The 42nd General Council put its cash behind its convictions this afternoon, directing the General Council Executive and encouraging the United Church Foundation to sell their holdings in the world’s 200 largest fossil fuel companies and reinvest funds in renewable energy cooperatives. The foundation and the United Church Treasury have a combined $8.7 million invested in fossil fuels, which represents about five percent of total investments.
The impetus to divest didn’t stop there. The church put pensions on the financial line, too. Commissioners directed the General Secretary to tell the United Church of Canada Pension Board to divest of its shares in Goldcorp, the world’s fourth-largest gold producer. Headquartered in Vancouver, Goldcorp has been under fire for alleged human rights abuses in Guatemala, where some of its mining projects are located. Currently, 0.09 percent of the pension fund is tied up in Goldcorp.
“It’s not a big chunk of money,” said Jean Macdonald of British Columbia Conference. “But it sends a public message.”
The conversation grew emotional as commissioners debated the motions.
“This is more than an issue of fossil fuels,” said Jim Hannah of B.C. Conference. “This is about the survival of the planet and the survival of the species. For my grandchildren’s sake, I want to do everything I can. It’s going to cost us money. It’s going to cost us jobs. It’s going to cost us changes in how we live in this world, but we have to do this.”
Commissioners speaking against the divestment motions argued that more work needed to be done to identify the companies that are most guilty of environmental abuses. They also outlined abuses in the renewable energy sector and feared that divesting will cost the church influence.
“I’m a big believer in engagement. said William Sheaves of Bay of Quinte Conference. “If we are really interested in doing something about fossil fuels, we have to engage the fossil fuel companies. And the only way to do that is to keep our investments in those products.”
Divestment was one of several environmental initiatives passed. Others included: urging the federal and provincial governments to put a price on greenhouse gas emissions; expressing concern about the Trans Canada Pipeline Energy East project; supporting long-term global emission reduction goals; and ensuring all Canadians have access to drinkable water.
Former United Church Moderators lined up to applaud the church’s decisions. Mardi Tindal of Toronto said she was “heartened” by the commission’s decisions. Very Rev. Bill Phipps, currently living in Calgary, said that the decisions were important but that more is required.
“This is a slice of the pie,” Phipps said later in an interview. “We are all complicit in a consumptive economy on steroids. These decisions will generate conversation we need to have.”
Rev. Trisha Elliott is a minister at City View United in Ottawa and part of The Observer’s media team covering the General Council.