fossil fuels

A Planet Worth Fighting For

Illustration by David Gothard

Illustration by David Gothard

THOSE OF US who work on global warming are well-defended against even moderate optimism. Every day brings another study showing how far we’ve pushed the planet’s physical systems. For instance, new research has emerged showing that even as the planet is setting remarkable temperature records, the meltwater pouring off Greenland has cooled a patch of the North Atlantic and perhaps begun to play havoc with the Gulf Stream. Simultaneously, new research showed that the soupy hot ocean everywhere else was triggering the third planet-wide bleaching of coral in the last 15 years. It is entirely possible we’ve set in motion forces that can’t be controlled.

That said, for the first time in the quarter-century history of global warming there’s room for at least some hope in the arena we can control: the desperate political and economic fight to slow the release of yet more carbon into the atmosphere. It’s not like we’re winning—but we’re not losing the way we used to. Something new is happening.

Consider where we were six years ago, as the Copenhagen conference, much ballyhooed and long anticipated, ground to its dreary conclusion: The world had decisively decided not to decide a thing. There was no treaty, no agreement, no targets, no timetables. In fact, the only real achievement of the whole debacle was to drive home to those who cared about the climate that a new approach was needed. Twenty years of expert panels and scientific reports and top-level negotiations had reached a consensus that the planet was dangerously overheating. And it had also reached a dead end.

There was a reason for that, or so some of us decided: The fossil fuel industry simply had too much power. The fact that they were the richest industry in the planet’s history was giving them total power. They’d lost the argument but won the fight.

And because the rest of us were still arguing, not fighting, there was no real pressure. World leaders could go home from Copenhagen without fearing any fallout from their failure. Barack Obama came back to D.C. where he watched mutely as the Senate punted on climate legislation, and then mostly ignored the issue for three years, not even bothering to talk about it during his re-election campaign.

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Empowering the World

ONE OF THE most destabilizing facts of the last five years is this: The price of a solar panel has fallen 75 percent. The engineers have done their job, and that offers many possibilities.

We usually look at what the developed countries are doing with renewable energy, such as the fact that there were days during summer 2014 when Germany was generating three quarters of its power from solar panels (Germany!). But the most amazing miracles—and it doesn’t really stretch the word “miracle”—are happening in the poorest places, where for the very first time lights are blazing on.

Take rural Bangladesh, where fossil fuel has barely penetrated  in the 200 years of its ascendancy in the West. There’s no grid—at night it just goes dark. Until the last few years, when low-cost solar panels and innovative financing arranged by groups such as the Grameen Bank have allowed the very rapid spread of solar panels. How rapid? As many as 80,000 new connections a month, which is far more than in the United States. Fifteen million Bangladeshis live in solar-powered houses already, and the government is hoping to have the entire nation hooked up by 2020.

That means that kids can study at night. It also means that families don’t have to waste as much as 30 percent of their income on kerosene. It also means that they don’t have to breathe those kerosene fumes, and that the black soot the lamps throw off won’t be melting glaciers. It also means that everyone can charge their cell phones, which are ubiquitous in Bangladesh. In fact, places like Bangladesh leapfrogged the whole telephone pole thing and went straight to mobile; now they’re leapfrogging coal and gas and going straight to solar.

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July 2015
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Divest from Fossil Fuels: Money Talks

LAST SPRING, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, an architect of the South African freedom movement, called for “an apartheid-style boycott to save the planet.” Tutu—along with millions of people of faith and conscience—understands not only that it is morally right to address climate change, but that money talks. “People of conscience need to break their ties with corporations financing the injustice of climate change,” said Tutu.

The fossil-fuel divestment movement has its roots in grassroots mobilizing, churches, local governments, and student campaigns. The movement has grown exponentially in the U.S. since Maine’s Unity College became the first campus to divest (in 2012) and the United Church of Christ became the first denomination to formally divest (in 2013). Today, divestment from fossil fuels is gaining momentum, with increasing numbers of asset owners committing to moving their money.

In fact, this campaign has grown faster than any other previous divestment movements, including those against apartheid in South Africa and tobacco. A number of factors indicate that we are at a tipping point. Here are four: 1) last year was the hottest year on record, 2) expenses related to climate change are skyrocketing, 3) significant financial risks are now associated with fossil-fuel investments and the divestment movement is growing, 4) and the economics of renewable energy products is improving, so investments in these products is growing.

