In response to Harvard University’s refusal to divest from its fossil fuel stock, a recent mayor of Seattle, Mike McGinn, commented, “We're the first generation to see the effects of climate change, and the last generation who can do anything about it. To refuse to use every tool at our disposal in this fight – to embrace inaction – is to endorse a trajectory that will lead to suffering, privation, and calamity. We owe it to those who our institutions and investments serve and will serve in the future to do everything we can to prevent this crisis.” With an unprecedented drought ongoing throughout the West, we might be directly experiencing this crisis already.
As a Quaker, I am glad to be part of a community that values earthcare, and I am truly curious to learn what Friends are doing about climate change. There are some Friends who don’t own cars, many who don’t eat meat, and probably most who are trying to reduce their carbon footprints. These are individual actions, extremely important, but not the whole picture. While we would all like to drive hybrid or electric cars, most of us can’t afford them. And often when we search for public transportation alternatives to driving or flying, we discover that no such alternatives exist. Clearly, individual actions are only a small part of the picture. I want to see more. I want to know what Western Friends are doing about earthcare and climate change as a community.
I ask these questions not only in a genuine effort to learn what our monthly, quarterly, and yearly meetings are doing to bear witness to this urgent, global crisis. I also ask as a challenge. I want meetings to take action, and I want to find out what makes some Western Friends feel too overwhelmed to take action.
My own attitude towards climate change underwent a big shift recently. This shift is something I think about in terms of a 2012 Yale study, “Global Warming’s Six Americas,” which divides American attitudes towards climate change into six categories: Alarmed, Concerned, Cautious, Disengaged, Doubtful, and Dismissive. Recently I shifted from “Concerned” to “Alarmed.” What put me there? I can point to four influences that have changed my thinking. First, the current California drought has thrown me off center; I count on our usual weather patterns and the rhythms of nature to anchor me. Second, Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, Flight Behavior, made a deep impression on me. Third, a film by 350.org, Do the Math, also affected me. Finally, my brother-in-law, a marine biologist who never was politically active during his college days in the Sixties, now sees climate change as the most important issue of our time and goes out to every local demonstration.
I think about the six attitudes towards climate change that the Yale researchers identified, and another category occurs to me, one that the researchers missed – overwhelmed. I see it all the time. I suspect most of us feel overwhelmed at times by the issue of climate change. The prospects of fires, floods, famines, droughts, and hurricanes all make us feel vulnerable and powerless. We see politicians gridlocked on this issue and any progress that they do manage to make seems insignificant – too little too late for this crisis which only gives us a couple of decades to make a difference in saving life as we know it. All too easily, we can fall into despair. “It’s too late; the problems are too big; the politicians are useless; and I’ll be dead anyway.” Even though we don’t often vocalize these attitudes, we often hold them, and they paralyze us.
I sometimes try to imagine how the majority of Quakers felt a hundred-and-fifty years ago in the face of institutional slavery, and I wonder how the slaves felt. Overwhelmed? Grief-stricken? Powerless? Big change takes a long time, some say three generations, and the odds of succeeding always seem small at first. But Quakers have often been forerunners in fights against injustice and have often felt a moral responsibility to bear witness to the truth. Environmental injustice is the issue of our time. Wars will be waged over water rights. Floods and droughts will force whole communities to leave their homes, cross borders, and become refugees. Food will become increasingly scarce and expensive. The least among us will suffer the most.
Quakers today have an opportunity, even an obligation, to bear witness to the destruction of the earth that is being done by humans in the form of fossil fuel emissions. Ninety-eight percent of the world’s experts tell us that once the Earth’s temperature increases by 2 degrees Celsius, the changes will become irreversible and devastating.
One tactic for bearing witness to climate change is to become engaged in the movement for divestment from fossil fuel stocks. The current divestment campaign was started by Bill McKibben and the international organization 350.org. Young people on college campuses – the ones who will bear the consequences of climate change more than their elders will – are leading the way in this movement. Divestment campaigns are active on over 300 college campuses, and many churches are also wrestling with this issue.
Though it is not the only tactic needed for confronting climate change, divestment will be a powerful tactic if enough educational and religious institutions get on board. Divestment made a huge difference in efforts to dismantle apartheid in South Africa. Divestment offers concerned individuals an opportunity to act, which can counter the paralysis and despair that result from doing nothing.
Quaker organizations, including Friends Fiduciary (an investment company for Quaker institutions), should not hold stock in fossil fuels. We should participate in divestment campaigns with other churches and schools, divest any funds we might hold in fossil fuel stocks, and re-invest those funds in clean energy companies. Divestment is a way of bearing witness, of refusing to participate in making money from businesses that profit from the destruction of the Earth. Quakers have never supported companies that participated in weapons manufacturing, gambling, tobacco, or alcohol. We should add fossil fuels to that list.
Aside from the moral, spiritual and ethical issues, fossil fuel stocks are not good long-term investments. To stay within the 2 degrees Celcius limit, we need to keep 80% of known fossil fuels in the earth. This means that fossil fuel stocks are part of a Carbon Bubble, similar to the Housing Bubble that preceded the financial crash of 2008. Some economists are beginning to realize this, and some companies are beginning to acknowledge that climate change will be bad for business.
Divestment is the theme of the November 2013 issue of Befriending Creation by Quaker Earthcare Witness, and it explores many good ideas. Dover Meeting in New Hampshire and Cambridge Meeting in Massachusetts have both produced minutes on fossil fuel divestment. My own meeting, Strawberry Creek in Berkeley, California, recently held an adult education session on the issue of climate change, and we plan another one soon. We watched the movie Do the Math together, which helped us feel the urgency of our situation, together in community.
Fear is not the best foundation for action, but Friends, I am alarmed. I have heard it said that the Vietnam War was lost around the Thanksgiving dinner table. When young people came home from college, they talked about the war with their families, and urged their parents to answer their questions about it. Their parents soon ran out of answers. Leadership often falls on the shoulders of young people, when their elders don’t step up. Let’s follow the lead of our young people who are acting in witness against climate change.
Resources abound to help us, as monthly meetings, quarterly meetings, yearly meetings, and in coalitions with allied organizations. Friends: discuss actions; look for answers; and engage with the urgent issue of climate change. Divestment from fossil fuel stocks is one tactic that is needed. Spirit calls us to action, now. ~~~
Kathy Barnhart is a member of Strawberry Creek Meeting in Berkeley, California (PYM). She is an avid photographer, a retired counselor and a nature enthusiast.