Fossil Fuel Divestment – Where do Jesuit Institutions Fit In?

 (by Boshra Yazahmeidi )

In July this year, youth attending World Youth Day sent an open letter to Pope Francis urging him to ensure that the Vatican cuts ties with the fossil fuel industry.

Only a month earlier, four Australian Catholic orders made the decision to divest fully from fossil fuels in response to the Pope’s Laudato Si’ encyclical and the COP21 statement of Catholic Bishops from all continents.

In June 2015, Georgetown University, America’s largest Catholic and Jesuit university announced that it would no longer invest or continue direct investments in coal companies.

In 2014, the University of Dayton became the first Catholic university to sell all of its fossil fuel stocks from its $670 million portfolio.

In 2013, students at Santa Clara University, a Jesuit institution, initiated a divestment campaign for the university and this is still ongoing.

Since the divestment movement gained momentum in 2012, around 220 institutions have committed to divesting from fossil fuels, with the most symbolic commitment coming from the heirs to the Rockefeller oil fortune.

What is all the excitement about?

Fossil fuel divestment, the term used to describe divesting – or taking away investment – from activities that extract or produce fossil fuels, gained increasing coverage as a tool to combat climate change leading into the Paris 2015 Climate Change Conference, and continues to attract interest now in the post-conference implementation phase.

Numerous campaigns have been launched to raise awareness and to encourage individuals, private companies, charitable organisations, universities, religious institutions, and governments to remove their money from oil, coal, and gas companies and to invest instead in activities that do not result in making fossil fuels increasingly available.

Why is this the case?

Simply put, the earth can no longer tolerate the burning of fossil fuels in accordance with the trajectory desired by oil, coal, and gas companies.

In order to limit global temperature rise to 2°C and prevent irreversible climate change, it is estimated that between two-thirds and four-fifths of fossil fuels need to remain in the ground.  However, oil, coal, and gas companies are continuing their extractive work, and still prospecting for more.   The Guardian’s ‘Keep it in the ground’ campaign video highlights this fact and can be accessed here.

Arguments for and against divestment

There are two primary arguments for divestment.

In the first instance, it is our moral and ethical duty to ensure that we are not going against our social and ecological justice principles by contributing our finances to activities that are directly causing climate change, and thus creating more suffering for the world’s inhabitants.

In the second instance, if international agreements on climate change are met, fossil fuel investments will become worthless.  As such, it would be better to invest elsewhere and ideally in activities that promote a fossil fuel free economy and sustainable lifestyle.  For more information on ethical investment, please visit: https://justiceinmining.com/ethical-investment/

In the words of Professor Jeffery Sachs, Special Advisor to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon on the Sustainable Development Goals, “Divestment sends a strong signal to the marketplace: companies need to reorient their strategies towards a low-carbon future that is safe for humanity and all life on the planet.  By redirecting capital investments towards climate-safe energy, investors help to push the world towards achievement of the Paris Climate Agreement.  [Divestment] by the Catholic orders, and similar actions that are in the works, will inspire pension funds, sovereign wealth funds, universities, and other global investors to follow suit, and thereby add their financial weight to planetary safety, human dignity, and integral and sustainable human development.”

Critics against fossil fuel divestment have voiced a number of arguments ranging from divestment being hypocritical given we still live in fossil-fuel dependent economy, to divestment resulting in reduced investment returns, to divestment reducing the ability for investors to influence fossil fuel companies.  The Guardian has addressed these arguments and many more concerns in its article “A Beginner’s Guide to Fossil Fuel Divestment”.

Where do Jesuit Institutions fit in?

This article highlights some of the efforts and commitments made by Jesuit and Catholic institutions in the past few years.  We encourage you to use this platform to share your efforts and challenges from which we can all learn and to which we can all lend support.

Boshra Yazahmeidi works for Jesuit Social Services (Australia) and writes on Justice in Mining issues.

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