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Fossil Fuel Divestment (Debate and Vote), General Assembly 2014

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General Assembly 2014 Event 434

This report is part of a longer event. Go to General Session VI for the complete video and order of business.

Transcript

JIM KEY: Our first order of business is to debate and vote on the business resolution on fossil fuel. I call on our Vice Moderator Donna Harrison to make the motion.

DONNA HARRISON: Moved that the business resolution titled Fossil Fuel Divestment presented on pages 98 to 99 of the final agenda be adopted by this assembly.

JIM KEY: And I now call on our UUA Trustee at Large Julian Sharp to make the board's statement for this motion.

JULIAN SHARP: During our April—

JIM KEY: Wait for the mic. Try it again.

JULIAN SHARP: Am I up?

JIM KEY: There you go.

JULIAN SHARP: I'm on. During our April meeting, the board of trustees discussed one of the most critical social justice issues of the 21st century—climate change. Before us was the Fossil Fuel Business Resolution, which calls on us to divest our common endowment fund of the 200 major fossil fuel extraction companies, known as the CT 200. This resolution is carefully worded, affirming the board's legal responsibility to be financial stewards and allowing the flexibility to retain limited shares in order to engage in shareholder activism on the issue of climate change with our interfaith partners.

At its April meeting, the board heard of our movement's four decades long leadership in socially responsible investing and this assembly's many, many votes on issues ranging from ethical eating to the threat of climate change. It's worth noting that global market exposure to CT 200's stock is about 9%, while the UUA's portfolio currently contains 2.9% exposure. The board heard testimony from financial experts and climate change activists, all of which is available to you at uua.org.

Following an engaging and wholehearted conversation, your board of trustees voted unanimously to support this resolution. We support this resolution for three reasons. First, our role is to use our limited resources to achieve the greatest good. Simply put, we do not feel it right to profit from the destruction of our planet, particularly when that destruction disproportionately affects those already at their margins.

Second, we understand from financial experts that divestment can be compatible with sound investment practices and will not necessarily negatively impact our portfolio. This is key, because we depend heavily on revenue from our endowment to advance our UU values throughout the world.

Third, this gives us an opportunity to boldly live our values in the wider world. By bringing more attention to this issue we hope to continue to make meaningful contributions to the larger movement to keep our planet healthy and livable for future generations. To truly make progress on this critical issue will require all of us to be engaged over the long haul. On behalf of the board, thank you, and thank you for considering your support.

JIM KEY: Thank you.

[APPLAUSE]

JIM KEY: So we have the motion and the board's response. There was a GA talk on this subject in yesterday afternoon's general session, and there was a mini assembly yesterday as well. No amendments came out of that mini assembly and no unincorporated amendments either. So no amendments in today's debate will be in order.

So we're going to hear from proponents and opponents, and there will be up and down vote on whether to adopt this business resolution. So according to the rules for procedure you approved on Wednesday night, we have up to 30 minutes for debate, and speakers are limited to two minutes each and as usual will speak from the pro microphone or the con microphone. Any questions about the process should be made at the procedures mic.

And do we have any offsite delegates that want to participate in the discussion? Do we know yet? Yes? OK, they're in the pro or con line? Someone will let me know. So I recognize the delegate from the pro mic. Please give us your name and congregation. Yes—sorry, I didn't see you. The delegate at the procedure mic.

TRYSTAN GREIST: Yeah, it's a point of information. I'm Trystan Greist from Greenfield All Souls. We'd like you to please read this resolution aloud to the assembly so that we can be refreshed on what we're voting on.

JIM KEY: I'm going to respectfully decline that request because it's been highly circulated, it's in your program book, it's been in the agenda, and it's been online. There's been ample time, I believe, for the delegates to have become familiar with it, both online and—

TRYSTAN GREIST: OK. Could you tell us what page it's on?

JIM KEY: I could. I could, of course. 98 and 99 of the final agenda.

TRYSTAN GREIST: Thank you.

JIM KEY: You're certainly welcome. So I now recognize the delegate at the pro mic.

TIM DECHRISTOPHER: Thank you. My name is Tim DeChristopher. I'm a delegate from the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, Utah. I'm proud to support the business resolution to divest our common endowment from fossil fuels and urge everyone else to support me in joining this resolution.

Many of us in this room and in our larger religious community have been engaged in the fight against climate change for quite a while, and we've been engaging in a lot of ways. We've been engaging by reducing our emissions, by lobbying for legislative changes, by pushing it with civil disobedience, by challenging corporations, challenging governments. And all of those efforts have been worthwhile, and all of those efforts are going to continue. We're all going to keep doing all these other things that we're doing to deal with climate change.

