photo by abby mohaupt
photo by abby mohaupt

The Basics about Divestment

1. What is divestment?

Divestment is a moral and prophetic act. It is a refusal to invest in or profit from companies engaging in unethical actions. Burning fossil fuels creates global warming, which in turn creates changes in the environment causing suffering for humans and other living things. It is thus morally wrong to make money from the extraction, processing or sale of fossil fuels.

Divestment is the opposite of an investment. It simply means selling stocks, bonds or investment funds that are unethical or morally questionable. Fossil fuel investments are a risk for investors and the planet, that’s why we’re calling on the PC (USA) to divest from these companies.

There have been a handful of effective divestment campaigns in recent history, including Darfur and tobacco, but perhaps the most impactful one helped break the power of the apartheid government in South African in the 1990s.

2. What are we asking?

We want the PC(USA) to do three things:

Divest from direct ownership of stocks and any commingled funds that include fossil fuel public equities and corporate bonds.

Report with regular updates on progress made towards full divestment.


Actively seek out and invest in securities of companies whose predominant focus is in renewable and/or energy efficiency.

3. Why divestment?

Divestment is a powerful public statement removing the moral license from big oil, gas, and coal companies. These companies currently generate huge profits and overly influence public policy, even while the planet is quickly warming toward an uninhabitable state. As a strategy, divestment educates the public about the increasing amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere and its causal effect on global warming. It communicates the urgent need to leave untapped 80% of the known carbon reserves and invest in renewable energies capable of meeting humanity’s needs.

As the divestment campaign grows, there is strength in numbers, which ultimately can bring sufficient negative publicity to hurt the public image of these companies and remove their “social license” to continue to do business as usual. Shell Oil pulled out of the Arctic last year ostensibly because the returns weren't there. Ben Van Beurden (president) also indicated that social pressure (i.e. divestment, etc.) was another major factor. Companies hate negative press. Divestment provides that soft pressure. And it's working. * Robert Massie's 1998 study of the divestment movement in S. Africa is still the definitive study on the effectiveness of divestment.

At this time, the divestment movement is growing internationally, including hundreds of universities, cities, and other denominations.

We have an opportunity to be part of this worldwide divestment movement. Recall for just a moment how powerful past movements have been – they have led to the abolition of slavery; stopped wars; provided civil rights to all citizens regardless of their skin color and most recently led to the end of Apartheid in South Africa.  Movements change society.  Movements are of the moment.  This overture asks Presbyterians to join a movement to save the planet by pressuring the fossil fuel industry to stop the production of fossil fuels.  The underlying moral imperative for the church, in keeping with God’s covenant with all things alive and yet to be born (Genesis 9), is to withdraw its support from companies that profit from destroying creation.

4. How is it decided which are the “top 200 fossil fuel companies” to divest from?

PCUSA does not have to decide which companies are in the top 200. Nor does it have the bandwidth to do so. We agree to use the list widely adopted by the worldwide fossil fuel divestment movement which is compiled by the “Fossil Free Indexes’ Carbon Underground”.

They are the world’s 200 largest publicly traded fossil fuel companies, ranked by the CO2 emissions potential of the reserves they hold of coal, and of oil and gas. The companies’ “proven reserves” are the fossil fuels that need to stay in the ground. For instance we’re not advocating divesting from utilities that burn carbon but could shift to renewables. There is so much to be done to address climate change that each campaign must choose its focus. The divestment campaign’s focus goes to the root of the problem: vast reserves of carbon must be kept in the ground and never extracted.

Fossil Free Indexes' latest report, and the methodology, are linked here:

5. What other groups have divested?

Across this country and internationally many colleges and universities, cities, foundations, and faith groups have voted to divest. U.S. faith denominations that have committed to divestment are the UCC, Unitarian Universalist, and Episcopalians. Other commitments include the World Council of Churches, the Church of England, Lutheran World Federation, Union Theological Seminary, The Rockefeller Foundation, the City of San Francisco and the Norwegian Sovereign Fund. In addition there are divestment campaigns on over 300 college campuses, as well as in many other institutions. Internationally there are more universities, municipalities and institutions which have divested from fossil fuel companies. Find the list: The divestment movement has grown from $13 million in divested funds in 2013 to $50 billion in 2014 to $3.4 trillion in late 2015 to $6.09 Trillion in late 2017. That's exponential!

