What’s Pope Francis up to with his October encyclical on social justice and sustainability? A spot of divestment?

29 July 2014 — When religious leader Thea Omerod was arrested last month as part of coal mine blockade at the Maules Creek in New South Wales, it was not so much an isolated radical fringe event but a symbol of a much deeper and fast growing movement in climate action among the world’s most powerful religious groups that includes aligning investments with values. With any luck, these groups say, the Pope may also urge fossil fuel divestment in his Encyclical on social justice and environmental sustainability expected in October. Willow Aliento reports.

The groundswell against fossil fuels has shifted to the world’s religious faiths, with members of the Christian, Jewish, Hindu and Islamic faiths, among others, joining divestment campaigns, undertaking energy efficiency initiatives in church-owned properties and even in some cases engaging in non-violent direct action against coal mining.

The implications are potentially massive. Combined, the six largest religions in Australia equates to about 67 per cent of the population according to the 2011 Census. That’s a lot of superannuation, savings and shares that could be falling into the divestment radar.

Religious groups protest at Maules Creek to stop coal mine expansion

President of the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change, Thea Omerod was one of the religious leaders arrested as part of a non-violent blockade of Whitehaven’s ANZ-financed Leards coal mine project at Maules Creek in NSW.

The action was in part a response to a talk given by 350.org founder, Bill McKibbon, where he said the fossil fuel industry needed to be “delegitimised”. But it is also part of a wider movement to respond to climate change, Ms Omerod told The Fifth Estate.

“I felt called to participate through civil disobedience,” she said. “It was another way to communicate that what fossil fuel industries are doing is indefensible.”

Religious protesters arrested at Maules Creek blockade

Ms Omerod was part of a group of eight ministers and lay people from Uniting, Catholic, Anglican and Brethren Churches who blocked the entry of machinery to the mine site for five hours by holding a public prayer vigil on the road while locked on to a structure in the shape of a cross. Four of the group were arrested.

Uniting Church Minister Reverend John Brentnall, who was also arrested, said, “Responsible people are trying to reduce their carbon footprint, but it doesn’t mean much if our coal is causing many times more emissions overseas than what we’re saving at home.

“It’s the poor who suffer the most, through unpredictable weather, extreme weather-related events and rising sea levels. The rich are benefiting at the expense of the poor. This is an issue of social justice.”

Pastor John Carroll of the Brethren Church, who was also arrested, said, “This is also a matter of intergenerational justice; will we not be judged harshly by future generations if we leave them infertile soil, poisoned water and irreversible destruction to our planet?”

The June protest was the second time religious people had participated in the non-violent direct action protests at Maules Creek. To date, over 200 people have been arrested at the site.

How a “Go Fossil Free” movement gained momentum

Ms Omerod said the movement away from fossil fuels began in Australia with the Uniting Church in NSW and the ACT, which made the decision at a Synod level in March 2013 to divest from fossil fuel investments.

The announcement generated a flood of support, which was catalysed by a visit by 350.org founder Bill McKibbin in April 2013. Following this, the movement began to catch hold in some of the Anglican dioceses, gathered in members of the Catholic Church and further gained momentum in the Uniting Church, with the Victorian Synod also taking a position on divesting from certain sectors of the fossil fuels industry.

In May 2014, the Anglican General Synod of Aotearoa/New Zealand and Polynesia passed a resolution to divest, and on 4 July, the Anglican General Synod of Australia followed suit, encouraging churches across the country to join what had now become known as the “Go Fossil Free” movement.

The AGSA also issued a statement urging the Australian government to pay more attention to climate scientists and to stop dismantling  climate change and renewable energy policies and programs.

In her motion, Dr Beth Heyde, chairwoman of the church’s Public Affairs Commission, said that it made financial sense to give up shares in the fossil fuel industry, which is responsible for most global warming.

“The market can be expected to recognise that investments in fossil fuels are becoming very risky. They may well become ‘stranded assets’, whose value rapidly decreases as buyers no longer want them,” Dr Heyde said.

Then, on 11 July, the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches, a fellowship of over 300 churches, representing some 590 million people in 150 countries, endorsed fossil fuel divestment. The WCC agreed to phase out its own fossil fuel holdings and encourage its members to do the same.

Pope Francis Encyclical might urge divestment

Ms Omerod said the members of the Catholic Church and 350.org have also lobbied for Pope Francis to urge divestment in his encyclical on social justice and environmental sustainability expected in October.

She said the fossil-free movement in Australia has become multi-faith one, with Jewish leaders and a Muslim Imam joining with Christian theologians and religious leaders in signing a joint statement.

“Our government is doing the bidding of the Minerals Council and the coal industry. These industries have way too much power and persuaded the Australian public falsely that they are providing wealth and jobs,” Ms Omerod said.

“But the Australian people are starting to see that the massive ‘wrecking ball through the economy’ the carbon tax was made out to be never arrived, and people are concerned about the scrapping of clean energy legislation. Especially since we just had the hottest summer on record, and the recent flooding in Bosnia, where it has never flooded according to the historical record. Also Typhoon Hainan and Hurricane Sandy – people are concerned about climate change.

“We hope the churches worldwide will stand for what is moral and right.

“It’s time we align our money with our values and to refuse to profit from activities that are destroying the earth.”

The ARRC is promoting both personal and institutional responses, and has developed a range of resources that provide a pathway for identifying which financial institutions and investment funds support fossil fuel industries and then shifting those funds to less morally questionable bodies.

Energy efficiency… and a fast moving idea

Organisations are also being encouraged to participate in the National Energy Efficiency network, which is specifically geared to the needs of the not-for-profit sector, including churches and church-related groups.

“We are working on it in both big and small ways; it could be in a religious order, or a church, or a diocese,” Ms Omerod said.

“It is huge the faith sector, and the idea of going fossil free is being taken up. It’s snowballing, I think.

“The idea is being accepted very quickly.”

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