But a lot of us engaged in those efforts have been running up against the wall that is the political power of the fossil fuel industry. And that's ultimately what this resolution is about. It's about challenging that political power by getting institutions of conscience to divest our endowments from fossil fuels. And in doing so, we won't be doing it alone. We'll be joining a much larger movement of other institutions that are already divesting and are continuing this larger fight for climate change. And it's ultimately about challenging that political power and making a clear statement that we are standing up in opposition to the fossil fuel industry.

And as many of us have personally experienced, any time we stand up to the fossil fuel industry, it's never cheap grace. It's always a bold stance. And that's what we're doing here today. And I finally want to say that after spending the last year at Harvard, where their response to calls for divestment have been to arrest their own students and ban people from campus, it's really been a pleasure to be a part of this democratic process from the ground up that has opened up to a lot of different voices that have been heard over the past year and have won the support of the trustees and all the others who had concerns about that. So I'm really proud to have been a part of that process and to support it here today, and I urge you to join me in doing that. Thank you.

JIM KEY: Very good. Thank you.

[APPLAUSE]

JIM KEY: I recognize the delegate at the con microphone.

JIM ROBINSON: I'm Jim Robinson, Sierra Foothills Unitarian Universalist, Auburn, California. I have great respect for the proponents of this resolution on fossil fuel divestment. They have done their homework, and I'm certain it will be approved. Nevertheless, I feel a duty to state why I oppose it. I don't particularly relish this duty.

I traveled to GA on an airplane. I also own shares in mutual funds of some of the fossil fuel companies targeted for divestment by this resolution. My negligible indirect ownership of these companies is actually quite harmless. A corporation is scarcely involved in the purchase and sale of its shares on a securities exchange.

Purchasing the plane ticket, on the other hand, was anything but harmless, since a large part of the price of the ticket goes straight to the energy companies supplying the jet fuel. This illustrates the problem. We are all addicted to this process of extracting carbon from the ground, using it to fuel the industrial economy on which we are so dependent, and putting it into the atmosphere.

We are all complicit in this catastrophe. Our prognosis, frankly, is poor. Oil companies are a convenient and worthy scapegoat, but we are all villains in this drama. These companies are hardly models of good corporate citizenship. I understand they actively seek to impede progress in finding alternatives, but divestment is not an effective or helpful tactic.

Shareholder activism has been and can continue to be a useful strategy, but to be a shareholder activist, you need to be a shareholder. Just walking away does not help. Divestment accomplishes nothing of significance and has no economic impact on the company being divested, whereas this effort has diverted and will continue to divert our time and treasure.

JIM KEY: Thank you. Thank you. We have—

[APPLAUSE]

JIM KEY: We have an offsite delegate at the procedure mic. So if we could turn on the microphones and hear from our offsite delegate.

JOHN HORNER: Hello?

JIM KEY: We hear you.

JOHN HORNER: This is John Horner from the Unitarian-Universalist Society of the Daytona Beach Area, in Florida. I was wondering if there's somebody [INAUDIBLE] can describe the proof of concept about this [INAUDIBLE].

JIM KEY: Would you speak that again? I think I heard you. Have someone explain—

JOHN HORNER: Proof of concept.

JIM KEY: The process?

JOHN HORNER: The proof of concept.

JIM KEY: I'm still not sure I understand the question.

JOHN HORNER: Do you know what a proof of concept is?

JIM KEY: Content?

JOHN HORNER: Concept.

JIM KEY: I'm not sure how to answer your question. The concept was a brought forward by fossil fuel activists and the investment committee and the socially responsible investment committee and proponents and opponents of speaking with attorneys. And the CFO of the UUA were brought all of that and created the resolution that has been circulated to congregations on the website and in the program book. The board of trustees reviewed all of that and then came down in support of supporting the resolution. Does that answer your question?

JOHN HORNER: Yes, that's a high level and good answer. I was wondering, how will you know if you've succeeded in your objective?

JIM KEY: I'm sorry. I'm still not following your question.

JOHN HORNER: How will you know when you've succeeded in your objective stated in the resolution?

JIM KEY: Can someone help me with the translation?

AUDIENCE: How do you know when you've succeeded?

JIM KEY: Oh, how do you know you've succeeded? I don't know that we'll know for several years. It will be examined every year, and it will be brought back to the General Assembly every year in terms of our progress, what we're doing and what we're not doing. All right?

JOHN HORNER: OK.

JIM KEY: Thank you.