6. Companies like ExxonMobil, Shell, and BP have billions of dollars. How can divesting the funds from a few institutions like universities, pensions and churches make an impact?

Divestment isn’t primarily an economic strategy. It’s a moral stand, an educational strategy and a publicity campaign, and a social movement. Just like in the struggle for civil rights in the U.S. or the fight to end apartheid in South Africa, the more we can make climate change a deeply moral issue, the sooner society will act. We need to make it clear that if it’s wrong to wreck creation, then it’s also wrong to profit from that wreckage.

In addition, while sale of stock might not have an immediate impact on a fossil fuel company, what it does do is sow uncertainty about the viability of the fossil fuel industry’s business model.

Divesting from “dirty” industries also builds momentum for moving money into clean energy and other more sustainable investments. Divestment opens up the opportunity to move our money from the problem to the solution.

The bottom line is that the divestment movement creates public discourse which adds momentum to creating legislation limiting carbon emissions.

7. Can we still make a reasonable return without investments in fossil fuel companies?

Yes. Studies show that over time, the performance of fossil free portfolios is as good or better than portfolios that include fossil fuel industry holdings. See:

The research linked above shows that looking back over 10 or more years, the tracking error of index funds without fossil fuel company stocks is very low: less than 1 percent. (Tracking error is the difference between the price changes of a portfolio and the price change of a benchmark such as the S&P 500.) This compares favorably to an average tracking error of 5 percent for actively managed funds, and indicates that a “fossil free” index fund would have performed nearly identically to its fossil fuel counterpart with no increased risk.

While large fossil fuel companies have been profitable investments in the past, the historically low oil prices and the continuing devaluation of coal markets around the world show that these are increasingly risky investments. In fact, coal, oil, and gas companies’ business models anticipate emitting five times more carbon into the atmosphere than civilization can handle.

One factor in predicted future volatility is “the carbon bubble.” In order to keep warming below 1.5°C, the ambitious target set by COP21 in Paris in December 2015, the International Energy Agency calculates that the fossil fuel industry will need to NOT burn about 80 percent of known reserves of coal, oil, and gas. The value of those reserves factors significantly in the share price of every fossil fuel company. When governments act – as they eventually must – to require companies to keep those reserves in the ground (in order to preserve a livable planet), those fossil fuel company assets will have to be written off: stranded. The resulting collapse of companies’ share prices is what is meant by “bursting the carbon bubble.” The globally growing divestment movement creates political space for governments to act, as pension funds and others protect investors and pensioners from the consequences of the inevitable market collapse.

Disasters like the Exxon Valdez and the BP oil spills demonstrate other ways in which these investments are “risky.”
The three-year divestment timeline allows ample opportunity for Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) fund managers to develop an alternative investment strategy.

8. Shouldn’t we keep our shares invested in fossil fuel companies so that we have a voice of leverage with these companies? Isn’t shareholder activism a better way to get companies to change their practices than divestment?

We believe that shareholder activism is an effective and necessary part of our Presbyterian identity, built upon decades of strong leadership by our denomination in the world of socially responsible investment. Shareholder activism happens in the PC(USA) through the Committee on Mission Responsibility through Investment (MRTI) process of implementing the General Assembly’s policies on socially responsible investing (also called faith-based investing) by engaging corporations in which the church owns stock. This is accomplished through correspondence, dialogues, voting shareholder proxies and recommending similar action to others, and occasionally filing shareholder resolutions. Shareholder action is an effective tool to make reforms at a company, particularly over many years. We encourage the PC(USA) to use shareholder pressure when urgency is not necessary; indeed, MRTI has pushed many companies into better practices and standards. 


