Unitarians vote to divest from fossil fuels

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NORTHAMPTON — The Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence is the latest organization to join the fight against climate change by vowing to rid its endowment of all fossil fuel stocks within five years.

At its annual meeting Sunday, 89 members of the Unitarian congregation overwhelmingly voted to support a resolution proposed by its board of trustees that instructs the church to sell its holdings in fossil fuel companies by 2019. A similar measure has already been approved by the Unitarian Universalist Society of Amherst, and the Unitarian Universalist Association is expected to vote on its own resolution at a general assembly meeting of all 1,041 congregations nationwide next month.

It is difficult to determine exactly how much money the Unitarian Society invests in fossil fuel stocks because much of the endowment is in mutual funds, but the church Finance Committee estimates that about 5 percent of its overall portfolio is in coal, oil and gas stocks. The church declined to disclose the amount of its endowment.

While the Northampton church is concerned with prudently managing its endowment, trustees believe that alternative investments can be found within five years to replace the investment income that might be lost, said Ginny Fuhringer, immediate past president of the Unitarian Society. Her successor was elected Sunday.

Fuhringer said the decision came after several months of research, debate and soul-searching led by the church’s Climate Action Group, which includes church members who are informed about issues related to climate change.

“As a religious organization, we believe that our mission is very much in line with protecting the Earth and taking an active stance to do everything we can,” Fuhringer said.

The Unitarian Society is joining a global and growing movement led by the campaign group 350.org that is calling on universities, pension funds, public entities and religious institutions to divest their investments in 200 fossil fuel companies.

Other local groups that have committed to fossil fuel divestment are Hampshire College, the municipalities of Amherst and Northampton, the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, New England Conference of the United Methodist Church and the Massachusetts United Church of Christ.

And the Massachusetts Legislature is also considering a bill requiring the state’s pension fund to divest from fossil fuel companies.

Members of the Northampton congregation will attend the Unitarian Universalist Association’s general assembly in Providence, Rhode Island, June 25-29, to vote on a similar resolution. The resolutions state that the industry controls fossil fuel reserves that, if burned, would produce more than five times the amount of greenhouse gas emissions required to raise global temperatures beyond 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit, the level that leaders of 167 countries, including the United States, have agreed would be unsafe for human habitation.

While it is recognized that divestment will not financially weaken the fossil fuel industry directly, the goal is to bring attention to the effects of climate change and to build momentum toward the use of alternative fuels and conservation.

Sarah Metcalf, a Unitarian Society member, said she is proud of her congregation’s willingness to take on a bit of financial uncertainty on an issue of such importance.

“I see climate change as the greatest threat that has ever faced humanity,” Metcalf said in a press release. “It wasn’t easy initially to find consensus on divestment because people worried it might weaken us and undermine our mission.”

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