impending doom of global warming.
- Engagement is the the approach of the day. Symbolic gestures have been set aside for a seat at the table