JOHN HORNER: [INAUDIBLE] proof of concept [INAUDIBLE].

JIM KEY: I recognize the delegate at the procedure mic.

JIM GRAHAM: Hi, my name is Jim Graham. I'm from the Church of the Larger Fellowship. I have a similar question to the delegate who was just on the procedural microphone. My question relates specifically to section—lines 497 and 498 on page 99 of the book. "Be it further resolved that the president and treasurer of the UUA shall report to each General Assembly from 2015 through 2019 on our association's progress on the above resolutions." I'm interested in knowing what specific information will be told during those reports. Since we're asking the board to hold folks accountable with measurable results, what will those measurable results be, and what can we expect to see in those reports?

JIM KEY: You should expect to follow the preliminary agenda when it's released for General Assembly next year and the final agenda that will be in the—some outline of what will be reported will be in those agendas. Thank you. I turn to the delegate at the pro microphone.

JAN DASH: My name is Jan Dash. I'm a member of the UUCMC in New Jersey. I'm the chair of the Climate Initiative of the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office and the managing editor of the Climate Portal. I stand here for the proposed resolution for two simple reasons. First, climate change is the biggest ethical, moral, and survival issue of our time. We need to act and act now. We need to practice responsible climate risk management.

One way to do that is a divestment from fossil fuel investments. And that's because, first of all, the fossil fuel companies are deathly afraid of reputation risk. So our leverage, even though we're small in numbers, is large in impact.

The second is a purely economic fact that right now, if we are going to keep the climate targeted at the Copenhagen two degrees centigrade rise over preindustrial levels, over 50% of the carbon has to stay in the ground. That's called stranded assets. It means that fossil fuel stocks are overvalued by approximately a factor of two, which means that they are going to decline in value ultimately. So it makes good financial sense to support this resolution. We need to support the divestment from fossil fuels now. Thank you.

JIM KEY: Thank you. I recognize the delegate at the con microphone.

VALERIE POWELL: Hello, there. I'm Valarie Powell. I'm from First Unitarian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. And I think this approach of divestment is going to be a giant distraction and an excuse for all of us individual and our individual congregations for not supporting public transit at the local level and for not supporting high speed rail, as all the other developed countries are doing, and for not adequately supporting the changes to renewable fuel sources, as some countries have done.

You notice that the fossil fuel industry through the media is able to control the information. We need to look at the information flow. That's what's important. One country, Germany, managed to exceed its forecast in renewable energy reliance, and that has gone from the news after one day. So that's all I have to say. Just a reminder that without our individual and our congregational work, this means nothing.

JIM KEY: Thank you. I recognize the delegate at the pro microphone.

ELIZABETH MOUNT: Thank you I'm Elizabeth Mount. I am from the UU Congregation of Asheville in Asheville, North Carolina.

[CHEERING]

ELIZABETH MOUNT: Hey, Asheville. And I also work with the UU Young Adults for Climate Justice. And the conversations I've been having here at this GA have involved a lot of questions about is this our best strategy. And I want to make it clear to everyone that this is not the strategy. This is a tactic in a larger strategy and a movement.

[APPLAUSE]

ELIZABETH MOUNT: So divestment isn't the endpoint. But it is an important step for us to take so that we can measure what we are doing now, so that we can free those funds to do things that we want to have done and invest in things in a positive way rather than things that simply hold us where we are.

Divestment movements lead to stigmatization of industries. It's worked for apartheid. It's worked for tobacco. It can work for fossil fuels.

And what we can do by creating that stigmatization is loosen that grip that the fossil fuel corporations have on politics so that legislation can be passed. So think of this not as the strategy for the UUA but as one tactic that is so important. And I hope that you'll consider that when you make your vote. Thank you.

JIM KEY: Thank you. I recognize the delegate at the con microphone.

DINO DRUDI: Thank you. Thank you, Moderator. I'm Dino Drudi from Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church, where certainly there are a variety of viewpoints on this subject. Before I left, I asked the chairperson of our endowment committee what he thought. And he said, tell me who at this congregation of 700 would have gotten to service this morning but for fossil fuels.

So I said, oh, so and so bicycles. And he said, and the bicycle chain is lubricated with fossil fuels. And the pavement which is asphalt is a fossil fuel.

Fossil fuels are so much a part of our everyday existence that we would not know what life would be like without them. And so to blame fossil fuels for our dilemma is misplaced. Instead, we need to look not at the fossil fuels but at ourselves and our wasteful practices.

As the previous speaker talked about public transit, I came on the train. I don't drive. But we can't do without fossil fuels. There's just no way. The exergy in fossil fuels is higher than in anything else. We just can't do without it.

