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MRTI recommends focused engagement with companies

Committee believes progress is being made to address climate change

by Rick Jones | Presbyterian News Service

Oil Drilling Rig in Saline Township, Michigan. Photo by Dwight Burdette, via WikiMedia

Oil Drilling rig in Saline Township, Michigan. Photo by Dwight Burdette, via WikiMedia

LOUISVILLE – The 222nd General Assembly will hear a recommendation to continue engagement with fossil fuel companies on climate change when it meets in the coming weeks. The committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) is making the recommendation following lengthy discussions with companies and filing shareholder resolutions, saying progress is being made.

Two years ago, the Presbytery of Boston submitted an overture calling for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Board of Pensions and Foundation to immediately stop new investments in fossil fuel companies and divest from all investments in coal, oil and gas companies within five years. The overture stated “If fossil fuel companies simply fulfill their business model, the earth will become irreversibly inhospitable to life as we know it.”

The 221st General Assembly referred the issue to the committee on MRTI to review how the church might leverage its holdings in those companies. MRTI is responsible for implementing GA policies on faith-based investing by engaging corporations where the church owns stock.

“We are responding not only to an overture calling for complete divestment, but the language of the referral from the 2014 General Assembly was to respond to the subject matter of investment in fossil fuel companies as well,” said Elizabeth Dunning, chair of the MRTI Committee. “It was clear we were asked to do more than simply express an opinion about a specific overture or resolution. We were asked to look at the issue that it raised.”

Since 2014, MRTI’s Environmental and Climate Change Issue Subcommittee has been in dialogue with companies with a focus on the energy sector.

“Before we take the step of divesting from a company, what is it we’d like to see the company do?” asked Dunning. “That’s why we’ve come back with the proposed criteria to continue the conversation, have more specific targets for our engagement with corporations and then be in a position to say whether companies are moving toward meeting those criteria or not.”

“We’ve had an exchange of ideas and some frank discussions, but MRTI’s point has always been respect,” said Joseph Kinard, chair of the Environmental and Climate Change Issue Subcommittee. “Some times, it’s a long process, but we eventually get there by being inclusive.”

As a result of the lengthy discussions, MRTI is recommending that the engagements and shareholder actions continue. It commends all corporations that have addressed climate change through policies and practices and calls on corporations to increase their efforts to address climate change with the following expectations:

  • Clearly define board and management governance processes that acknowledge scientific evidence of climate change and ensure oversight of risk and develop strategy to move toward low carbon energy systems.
  • Integrate management of climate change risks and opportunities into a business strategy that is committed to the internationally agreed upon goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and pursue efforts to limit temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
  • Incorporate risk assessment within key business processes and investment decisions including setting robust goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the rapid integration of new technologies aimed at reducing the company’s overall carbon footprint.
  • Practice transparency and disclosure on the company’s response to climate change risks and opportunities.
  • Engage with public policy makers and other stakeholders in support of cost-effective policy measures to mitigate climate change risks and support low carbon investments.

Other recommendations include encouraging the “continued respectful discussion” in the church and society on climate change and how it should be addressed. The committee recommends MRTI pursue climate change discussions with all corporations, particularly those in the oil, gas and coal sectors and report back to the 223rd General Assembly (2018) with recommendations. Those recommendations could include divestment if significant changes have not been made in governance, strategy, implementation, transparency, and public policy.

“We’ve been talking about this for over a year and a half and we didn’t come to these conclusions in a haphazard way,” said Kinard. “People respect PC(USA) and MRTI because they know that what we say is backed by fact and not fiction. We’ve spent a lot of time studying the issues. They were amazed at our level of understanding and knowledge of their business.”

Kinard said the committee has a fiduciary responsibility to be careful and good stewards of what the church has been given. He adds companies aren’t perfect, but are making great strides.

“One energy company executive said to me, ‘Keep pushing us on these goals. We need to do it.’ I took that to heart,” Kinard said. “We wouldn’t have heard that had we not been engaged in this process. These companies are working to adopt shareholder friendly initiatives.”

“We ask companies for transparency but we also model that,” said Rob Fohr, associate for MRTI. “We’ve been engaged with people on all sides of this issue, broken bread with them and we’ve developed good relationships as a result.”

Both Dunning and Kinard agree that if companies are not moving toward compliance on these issues, divestment is always a possibility.

“I think most people in the fossil fuel industry want to do right by the environment and cooperate to keep global warming at the levels we’ve agreed will ensure the survivability of the planet,” said Dunning. “They need the pressure we put on them.”

“We’re grateful for Fossil Free PCUSA’s efforts which have clearly helped increase awareness and focus the church’s attention on corporate environmental responsibility; work with which MRTI has been faithfully engaged for more than 30 years,” said Kinard.

Dunning says the committee doesn’t make up its work plan or processes as it sees fit. It acts in conformity with long-standing direction from successive General Assembly, as well as specific General Assembly referrals. She says it also tries to meet with parts of the church that want to talk about the issues which it is addressing.

“Our model is Jesus Christ. We meet and talk with people we may not agree with, but we respect their humanity and don’t disparage them,” said Kinard. “The committee met with companies and individuals, actively listening to them and we’ve done that very well.”

For more information about the work of MRTI, click here.

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