Did the Church of England Flood My Church Hall?
Divesting from fossil fuels is an act of faith and pragmatism
A version of this article originally appeared at www.operationnoah.org, the Christian environmental charity for which I am a Board Member/ Trustee. I have slightly expanded and revised the article for Substack. The photo, taken by Paul Gasson and used with permission, is of a flooded street in Walthamstow, London on 25 July 2021.
On 25 July, I joined a group of fellow parishioners and campaigners in Walthamstow, London for a meeting about our ‘Just Transition’ climate campaign, which aims to make London a greener, fairer city. We ordered food, got the meeting space well-ventilated, and – mindful of Covid transmission – worked out how we might hold most of the meeting outside. But, unfortunately, it was raining. Not just raining, actually, but something beyond raining. A deluge. It soon became clear that not only would we not be meeting outside, but that something dangerous was happening.
The roof of the church hall (our meeting space) began to leak almost everywhere. After we used every bucket we could find, we grabbed the plastic containers our take-away food had arrived in to collect the rainwater that was pouring into the building. While we were fortunate to be in a building set on relatively high ground, many of my neighbours in Walthamstow were not so lucky and would soon find their lounges, front rooms and kitchens submerged in a foot or more of water.
In the end, Walthamstow and other parts of London got weeks, perhaps months, of rain in a few hours, with some roads impassable, Tube stations out of service. Of course, we know that with climate change, these sorts of events will become increasingly common for a very simple reason: warmer air holds more water.
Walthamstow got off lightly compared to other parts of the world – Germany had just experienced deadly flooding, as had Belgium, China and India – but what made my situation this past Sunday particularly ironic was that I found myself bailing water out of my Church of England church hall due to a weather event that the Church of England – my denomination – was ensuring would become more frequent.
Sadly, two of the Church of England’s investment bodies – the Church Commissioners and the Pensions Board – still collectively have tens of millions of pounds invested in fossil fuels, the very industry that, quite literally, is fuelling the climate crisis. Despite some clever attempts to rebrand themselves as renewable energy companies, none of the big fossil fuel companies are Paris-compliant; indeed, all have plans to extract more oil, gas and coal than the International Energy Agency says can be safely burned. And the images of windmills and solar panels many fossil fuel companies regularly promote? According to the International Energy Agency, an average of only 1% of fossil fuel investment goes to renewable energy, though that could rise to 4% by the end of 2021 - still, a fairly shocking statistic given the clean-energy images and climate-friendly language regularly used by fossil fuel companies’ PR departments.
And yet, remarkably, the Church of England’s Church Commissioners are not merely invested in fossil fuels, but are specifically invested in ExxonMobil, a company that has continually resisted investing in renewable energy, ran a years-long public disinformation campaign to stall action on climate change and was recently caught on camera admitting that they still work behind the scenes to stop climate legislation.
While I can’t say that the Church of England directly flooded my church hall – Walthamstow has flooded before, and it’s difficult to tie any single weather event to human-driven climate change, let alone measure the impact particular investors might have on overall carbon emissions – we know that putting more carbon into the atmosphere loads the dice and makes it more likely that the world will ‘roll’ certain weather outcomes. I also can’t say the Church of England’s Church Commissioners or Pensions Board are bad people with bad intentions; both believe investor activism will lead to a reduction in emissions, which they say is their goal.
However, it’s time to admit that, despite any good intentions, fossil fuel investor activism has failed: after many years of engagement, fossil fuel emissions have yet to show any sustained signs of decreasing; fossil fuel companies are still not Paris-compliant; and the climate crisis is becoming ever more serious. Handing fossil fuel companies, whose primary interest is to protect their assets (which are mostly fossil fuels and the kit to extract fossil fuels), what effectively amounts to a blank cheque in the hope that these companies will do something other than what they were set up to do, hasn’t produced the change we need at the pace required.
But does divestment work? Fossil fuel companies think it does, and there’s even reason to believe they are scared of divestment and the adverse impacts it could have on their business model, as evidenced by this warning from Shell to its shareholders in 2018: “…some groups are pressuring certain investors to divest their investments in fossil fuel companies. If this were to continue, it could have a material adverse effect on the price of our securities and our ability to access equity capital markets.”
For these reasons and more, I would implore fellow Anglicans - and all people of good-will - to join me in calling on the Church of England to divest from fossil fuels immediately, and to take that same amount of money and invest it in climate solutions. And I would implore any church, faith group, church-affiliated pension fund, university, or diocese (and only 3 of 42 Church of England dioceses have divested) to join Operation Noah’s Global Divestment Announcement in October. Together, we can tell the Church of England’s Church Commissioners and Pensions Board that we literally can’t live like this, and that their financing of the climate crisis must stop.