So how are our congregations, or us, going to demand that the city fix a pothole which be filled with asphalt if we have decided that fossil fuels are verboten? This resolution is quixotic, and we should understand that. Thank you.

JIM KEY: Thank you. I recognize the delegate at the pro microphone.

CINDY DAVIS: Thank you, Mr. Moderator. My name is Cindy Davis, and I'm from the First Parish in Lexington, Massachusetts, and a member of the Board of Unitarian Universalist Ministry for Earth. The Unitarian Universalist Ministry for Earth calls upon delegates to join us in supporting this proposed business resolution.

As our nation and others repeatedly fail to take sufficient meaningful action to address our climate crisis, this resolution offers one tactic among the many needed to raise our voice up loudly, to stimulate needed change, and to work for a just, sustainable world. We call upon all present to reflect on these words from Wendell Berry's address at General Assembly 2013.

He says, "If we are to continue to respect ourselves as human beings, we have got to do all we can to slow and then stop the fossil fuel economy. In addition, we must understand that fossil fuel energy must be replaced not just by clean energy but also by less energy." Passing this resolution is but one tactic and one step toward these ends.

So join us in acting collectively and individually on this issue so that our denominational, congregational, and personal actions will serve as role models for others in our community. Let us divest, reinvest, and advocate loudly. Vote in favor of this resolution, and then join us in moving beyond divestment to continue the larger work of mitigating the effects of fossil fuel climate change and helping to reduce environmental degradation, inequitable suffering, and overwhelming despair.

Together, we do this and do this work for the preservation of life for all beings on earth. May it be so. Thank you.

JIM KEY: Thank you. I recognize the delegate at the con microphone.

STEVE FINNER: Thank you, Mr. Moderator. I'm Steve Finner, Church of the Messiah, St. Johnsbury, Vermont. That name got your attention. I just want to caution about reliance and other forms of energy do not come cost-free when it comes to issues of social class and problems. In Vermont, we have been developing wind energy, but unfortunately all of the towers have been built in areas that are characterized by a large amount of rural poverty, and we have yet to see windmills for generation of power erected along Lake Champlain where the wealthy live.

So we need to approach everything with a bit of caution. I see I have some time left, and as the music minister at St. Johnsbury, maybe I'll sing you a song. (SINGING) I don't think I will.

JIM KEY: I recognize the delegate at the pro microphone.

SIMON BILLENNESS: My name is Simon Billenness. I'm a member of All Souls Church Unitarian in Washington, DC. And I'm also a member of the Committee on Socially Responsible Investment of the UUA, which has endorsed this resolution. What this resolution does is it allows the UUA, through our common endowment fund, to continue to screen out and divest fossil fuel companies, to continue our work of shareholder activism to halt climate change, and also to continue our work and reinvesting in climate solutions and green energy.

This is a resolution that does all three of these things and does them very well. And I feel that we've seen in the process of putting together this resolution the very highest standards of deliberation and democracy and respect for various points of view. And that's come forward with this extremely significant and useful resolution that will help position the UUA to continue to be a leader in halting climate change. Thank you.

JIM KEY: Thank you. I recognize the delegate at the con microphone.

CHARLES ORTMAN: Mr. Moderator, I am Reverend Charles Ortman of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Montclair. And besides saying how much I appreciate your leadership at this General Assembly, besides saying how much I am in agreement with almost every single thing I'm hearing from the pro microphone, I'd like to share a personal story for why I am standing at the con microphone.

And that is that not too many years ago, when I was a member of the board of trustees, I was asked if I would represent the UUA and other organizations that we were in party with at a board meeting of the Merrill Lynch corporation. And I had an opportunity to stand at that board meeting and to speak to the topic of executive compensation. And I obviously spoke in favor of capping executive compensation, a proposal that was soundly, roundly defeated at that meeting.

I was immediately approached when the meeting was over by several other shareholders who were in sympathy with what I had raised. And two years later, Merrill Lynch instilled the kinds of controls that I had spoken about two years before that. What I would like the General Assembly to know, what I would like our association to know, is that we need a place at the table. We need to be able to come and on equal ground with the others who are there talk about what it is that are our values that we want to be put there.

It's been the same thing with the Boy Scouts. It's been the same thing with so many other organizations. If we leave the table, we no longer have ground to stand on. And I would like for us to be there, because it will make a difference. It might take a year. It might take two years. It might take more than that. But we can make a difference by being at the table.

JIM KEY: Thank you. I recognize the delegate at the pro microphone.

