Fossil fuel divestment and living Laudato Si'

The start of a push for Catholic divestment from coal, oil and gas extractive industries is now well under way. Another boost was given at World Youth Day via a letter signed by over 120 youth organisations delivered to Pope Francis. In it, they urged him to support fossil fuel divestment and asked him to ensure the Vatican’s own financial institution cuts its ties with extractive industries. A call from young people will no doubt be significant to Pope Francis.

The letter at World Youth Day was supported by the Global Catholic Climate Movement which has begun encouraging Catholic organisations to divest as a way of living out the values expressed in Laudato Si’. Reinvestment in low carbon technology is also part of the agenda.

The initiative was launched in June with a joint announcement by four Australian Catholic Religious Orders that they were committed to fossil fuel divestment. These joined a growing number of Catholic organisations which have publicly committed to divest, including the Catholic Universities of Georgetown and Dayton in the USA. Over one hundred other faith-based organisations worldwide have done the same.

The extraordinary number of extreme weather records set in the last year surely reminds us of the gravity of the challenge facing us. 2015 was the warmest year on record by a significant margin. Cyclone Winston which battered Fiji in February was the fiercest Pacific storm system ever to hit landfall. 

From a social justice perspective, the earth’s destabilised climate is bearing down most heavily on vulnerable communities such as those in Bangladesh, the Philippines, Haiti and the Carteret Islands. It bears down most heavily on the young today, many of whom look to their future with fear instead of hope. That the climate crisis is threatening human survival has been acknowledged by scientists and established institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund as well as the papacy. As Pope Francis wrote, “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony and disdain.” (Para. 161)


Let me put this clearly: decisive action taken now, when it really matters, is needed if we are to prevent the world as we know it from disappearing at an accelerating speed. Catholic organisations are indeed responding. Many Catholic schools have embraced energy efficiency and solar power, and other Catholic organisations are advocating for enlightened legislation. Transparency about the extent of an institution’s investment in fossil fuels is also a positive step, one that has been taken by Catholic Super.


Fossil fuel divestment is less well known but is arguably one of the most effective forms of action available to us today. This is about aligning the way we use our money with all the other ways we express our Catholic values around creation care. In Bill McKibben’s now famous words, “If it’s wrong to wreck the climate then it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage.”


However, the real power of fossil fuel divestment comes from its challenge to the social licence of fossil fuel industries. For an organisation to make public its commitment to divest gives the action a prophetic dimension. In the words of the letter from youth, “All around us, we see the frightening consequences of an extractive capitalist economy, colonialism, systemic racism, and other forms of injustice. Divestment as a tactic is pivotal to the climate justice movement in that it forces us to think of issues with intersectionality on a global scale.”  


Having said this, divestment is actually beginning to move significant sums of money out of fossil fuel extraction, and the movement is growing. At last count in December 2015, a total of $3.4 trillion had been marked for some form of divestment, fifty times more than what was up for divestment one year earlier.


Moving Catholic institutions onto a more ethical footing is complex but it has been done, to a greater or lesser degree, by dozens of faith-based and secular Australian entities. As renewable energy becomes increasingly price-competitive, whether your priority is ethics or maximising returns, the reasons to divest from fossil fuels are multiplying by the month. The reputable MSCI performance index demonstrates that investments excluding fossil fuels have produced better returns in recent years than those which have not.


A common objection from Finance Managers is that it seems more Christian to “stay at the table” with fossil fuel companies to urge them to improve their environmental performance. However, decades of faith-based shareholder advocacy with fossil fuel companies has borne little fruit. This is because it is their basic business model which is the problem. As US-based United Methodist Rev Jenny Phillips writes, “the advocacy needed isn’t like convincing Nike to stop making shoes in sweatshops. It’s like convincing Nike to stop making shoes.”

It is also argued that people in developing countries need fossil fuels to lift them out of energy poverty. The truth is that developing nations can skip building coal power stations and grids and go straight to easy-to-install energy solutions like solar and wind energy, in much the same way that they skipped installing landlines in favour of cell phones. People in the developing world don’t need dirty fossil fuels. They need ethical investment to bring them clean, decentralised, sustainable energy solutions.

For individuals, our largest investments take the form of superannuation. An effective line of action is to question your superannuation fund about their investments in fossil fuel extraction and/or to switch to a fossil free fund. This can be done through the Market Forces’ Super Switch page:

For organisations, the challenge is take the time and energy required to break with existing financial arrangements and start aligning their money with their real, faith-based values. To do this publicly, prophetically, will greatly magnify the impact of the decision on the common good.

It’s time to break with the easy choices and make the hard ones, as people of faith have so often been called on to do.

Thea Ormerod is President, Australian Religious Response to Climate Change.

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Thea Ormerod

Thea Ormerod is President, Australian Religious Response to Climate Change. Please visit

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