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Religious institutes to divest oil, gas, coal holdings

By Michael Swan
The Catholic Register


A large Canadian Catholic institution, at least one major international religious order, plus a large diocese and a host of other Catholic entities will stand up on the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi to declare they’re selling off all their stocks and other investments in oil, gas and coal, according to the Washington-based Global Catholic Climate Movement.

GCCM global co-ordinator Tomás Insua would not prematurely reveal the names of Catholic entities planning to divest from fossil fuels, but said the movement to get pension funds and other institutional investments out of the oil business is picking up steam.

“Simply because we have a moral imperative to move away from fossil fuels,” Insua said.

Insua is particularly high on Canadian participation in the global divestment movement.

“There will be a pretty important institution in Canada who will be announcing its divestment commitment,” he said.

Sticking with the big energy companies and trying to pressure them into becoming better stewards of the environment through shareholder activism is no longer a viable strategy, said Insua.

“I praise them (ethical investors) for doing that. The truth is, unfortunately, that they haven’t been very effective for the past 25 years,” he said. “Fossil fuel companies continue investing billions of dollars each year for new reserves, looking for more reserves, which makes absolutely no sense. That means they really don’t care about climate action at all.”

Catholic universities, religious orders and dioceses with major investment funds won’t immediately sell off every energy stock the minute they announce an intention to divest. The divestment process can take up to five years. But given Pope Francis’ teaching about the urgency of climate change and the joint statement on climate change by bishops’ conferences on all five continents last October, decisions to pull investments out of carbon-producing enterprises are logical, Insua told The Catholic Register.

“What we’re doing is simply connecting the dots between this call of the bishops and our Catholic investment policies,” Insua said.

Divestment is old news for the Catherine Donnelly Foundation in Toronto. The grant-giving charitable foundation set up by the Sisters of Service in 2003 decided to pull its funds out of fossil fuels in late 2014. The foundation had fully divested by February, 2015. The Catherine Donnelly Foundation supports a number of environmental initiatives and organizations. The conflict between holding big oil stocks and granting money to the Ecojustice network and northern communities adapting to climate change was just too jarring to ignore, said foundation general director Valerie Lemeiux.

“Environment is one of our funding priorities,” she said. “Investing in fossil fuels is something that’s completely counter to our mission and mandate.”

It also happened to be a good investment decision, said foundation CFO Desmond Wilson. The oil stocks were volatile. Dumping them made for a more stable portfolio.

Simultaneous with the divestment decision, the foundation decided to dedicate up to 10 per cent of its funds, about $4 million, to “impact investments.” By sticking their money in co-operatives, alternative energy companies and ventures led by Aboriginal Canadians, the foundation hopes to encourage the kind of economy it believes in.

The Global Catholic Climate Movement, a project of the Franciscan Action Network, is quite aware that there are good Catholics who draw a paycheque from the fossil fuel industry, Insua said.

“We have to make a very clear distinction between the leadership of those companies who continue to invest in deepening the climate crisis and workers,” he said. “We call for a just transition. We are not simply calling for the fossil fuel industry to shut down. We are calling for a just transition here.”

Insua points to the International Trade Union Confederation’s own policy in favour of a planned phase-out of fossil fuels. It’s going to take strategic investments and planning by governments, but a low-carbon economy has to be possible, he said.

“It’s not only about moving away from the fossil fuel industry,” said Insua. “It’s also complementing that with strong public policy supporting communities to first of all transition to clean energy.”

Ultimately, solar and wind farms will employ more people in good installation and maintenance jobs than oil fields and coal mines, he said.

Religious orders, particularly the nuns, have been much quicker to adjust their investment policies after Pope Francis’ encyclical on environmental issues, Laudato Si’, Insua said. But dioceses are beginning to see the logic when they see the success other investment funds have had without the oil and gas industry.

“After divestment, they are doing better,” he said. “Because the fossil fuel industry is not doing really well.”

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