Despite unmistakable signs that climate change is spiraling out of control—from unprecedented droughts to sea-level rises—20 years of global negotiations have not slowed the emissions of heat-trapping gasses. A new, effective lever of change is clearly needed.

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Open Letter to Christian Investment Companies: Give Members the Option to Opt Out of Fossil Fuels

An option to divest. Image courtesy pichetw/

An option to divest. Image courtesy pichetw/

By now, you may have heard that Jim Wallis and Sojourners have stopped funding climate change by divesting from fossil fuels. Unfortunately, for millions of Christians who invest at faith-based financial institutions, fossil-free investing just isn’t an option.

We’ve done our research. Of the 13 major Christian investment companies we studied, not a single one offers a way for their members to opt out of fossil fuels. We think Christian investment companies should be the FIRST to stop funding climate change! Read our open letter and sign below.

Every Time I Look Into the Holy Book

I HAVE SOMETIMES been dismayed by the lack of speed that some churches and denominations have shown when it came to tackling environmental issues. On the question of divestment from fossil fuels, for instance, the Unitarians have been forthrightly in favor, and the United Church of Christ as well (and the Rockefellers!). But the Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Anglicans are, by and large, dragging their feet as usual.

Sometimes I confess to imagining that God herself might be getting a bit impatient, too—how else to explain the name of the site for the next great fossil-fuel battle?

It will happen in Australia’s Galilee Valley, a remote basin many hours from the continent’s cities. At the moment it’s basically untouched, but plans call for it to become The Biggest Coal Mine on Earth. There is enough coal beneath its soil to provide 6 percent of the carbon that would take us past the two-degree rise in temperature scientists have given as the ultimate red line. That is to say, one valley in one nation (a nation with one-third of 1 percent of the planet’s population) can do 6 percent of the job of wrecking the planet. One valley!

One valley that happens to carry one of the most sacred names in Christendom. I remember my church high school youth group days, when Loretta Lynn exploded in song: “Put Your Hand in the Hand (of the Man from Galilee).” It was actually a great lyric, one that went straight to the radicalism of the gospel (“Every time I look into the Holy Book I wanna tremble / when I read about the part where the carpenter cleared the temple”). In this case, the “buyers and sellers” are all billionaires—people such as Gautam Adani, on whose corporate jet Narendra Modi flew last year in his successful campaign to run India, or Gina Rinehart, the Aussie mining heiress and fourth richest woman in the world who once lauded Africans for being willing to work for two dollars a day.

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Divesting from Fossil Fuels: We're Putting Our Money Where Our Faith Is

Photo via Kokhanchikov / Shutterstock / RNS

Two working oil pumps are silhouetted against the sky. Photo via Kokhanchikov / Shutterstock / RNS

We’re a few weeks into 2015, which means many of us are striving to keep our New Year’s resolutions while others have already seen their best intentions collapse under the pressure of daily routines. Every year, we make promises to be better — we’ll go to the gym, save more money, slow down. But for Christians, every day is an opportunity to make resolutions. We call that repentance.

And this year — today — I am repenting of my dependence on fossil fuels.

While many associate repentance with sorrow or guilt, the biblical meaning of the word is to stop, turn around and go in a whole new direction. Repentance means changing our course and embarking on a new path.

For Christians, humanity’s failure to care for God’s creation warrants our repentance. This is not just a theological claim but a practical moral imperative when it comes to fossil fuel consumption. American Christians need to repent — and quickly!

Our society’s addiction to fossil fuels has had an unconscionable impact on the state of our Earth and on future generations. Coal-fired power plants are giving people cancer and asthma. Oil pipelines are spilling and destroying sacred lands. Natural gas fracking waste is leaking underground, threatening water sources. Through our consumption of coal, oil, and gas, we have enabled this toxic activity.

Disinvest/Reinvest: From Fossil Fuels to Hope

Editor’s Note : This is the first post in a new series about fossil fuel divestment and clean energy reinvestment. We’ll look at how and why people of faith might choose to divest from fossil fuels as a response to climate change.

When you really care about something, it’s important not to give up hope.