JOHN HARWOOD: I'm John Harwood of the First Religious Society of Newburyport, Massachusetts. My congregation's name is important historically because it means that the first church to be formed in what is now the city of Newburyport today, almost 300 years later, it is still first because it was the first church, school, museum, foundation, or pension fund in the Newburyport area to announce it had pledged to divest from fossil fuel companies.

After two years of study and conversation, the divestment vote on May 18 was nearly unanimous because the members understood that divestment is primarily a question of principle. And they wanted their money to be in line with their morality. So it is for us here in Providence, where we UUs have a continental voice to our climate crisis concerns by saying no to unrestricted use of coal, oil, and gas, and yes to standing on the side of love for our earthly home, investing and reinvesting our love in this earth, and yes to joining an international divestment campaign once again.

So please join me in voting for the divestment resolution so that the voice of the First Religious Society's divestment of its 1.7 million endowment will be multiplied 100 times, as we vote to divest the common endowment fund of 170 million. Thank you.

JIM KEY: Thank you. I recognize the delegate—excuse me, the delegate at the procedure microphone.

DAVID KEPPEL: Moderator Key, my name is David Keppel of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bloomington, Indiana. And I hope this is an appropriate procedural question. Would it be possible to ask either the proposers of this resolution or the appropriate person to clarify whether this resolution would, in fact, take us away from the table or whether it still allows an ownership of a sufficient number of shares that the UUA could continue its shareholder activism.

JIM KEY: It's a fair—that's a question that was answered in mini assembly yesterday as well. It provides for the UUA to stay invested as a stockholder activist in some portion that they deem appropriate. All of that would have to be reported to the General Assembly each year, but yes, it does enable us to stay at the table, where the screenings allow us to do so.

I have a delegate in the pro line offline, so let me turn to the delegate in the pro line offline. Could you bring them on? I'm sorry. I didn't thank you. The delegate at the con microphone is—just a moment online. I made a mistake. I recognize the delegate at the con line.

JIM ROBINSON: Thank you. I'm still Jim Robinson from Sierra Foothills Unitarian Universalist in Auburn, California. I merely wanted to address—one of the points the proponents seem to be making for this proposal is that the resolution is only one tactic in a portfolio of tactics to deal with oil companies' misbehavior, I suppose, or the role that they play in climate change.

And I just want to point out that this is the only tactic that we're voting on. And I believe very strongly that this is not an effective tactic. In fact, it accomplishes nothing except perhaps the ability to generate a press release. And it creates for us the illusion that we're doing something important and worthwhile for climate change, when in fact we are not.

If you follow the money, our money is going to the oil companies when we use their products. And that is the problem. The only way to deal with the problem is to deal with that. Selling our shares in these companies accomplishes nothing except to make you feel good. Thank you.

JIM KEY: Thank you. So I'm now going to turn to the delegate waiting at the pro microphone offsite.

SALLY GELLERT: Is that me?

JIM KEY: We can barely hear you. Could you speak up, or could I have a little bit more volume from the tech deck?

SALLY GELLERT: Sally Gellert.

JIM KEY: That's better. Thank you.

SALLY GELLERT: Sally Gellert, Central Unitarian Church, Paramus, New Jersey.

[SILENCE]

—take the portion of this [INAUDIBLE] that talks about divesting effectively—reinvesting, excuse me—the portion that's reinvesting. Take our money out of these companies that are the 200 worst—not all fossil fuel companies, but the worst ones—better [INAUDIBLE] for our environment.

[INAUDIBLE], we do participate in using fossil fuels, and we will probably still continue to use them. [INAUDIBLE], to avoid using fossil fuel energy, and maybe we don't need to avoid it all. The extremely effective are not helpful to us. We should not be profiting largely off of them.

Case by case, we can decide what we need, stay at the table, [INAUDIBLE]. Homes, congregations, we still need to be working. This is a way to make a statement here, that the other denominations and the other universities that we support their efforts, and we continue our own. Thank you.

JIM KEY: Thank you. Well, as you can see, we have no one else at the con line, so our debate is ended. Thank you all for your support there. We are ready to vote up or down. Are we ready? So get those yellow cards ready.

Those in favor of this business resolution, raise your yellow cards. Pull them down. Those against this resolution, raise your cards. The motion clearly carries.

[APPLAUSE]

JIM KEY: And as many of delegates have said, this is a tactic in a very long-range strategy. So we're now all charged to return to our congregations and begin a discernment process on how we will live our lives in a world of climate change.

[APPLAUSE]

For more information contact web@uua.org.

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Last updated on Wednesday, July 9, 2014.

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