If we had more time to respond to climate change, the processes of MRTI would be enough. Because we have so little time to make a prophetic and moral statement about climate change, we should follow the decades old practice of categorical divestment from the fossil fuel industry.

Fossil fuel companies will not change because we ask them to change. They are in the business of making money by mining, developing, transporting and refining coal, oil and gas. These companies make extremely high profits at least partly because they are not required to pay for cleaning up their waste (pollution). Unless mandated by the federal government, which they would vigorously oppose, they will not change their business model because we ask them to. The moral authority of our denomination speaking at a stockholders meeting will not deter fossil fuel companies. What will deter them is government regulation brought about by public pressure and moral outrage.

When MRTI, the committee tasked with phased selective divestment--including shareholder activism--was developed, our church leaders never contemplated using it to solve a problem as complex, harmful or large as climate change that involves hundreds of companies all over the world. It was also not intended to deal with a problem with such urgency for resolution or such deadly consequences. The MRTI process is excellent at education over long periods of time, but not effective in convincing hundreds of companies to change their business models overnight. It is the wrong process for the problem of climate change.

9. What about the hard-working people who mine coal, drill oil and run fracking equipment for a living? How can I support this overture given the hardships it would cause them?

The overture in and of itself will not cause folks to lose their jobs, because its purpose is to provide leverage to start a dialogue on shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Over time, divestment along with other change strategies and our worsening climate will lead to changes in our energy policy. At that time, there will be economic disruptions and personal hardships and we must use our church resources to assist folks through this transition.

The church will need to help individuals deal with grief and change, and advocate for corporate and governmental policies to mitigate the damage. The church must stand with those who lose their jobs, even as we pursue this change.

If humanity does not make this transition, the disruption and cost will be incalculable, as our world will cease to be hospitable to miners, drillers, or any of us.

Our economy has gone through severe dislocations in the past. When slavery was an issue, many felt that the economy (including the textile industry in the North) could not survive the loss of cheap cotton harvested by slave labor. This did not deter our nation’s leaders from passing the 13th Amendment. It is not easy to make these changes, but sometimes it is necessary.

More jobs will be created in renewable energy than will be lost in the fossil fuel industry. $1 million dollars worth of oil and natural gas output directly creates 0.8 jobs, and $1 million of coal produces 1.9 jobs. Compare that to building retrofits for energy efficiency (7 jobs per million), mass transit services (11 jobs), building the smart grid (4.3), wind (4.6), solar (5.4), and biomass power generation (7.4).

There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about renewable energy because with it will come higher paying jobs with more diverse opportunities and sustainable economic growth on a very large scale. “The Solutions Project” report, prepared by Mark Jacobson at Stanford University and others, indicates that all fifty states can transition to renewable energy starting NOW, creating 5.1 million construction jobs over 40 years in wind, water and solar and 2.6 million operation jobs over a 40 year period.  We can generate enough renewable energy and, along with improved efficiencies, meet 100% of our energy needs. 
To read more or for references on this information, go to, see our piece on renewable energy, or learn about energy jobs at

10. What is the history of the PC(USA) on divestment?

“The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) believes that church investment, as well as personal investment, are more than practical questions. Church investment is an instrument of mission and includes theological social and economic considerations. We believe that the Lordship of Jesus Christ is at the heart of all that we do and therefore, directs all aspects of our lives, including how we earn, use and invest our money.” (183rd General Assembly, United Presbyterian Church USA, 1971)

Our denomination has over 40 years of history recognizing the importance of our investments to our church’s mission.
The earliest experience of the Presbyterian Church on this issue is the traditional ban on investing in tobacco, liquor and gambling stocks which probably originated in the days of the temperance and moral welfare movement. This is generally referred to as categorical divestment since it removes funding from an entire business category.
This was followed by divestment from military-related production in 1980.

