Clean Energy Canada | Faith Leaders Tackle Tricky Question of Fossil Fuel Divestment
February 21, 2014

Earlier this month, the Church of England threatened to divest from companies that don’t do enough to fight what it called the “great demon” of climate change. Church officials resisted calls to divest from fossil fuel companies outright—but made it clear the option remains on the table for future investment discussions.

Pivot to Toronto, Ontario—and ahead to March 1—where a pair of multi-faith organizations will host a one-day conference focused on the economic tools that religious and spiritual communities can leverage to address coal, oil, and gas dependence. Faith and the Common Good and the Green Awakening Network are cosponsoring Divestment or What? Economic Tools for Creation Advocacy in Time of Crisis.

We spoke with Lucy Cummings, executive director of Faith and the Common Good, to get the scoop.

What are you hoping to accomplish with your conference?

We’re hoping to provide a balanced exploration for faith communities and other organizations to respond to our institutional and individual dependence on fossil fuels—and to respond to the impact that this dependence is having on the climate.

This must have pre-dated the recent Church of England news. Where did the idea for your event come from?

A lot of members of our network were asking us what was our position on divestment. We’re hoping to kick start the conversation Canada-wide and bring all these communities closer in on the divestment conversation, and really identify what are our moral and ethical obligations around providing economic support for a clean energy future. We’re not only looking into divestment and shareholder actions, but also looking into alternatives, mainly community-based renewable energy investment opportunities. We are trying to provide a story of hope.

What kind of interest have you seen in this idea from faith communities?

Our sense is that faith communities are just beginning to look at the economic tools at their disposal to fight climate change. We think there are dozens of ongoing internal conversations out there, but it is really at the beginning. One of our speakers is a group out of the United States called GreenFaith, they have really been facilitating a global response with faith-community divestment resolutions. We are trying to jump start them in Canada.

Lucy Cummings Executive Director of Faith and the Common Good
Lucy Cummings Executive Director of Faith and the Common Good

One of your speakers will explore if divestment qualifies as “faithful disruption,” what does that mean?

Christine Boyle is a fantastic advocate for the role of faith and spirituality to positively empower social and environmental change. Her argument is that our faith often requires us to challenge the status quo, and that we need to have the courage to do that. She also sees divestment as an opportunity for faith communities to rejuvenate and energize their youth base. Many are facing shrinking congregrations, especially losing young people—but by aligning with and standing up with the imperative to address climate, this gives faith communities new moral authority amongst young people.

Faith communities have, in the past, played a leading role in social change movements, I am thinking particularly of the civil rights movement. But to date we have not seen the same level of support for climate. Why do you think this is the case and when do you see it changing?

Faith communities actually see a lot of action. For example, there is a very strong evangelical network in the states that is linking more traditional religious beliefs with the need to protect our planet—for example, they talk about “creation cares.” In Canada, too, there are really wonderful examples of grassroots initiatives, mostly focusing on mitigation. With Greening Sacred Spaces, we do a lot of work on energy retrofits of faith buildings, there is a lot of grassroots community outreach that revolves around climate and environment issues.

Have you had any interest from the private sector in your work?

It’s been very positive. We have been working with SolarShare, Toronto Hydro, Bullfrog Power—all are partnering with us. The whole question of what we are doing as a community to strengthen renewables and clean power is something that is exciting and empowering.

What’s holding faith communities back?

I don’t think we have a voice yet that is effective in storytelling and channeling all this action into momentum for more fundamental change. But that’s what is exciting about this movement and this event. Divestment is a complex issue, we are finding that it is generating a lot of hope around the idea that we can make a difference to the status quo.

Why, in your view, is divestment a complex issue?

Our economy is deeply enmeshed in extractive industries, including fossil fuels. People don’t necessarily want to undermine their community’s economic health. I think faith communities are looking for more information, and ways to react where they can respond and contribute to positive change, but at the same time not undermine their neighbours.

When it comes to this conference, what does success look like for you?

We really want participants to take these conversations home, to have the conversations within their congregations, and ask “How can we respond? What can we do? What are our fiduciary responsibilities? What are our moral obligations?” Success for us would be seeing an upswing in these conversions at the local level.

Do you have any idea what kind of faith-held assets we are talking about across the country that could potentially be divested?

We don’t know. We do know there are 27,600 faith buildings across Canada. We also know that one in three Canadians attend worship regularly. That is a pretty influential pool right there. The power is to really broaden the conversation and extend beyond the usual suspects and to break out of the silos that we operate in. I think the reality is when you talk about these issues in a faith setting, it changes the conversation for the better. How do you quantify that in dollar figures? I am not sure. But in terms of influence, that is why we are in the game.

Divestment or What? Economic Tools for Creation Advocacy in a Time of Crisis will be held on Saturday March 1 at Toronto’s Beach United Church.