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First Congregational Church in Amherst to halt fossil fuel investments



Tuesday, June 16, 2015
AMHERST — An Amherst church is joining a growing number of municipalities, colleges and universities and other religious institutions in attempting to divest from fossil fuel and making sure no additional investments are being made with companies contributing to climate change.

The First Congregational Church this spring voted to ensure that its $1 million endowment, for moral reasons, not be invested in companies that continue to worsen the climate change crisis, said Russell Vernon-Jones, a member of the congregation’s Earth Ministry Team,

Vernon-Jones said Monday that the while the church has long-standing rules against making investments in tobacco, alcohol and military weapons, as well as companies that do harm to the environment, this is the first time the church is adding a prohibition on fossil fuel investments to its socially responsible investing policy.

“In some ways this is a public statement about the church’s commitment about climate change,” Vernon-Jones said.

The Earth Ministry Team cited both “a moral and leadership rationale” and “a long-term economic argument” for its decision to propose the divestment measure to the congregation, whose members were enthusiastic in supporting the measure in April, Vernon-Jones said.

The only concerns expressed were whether it would be hypocritical to prohibit such investments when peoples’ lifestyles depend on using gas to power vehicles and heating oil to provide warmth.

But while such a policy may not reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it should lead to investments in alternative energy and may inspire changes in individual behavior, Vernon-Jones said. He added that the hope is fossil fuel companies become moral pariahs that will reduce their influence, especially on politicians, who often receive campaign contributions from these companies.

The vote was inspired by 350.org and Bill McKibben, a climate activist, who supports divestment as a means of drawing attention to climate change and the need to combat coal, oil and gas companies.

Vernon-Jones said the church will begin moving money from traditional United Church funds to a new fund that is fossil free, and will be looking to divest from other fossil fuel investments, with a completion date of April 30, 2019.

The church will use information from Carbon Underground 2015 to make decisions and determine companies that it should avoid.

The First Congregational Church joins more than 32 colleges and universities, including Hampshire College, 42 cities and towns, including Amherst and Northampton, and over 75 religious institutions in moving toward values-based investing and away from financial return-only considerations.

“We see ourselves acting in concert with others across the country concerned with climate change,” Vernon-Jones said.

The United Church of Christ became the first mainline religious denomination to vote to move toward divestment from fossil fuel companies as one strategy to combat climate change at its General Synod in 2013. In October 2013, the Unitarian Universalist Society of Amherst voted to discontinue its investments in fossil fuel companies within five years.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.