If one of the things you care about is climate change and the harm we are doing to God’s beautiful world, it’s pretty hard to keep the hope alive.

After all, the world’s leading peer-reviewed scientific authority on climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, just released its most damning report ever, declaring that climate disruption is at this point “irreversible.”

And then let’s look at Congress. The United States has emitted more greenhouse gases than any other country in the world, and yet it’s been five years since Congress came anywhere near passing a major climate law. (And they failed to pass that Cap & Trade law). After the most recent election last week, Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) — who once called global warming “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people” — is set to become the gatekeeper for all climate legislation.

This should come as no surprise. Fossil fuels – the main driver of our nation’s climate culpability – are a big business. We blow up mountains to get more coal, set up dangerous oilrigs in the Gulf of Mexico, pipe tar through the breadbasket of America, and use California’s limited water supply to hydrofrack for gas. When I say “we,” I mean the fossil fuel industry. The industry spends tons of money each year propping up climate deniers, spreading misinformation, and sowing seeds of doubt about what we are doing to God’s earth. They also fund political candidates on both sides of the aisle, buying silence from elected officials whose constituents are suffering from air and water pollution, historic drought, or stronger hurricanes.

In the face of all this, I have hope — for two reasons.

Money Talks: World Council of Churches Disinvests in Fossil Fuels

Svetlana Lukienko and Andriano/

Svetlana Lukienko and Andriano/

The Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United case infamously affirmed money spent in political campaigns as a form of free speech, thus declaring various legal limitations unconstitutional. The ruling gives a political megaphone to those with the most money and has been decried by many as contributing further to the nation’s political dysfunction and rigid polarization.  I strongly agree.

But this ruling came to mind again when I heard the news that the World Council of Churches, at its Central Committee meeting in early July, had made a decision not to invest in fossil fuel industries. In fact, money does talk. Where institutions place their invested funds is not a neutral, pragmatic matter. It speaks volumes.

Faith Communities Are Dumping Their Fossil Fuel Investments

Activists support fossil fuel divestment at Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison on April 5, 2014. Creative Commons image: Light Brigading

Worried about global warming, a growing number of churches and other faith groups are divesting their holdings in fossil fuel companies, which release large amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

“The warning in Scripture that ‘the wages of sin is death’ could not be more literally true than it is in the case of fossil fuels,” said Serene Jones, president of New York’s Union Theological Seminary, whose board voted in June to divest its $108.4 million endowment from fossil fuel companies.

“While we realize that our endowment alone will hardly cause the fossil fuel giants to miss even half a heartbeat, as a seminary dedicated to social justice we have a critical call to live out our values in the world. Climate change poses a catastrophic threat, and as stewards of God’s creation we simply must act.”

Time for Confession—and Action

THE NEWS IN mid-May was grim: Scientists announced that melt across the West Antarctic was proceeding much faster than before. In fact, they said that at this point the melt of the six great glaciers fronting Amundsen Bay was “unstoppable,” and that over a number of decades it would raise sea levels by 10 feet or more.

This is another way of saying: Given dominion over the earth, we’ve failed. We’ve taken one after another of the planet’s great physical features and wrecked them. The Arctic? Summer sea ice is reduced by 80 percent, and it’s an every-year affair now to boat through the Northwest Passage, impassably choked by ice until this millennium began. The seven seas? Thirty percent more acidic than they were in the past—and the acidity could double or triple by the end of the century. The Antarctic? It’s not just warming rapidly, but its wind patterns have been changed by the ozone hole in ways that amplify the heating. Storms are stormier, droughts are deeper, fires last longer, rain falls harder.

And all because it was a little easier and a little cheaper not to change off fossil fuels. When scientists sounded the alarm about all this in the late 1980s, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide was about 350 parts per million—or what we now consider the upper bound of safety. If we’d heeded their fervent warnings, we’d have moved with great speed to convert to solar and wind power. We’d have parked our SUVs. We’d have insulated every home in the world. It would have cost money and it would have been inconvenient; on the other hand, it could have bred solidarity in much the same way that preparing for World War II transformed the U.S.

But we couldn’t be bothered. We ignored the first commandant that we’d been given: to exercise sensible, sane stewardship over this planet that God had found so good. We stood by as our addiction to fossil fuel ran Genesis in reverse.

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