How the Church is investing in climate change

Jonathan Bartley
By Jonathan Bartley
13 Dec 2009

Along with other church leaders, the Archbishop of Canterbury has rightly been unequivocal in calling for an effective deal on climate change at Copenhagen. “This is a very important moment for us all in trying to keep everyone’s eyes open to the serious environmental challenges we face” he said ahead of last Saturday’s Wave event.

Just this weekend, Rowan Williams told an indigenous Ecuadorean farmer that the assertive gaze of the world’s poor was particularly critical to achieving a strong climate deal for the most vulnerable communities. But is the comparatively rich Church turning a blind eye?

Individual parishes certainly do have the issue in plain view, with many campaigning and working hard to cut their own carbon emissions. Some very large planks, however, seem to be sticking out from the eyes of the Church Commissioners, Williams included. There is an apparent blindness to the colour of the Church’s money – at least if they think it is green.

Amongst its £5 billion investments, the Church is seeking to profit from many of the activities driving climate change and causing widespread environmental destruction. Its two largest investments are in oil companies (£196.5m). As well as their clear interest in the burning of fossil fuels, the largest, Royal Dutch Shell (£103.7 m) was also recently criticised by Amnesty International for bringing pollution and environmental damage to the Nile Delta, one of the world’s most important wetland and coastal marine ecosystems.

Then there are the mining companies, which, environmental groups consistently point out, are part of the most polluting industries in the world. Having a disproportionately negative impact on marine-dependent and land-based communities, the use of coal in energy generation is a major contributor to destructive climate change.

CAFOD, War on Want, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines and even some Anglican bishops have condemned BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and Anglo American (collectively £62m) for their harmful activities. Indigenous churches have also documented the terrible impact in Australia, West Papua, Papua New Guinea, South Africa, Canada, Colombia and Chile, of BHP Billiton (£29m) alone.

The Church saying one thing and doing another has consequences. Looked to as having an ‘ethical’ investment model, by putting its money into such companies the church is giving legitimacy to their unethical practices. This includes companies like Exxon Mobil (£17.2m) who the Guardian newspaper recently revealed was continuing to fund lobby groups which support climate change denial.

Independent pensions analyst, John Ralfe, suggests the Church has been seduced by the ‘equity cult’. It is true that the Church is now finally beginning to turn its attention to climate change funds with a few comparatively small investments. But this is not just about shares. During the last two decades, the Church's other major investment decisions have involved selling social housing and investing instead in several large out-of-town retail parks. Green campaigners have highlighted their impact on longer car journeys and increasing carbon emissions.

The argument that the Church of England mounts in its defence – and for that matter now, the Methodist Church, which also seeks to profit from most of the same companies – is that it needs to maintain a balanced portfolio. Oil and mining are a fact of life, so there is no reason why the churches shouldn’t seek to make money from them.

But the fact of the matter is that by through these shareholdings, the interests of the church are yoked with such companies. When more fossil fuels are burned and more coal is mined, the church makes more money.

As Jesus once put it, "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." Just two weeks ago, the Church of England's name was conspicuous by its absence from a letter sent by churches and faith groups to the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, urging the Government to use its new stake of RBS (alongside the Church’s £8.4m) to constrain the negative impact the company was having through its own investments, on climate change.

There is a clear disincentive for the Church to speak out publicly against such companies. To do so, might be to damage their reputation, their branding and so their share price. Indeed, the only time we will see the Church referring to them will be in positive terms, as we saw recently over Nestle’s decision to make its four fingered KitKat bars fairtrade. The Church handed the company a huge PR coup which in reality related to less than one per cent of the company's cocoa production. As development campaigners pointed out, it eclipsed Nestle’s many ongoing violations of workers' rights and its lobbying against fair trade rules which might help the developing world.

This is not just about ending the Church of England's backing for injustice and climate change, but about putting an end to bad theology and a dualism which divides the world into sacred and secular. What is required is a monetary Metanoia. The Church needs an integrated approach which sees the its finances as part of its mission, not just something that funds it(as the Commissioner’s last report stated). And there is no better time to do it that when it is apparent for all with eyes to see, that the Church’s previous investment strategy has failed to deliver in more ways than one.

The Church can do this both legally and practically. It is charged with returning a profit within an ethical framework and there are now numerous investment options to choose from whose core business does not involve climate carnage. Indeed, if it had followed such a strategy a little sooner, it would not only have made a bigger contribution to saving the planet. It might have helped to save its own pension fund too.

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(c) Jonathan Bartley is co-director of Ekklesia and author of Faith and Politics After Christendom.

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