Opinion

Urgent action needed as tipping point looms

Divestment from fossil fuels is one way that Christians can live "our vocation to be protectors of God's handiwork"

By Roland Ashby

We are facing a man-made [environmental] disaster of global scale,” Sir David Attenborough* warned last month. Speaking to Leigh Sales on the ABC’s 7.30, the world-renowned 94-year-old naturalist and broadcaster said the world is “heading for disaster”, with irreversible tipping points now looming. “For the first time now you can sail from the Pacific into the Atlantic across the North Pole in the summer, and before long it looks as though you are going to be able to do that the year round and if you do that ... [it’s] what people call a tipping point, when in fact it is not reversible.

“If you are going to have all of those thousands of tons of freshwater in the icecaps melting and going into the sea, rising the sea level, changing the salinity, changing the climate and the way the winds circulate around the world, you are interrupting and changing a fundamental rhythm that our world has lived with for ... millennia.”

Prince Charles, another long-term and passionate advocate for the environment, had earlier warned of the “comprehensive catastrophe” climate change was in danger of becoming, and called for a “Marshall-like plan for nature, people and planet”.

“We must now put ourselves on a war-like footing, approaching our action from the perspective of a military-style campaign,” he said in a video.

Both men made their pleas for urgent action while unprecedented fires swept across the west coast of America, mirroring similarly devastating and unparalleled fires across Australia earlier in the year.

Two years ago, in October 2018, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that the world had only 12 years to limit the increase in global warming to no more than 1.5C. To go beyond this, the panel warned, even by half a degree, would lead to catastrophic droughts, floods and extreme heat.

Faced with such a doomsday scenario, how should Christians and other people of faith respond?

Pope Francis in his encyclical on ecology and climate, Laudato Si’ – On Care For Our Common Home, quotes Benedict XVI in calling for an “ecological conversion”: “The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast.”

“For this reason,” Pope Francis adds, “the ecological crisis is also a summons to profound interior conversion. It must be said that some committed and prayerful Christians, with the excuse of realism and pragmatism, tend to ridicule expressions of concern for the environment. Others are passive; they choose not to change their habits ... So what they all need is an ‘ecological conversion’, whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them. Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience.”

Last month he spoke in a video message for an online event called “Countdown Global Launch, A Call to Action on Climate Change”.

“Science tells us, every day with more precision, that we need to act urgently ... if we are to have any hope of avoiding radical and catastrophic climate change,” he said.

He also urged people to divest from companies not committed to the environment and a transition away from fossil fuels.

“One way to encourage this change is to lead companies towards the urgent need to commit to the integral care of our common home, excluding from investments companies that do not meet [these] parameters ... and rewarding those that [do],” he said.

Speaking on the World Day of Prayer in September last year, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury and a former oil executive, also specifically addressed the issue of divestment, urging fund managers to divest from fossil fuels. “It is in investors’ power to help avert the disastrous consequences – ethical and financial – of failing to achieve [the goal of the Paris Accord],” he said.

Divestment for individuals

For individual Christians in Australia concerned about the environmental impact of their investments, and who would like find out more about how the banks and super funds invest their funds, assistance is available from Market Forces, an affiliate project of Friends of the Earth Australia.

Market Forces tracks the lending of banks to fossil fuel companies, as well as the investments that super funds make in fossil fuels, and posts the information on its website.

Market Forces campaigner Pablo Brait says the aim is to “empower bank customers, super fund members and shareholders to take action in line with their values, and to hold to account the institutions that have stewardship over their money”.

“We work closely with shareholders,” he says, “who own shares directly across a whole range of companies, and help them engage these companies through a variety of means including shareholder resolutions, such as calling on a bank to align its lending with limiting global warming to 1.5C degrees. We also work with shareholders who want to attend AGMs, or who want to appoint proxies to attend AGMs on their behalf, and help them formulate questions to the CEO and Board.”

He says people who don’t own shares directly still have a role to play in shareholder activism through their super fund. “They can do this by writing to their super fund, which Market Forces can assist with, and lobbying the fund to vote in favour of shareholder resolutions related to climate change.”

He says it’s good that some super funds offer some options that are fossil fuel free, but Market Forces would like to see more super funds – like Australian Ethical and Future Super, which are entirely fossil fuel free – divesting all of their funds under management of companies that are undermining the Paris Accord.

“Helping to destroy life on earth should not be a consumer choice!” he says.

*Sir David’s latest film David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet is available on Netflix. He describes it as “My witness statement and my vision for the future. It’s the story of how we came to make our greatest mistake, and how, if we act now, how we can put it right.”

Roland Ashby is the former editor of TMA and a member of the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change (ARRCC). See his blog Living Water at: www.thelivingwater.com.au 

For more information about Market Forces, and how the banks and super funds compare, see www.marketforces.org.au or email contact@marketforces.org.au