In 1981 the importance of divestment was brought into sharp focus by the 193rd General Assembly which directed the General Assembly Mission Council to “study the possibility of divestment of stock in corporations that do business in the Republic of South Africa…” Eventually the PC(USA) divested from 14 companies doing business in South Africa.

In 1986 an office—Mission Responsibility through Investment (MRTI)—was established from both predecessor denominations’ established committees on corporate social responsibility. This office recognized the church’s unique opportunity to advance its mission faithfully and creatively through the financial resources entrusted it.

Most recently the Presbyterian Foundation has created a fossil fuel free fund to which one church in our denomination moved its entire endowment funds as of July 1, 2015. The Presbyterian Peace Fellowship has also moved its endowment to this fund. A common fund will be established soon that other churches and individuals may invest in. It will contain all the traditional PC(USA) screens plus no fossil fuel holdings.

In conclusion, our denomination has a long history of tying its investments to its mission which has culminated in the formation of a committee and an office to implement the General Assembly's policies on socially responsible investing (also called faith-based investing).

11. Do we know how much money the PC(USA) has invested in fossil fuels?

Our denomination has approximately $10 billion in investments managed by two entities, the Board of Pensions (BOP) and the Presbyterian Foundation. A relatively small percentage, a little more than 3% for the Foundation, and a little less than 2% for the BOP, is invested in fossil fuel stocks. But we are still talking about a large amount of money. As of December 31, 2014, BOP staff reported that it had investments in 37 of the companies listed in the Carbon Underground 200 list for a market value of $161 million. As of September 2015, the Presbyterian Foundation reports around $55 million in fossil fuel holdings. Of that $55 million, about $32 million is in directly held shares, which are relatively straightforward to sell; the remaining $23 million is in co-mingled investment accounts. Contact or for more details.

We have over $200 million of our money being used to produce and market greenhouse gases. We aren't talking about taking this amount of money out of these funds, but rather redirecting it into the rest of the portfolio. Thus the only change in earnings will be the difference between the return on fossil stocks and the return on the rest of the portfolio. This is likely to be negligible unless/until the "carbon bubble" pops, in which case it will be seen in retrospect as a very wise move. In fact, a fossil free ESG fund outperformed the S&P 500 from mid-2016 to mid-2017 by 13%. The “bubble” may already be popping.


We also recommend actively seeking out and investing in securities of companies whose predominant focus is in renewable and/or energy efficiency.

12. Shouldn’t the PC(USA) be focusing on the demand side of this problem? People need to cut down on their use of energy if the problem is to be solved.

The answer is “both and,” not “either or.” Yes, we as individuals and churches must continue to reduce our carbon footprint, and reduce it with even more urgency as global warming accelerates. The PC(USA) addressed precisely this issue in 2006, passing a resolution at the 217th General Assembly:

“….finds that the urgency, injustice, and seriousness of this issue calls us as Christians to act NOW and to act boldly to lead the way in reducing our energy usage.”

“…..strongly urging all Presbyterians to immediately make a bold witness by aspiring to live carbon neutral lives.”
Now it is time for the PC(USA) to address the supply side of the problem, which is what the overture to divest from fossil fuels does. Until the fossil fuel companies stop extracting carbon from the ground and begin to develop alternatives, new energy sources that are clean, renewable and sustainable, we will never be able to live “carbon neutral lives.” Some changes, such as our national energy infrastructure, can only be made at a societal level.

13. Do you really think divestment will work?

It’s not at all clear whether we can do enough fast enough to save civilization and the hospitable planet to which we and all species have adapted. But this we know: we must do all we can to respond to the greatest moral crisis of our age, perhaps of all time.

We have to ask ourselves, what kind of world do we want to leave to our children. How will we respond when they ask us in 20 years, “what did you do to stop this”?

As people of faith, we bring the element of hope, not a naive optimism, but a hope that does not depend on continuity. Hope embraces breakthrough. Hope embraces miracle. Hope believes that a single sermon can change your life. Hope believes that a single person can change history. However strong the forces against us may be, we do not lose hope.



FAQ’s from the United Church of Christ, some material used with permission.