Fossil fuel divestment passes first test

The hottest topic at General Assembly––whether the UUA should divest itself of investments in major producers and processors of fossil fuel, and invest in clean energy technologies––sailed through a miniassembly Friday evening without amendments, clearing the way for it to be voted on by the full delegate body Saturday afternoon.

The divestment resolution had been carefully crafted over the past year and had the buy-in of environmental activists as well as the UUA administration. Any amendments might have jeopardized the agreement.

The agreement allows the UUA to keep some fossil fuel stocks in cases where the UUA is engaged in shareholder actions seeking environmental justice. UUA Treasurer Tim Brennan is a strong advocate of shareholder actions and the UUA has had significant successes in modifying behavior of corporations in several areas including worker rights.

The Rev. Peggy Clarke, of the First Unitarian Society of Westchester, Hastings-on-Hudson, NY, did propose one amendment, but it was defeated. Clarke asked that the UUA not be allowed to keep any fossil fuel investments. She said she didn’t believe that shareholder activism would work with this issue. “We’re not talking about asking a company to make a minor modification. We’re talking about the core of the industry. No activism will work in this case.”

Environmental activists say that if life on earth is to continue to be sustainable fossil fuel companies would have to leave much of their oil, gas, and coal reserves in the ground.

Clarke’s amendment got only a handful of votes from the sixty-or-so people in the miniassembly. At the end of the session Clarke agreed to withdraw her amendment. If she hadn’t done that the amendment could have been debated again by the full delegate body on Saturday. Now the resolution cannot be amended and will have a straight up or down vote.

Terry Wiggins, a lay leader at First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee, Wisc. has led the effort to gain divestment. She was inspired in 2013 when she went to hear environmental activist Bill McKibben speak. “He terrified me,” she said. She and others went home and led a successful divestment movement in their congregation.

The Rev. Drew Kennedy, senior minister of First Unitarian Society in Milwaukee, told the miniassembly the goal was not necessarily to directly change the behavior of companies, but to “gain the world’s attention to this issue. We need a movement that mobilizes politicians to do something.”

In addition, supporters of this measure hope that it will inspire UU congregations to also divest. Wiggins said she was “very gratified” by the miniassembly vote.


  • PeggyClarke

    Thanks for this article. Just to be clear, my amendment was to remove the possibility of shareholder activism because we’ve been engaged at that level for many years with no meaningful result. Carbon has increased expoentially. This makes sense since we are talking about the core of an industry, not a peripheral aspect. For instance, if investors in walmart call for higher wages for workers, they can become a powerful lobby. But it’s not reasonable to expect that an industry will stop its core mission of drilling for oil. More specifically, it has been proven over these last 20 years. Climate activists have been using this mainstream method of shareholder advocacy; it is time we accept our defeat and seek more effective ways to be heard.


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