Why Unitarian Universalists Voted to Divest From Fossil Fuels

Last Saturday, I was proud to speak in favor the fossil fuel divestment resolution at the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).

An overwhelming majority of the General Assembly voted in favor of the resolution.  Following the vote, UUA issued a press release in which UUA President Peter Morales said:

The UUA has a long-standing history of fighting for our environment. I am proud that we are going to put our money where our values are on this issue.

This victory was the result of the hard work of many Unitarian Universalists.  As a member of the UUA Committee on Socially Responsible Investment (CSRI), I have spent almost a year working with UU Divest, the group originally promoting the divestment resolution, my fellow committee members, and UUA staff including the Treasurer and CFO, Tim Brennan.  What we accomplished is unique and worthy of consideration by other religious investors.

The resolution concerns the Unitarian Universalist Common Endowment Fund, a $173 million fund that includes the investments of the Unitarian Universalist Association, affiliated UU organizations, and approximately 300 member congregations.

When the issue of fossil fuel divestment was promoted at last year’s General Assembly, I was largely opposed to it.  The UUA is a leader in shareholder activism to halt climate change.  I felt strongly it made no sense to simply sell our fossil fuel company to another investor that likely did not care about this critical problem.

Over the course of a year of careful negotiation with the divestment proponents, I began to change my position. Key to the success of negotiation was each side’s recognition that we were all part of the movement to halt climate change. Everyone began to realize that this was a discussion between friends and allies and the only real differences were over tactics to reach the common goal of halting climate change.

There was a key shift in the framing of the discussion. When we started the debate, the question was framed as: should the UUA EITHER divest OR continue its shareholder activism against the fossil fuel companies? The turning point came when we changed the frame of the discussion to: how should the UUA BOTH divest AND do shareholder activism?

That brought us to the consensus resolution language in which the UUA both joins the movement to divest from the fossil fuel companies while also retaining a limited, specific, and decreasing number of holdings for the purpose of shareholder activism.  Even more crucial was that the resolution passed UUA legal review through the inclusion of language ensuring that the UU Common Endowment Fund divest stock according the UUA’s fiduciary duty and using sound investment practices.

The UUA resolution should be viewed as model language for other religious institutions that also use shareholder activism on help halt climate change.  This resolution safeguards the UUA’s critical shareholder activism while adding another powerful voice to the fossil fuel divestment movement.

When I spoke in support of the resolution, I remarked how our process in crafting an effective resolution represented the best in the values and democratic practices of Unitarian Universalism.  I have never been more proud of my denomination and fellow UU members.

8 thoughts on “Why Unitarian Universalists Voted to Divest From Fossil Fuels

  1. Thank you so much Simon for your work and activism with fossil fuel agencies and their shareholders. I have read several of your blogs and your work is in the right place. I am glad it was decided at GA this year to go ahead with divestment. We all have oil on our hands and continuous efforts to decrease our involvement with oil – in consuming and reaping stock benefits will leave room for alternative and sustainable energies to be affordable and more prominent. THANK YOU!!!

  2. I, too, am especially pleased today to be a UU, Simon, and proud as well that in the best tradition of our congregational polity, the UU divestment campaign was built from the ground up by UUs from all over the country and then expanded, so there was a place for everyone under the tent. No strange bedfellows here.
    Now that we have reached out within our association of congregations, let us extend our arms in fellowship to partner with others to turn the Climate Crisis into a Climate Collaboration.
    John Harwood
    UU Newburyport MA

  3. Thank you for your hard work with the UUA on this issue, Simon. Your presentation at the General Assembly was excellent. Congratulations!

    Bill O’Field
    All Souls Church, Unitarian
    Washington, DC

  4. Pingback: The Unitarian Universalist Association Votes to Divest! | The UU Climate Action Network

  5. Dear Simon,
    I was at GA to hear you speak in favor of the Business Resolution, and I am thankful for all that you, UUdivest, and all of UUA’s financial leadership has done to make this collaboration a reality!!!
    But in the course of this process, I actually looked at our investments in the Common Fund, and discovered some troubling facts. One of them was that in addition to our oil and gas investments in the top 200CT companies, that we have at least that much invested in non-200CT gas and oil companies*. My hope is that in the cooperative spirit that we have developed, that the SRI committee will also work to divest (keeping, of course, enough to do shareholder activism) from these other gas and oil investments as well..(*I did this analysis based on the holdings from Dec 2013 report).
    The other troubling discover I made was that as of the March 2014 report, that our Endowment Fund invests in Monsanto, to the tune of almost $390,000.
    I refrained from making an issue of this before GA, out of respect for all the great work that you were doing together, but if this fact were known generally inn UU circles, I’m sure that there would be extreme discomfort with such an investment!!
    I did send an email to SRI’s David Stewart about my concerns, and I will continue my dialogue with him, but I also wanted to reach out to you as an ally as well. This is a corporation, that despite their recent public relations outreach to us, continues to speak more loudly with their “bad fruits” or “bad seeds”, if you will.
    My hope is that as the SRI committee goes about this good work of divestment from all Fossil fuels, that it would also find ways to divest from Monsanto as well (of course with the exception being to hold enough stock to do shareholder activism)!!
    Blessings to you Simon, Jack Harkins
    Leader of Climate Action Team and member of Social Justice committee, UUFCC, Port Charlotte, FL

    • Thank you for your questions and comments, Jack.

      The UUA Committee on Socially Responsible Investment meets next month. We will tackling implementation of the business resolution on fossil fuel investments as well as overall screening policy given the holding in Monsanto. Your question of the SRI Committee regarding Monsanto has prompted us to take a deeper look at our screening process.

      Going through all the remaining CarbonTracker 200 companies in the portfolio will be significant work. We will give that priority as it is specified in the business resolution. But I – for one – would prefer that the SRI Committee put a priority on further developing our work on economic inequality before we consider going beyond the provisions of the fossil fuel business resolution.

  6. Thank you, Simon, for your good statement. However, you didn’t mention what I think is one of the most important parts of the Business Resolution: the part about reinvesting in renewable energy and energy conservation securities. We can’t just move away from fossil fuels. We have to work to move towards a clean energy economy.

  7. Pingback: Fossil Fuels: Divest AND Engage! | First Affirmative Leadership Blog