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Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) debates fossil fuels at General Assembly

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The 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was held from June 14 to 21, 2014, at the COBO Center in downtown Detroit, Michigan. This biennial meeting brought together commissioners and advisory delegates from all 172 presbyteries, as well as other delegates and observers from around the world.

As part of the discussions at the assembly, the representatives charged with counseling the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) on socially responsible investing debated church’s association with corporations in the fossil fuel industry and agreed to evaluate how the church might leverage its holdings in fossil fuel companies to influence their environmental impact under a referral adopted Friday by the 221st General Assembly (U.S.A.).

The Assembly members voted to pass on a proposal from their Presbytery of Boston that would have ordered the church's Board of Pensions and Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Foundation to immediately stop such investment and liquidate any holdings within five years. Instead, the Assembly chose to submit the proposal, with comment, to their Mission Responsibility through Investment (MRTI) committee, "for action and discernment in accordance with its long-standing and detailed procedures to engage with individual corporations to advance their actions in support of important social policy issues." The Assembly Committee on Immigration and Environmental Issues added as comment that it "is deeply concerned about both the need for action and the need to remain in dialogue with companies that are in the fossil fuel industry.”

Last Friday, the Assembly rejected a minority report that urged the Assembly to declare that the church will “categorically divest from fossil fuels within five years.” The minority report also asked the moderator to appoint a seven-member committee to work alongside MRTI to “develop a comprehensive strategy for full divestment from fossil fuel companies.”

Those favoring the minority report contended that the importance of the environmental crisis demanded a timeline be established. Action must be taken soon “to avoid catastrophic damage to our environment,” said Gina Struensee, a ruling elder from the Presbytery of Winnebago. Many scientists report that greenhouse gas emissions caused by the burning of fossil fuels must be reduced or the world will face catastrophic climate change.

Some commissioners said changing corporate behavior is just one part of the solution. They pointed to the need for individuals to help reduce carbon emissions by consuming less energy. “The root of the problem is us,” said Walter Jancura, a ruling elder commissioner from the Presbytery of Upper Ohio Valley. He noted that the United States consumes a disproportionate part of the world’s energy.

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