It’s time for churches to join the climate fight

By Rohan MacMahon and Vincent Heeringa

Among the many dignitaries attending COP26 in Glasgow this month is Pope Francis, representing the principality of Vatican City. As a jurisdiction, the Vatican has nothing much to report – its greenhouse commitments are subsumed within Italy’s, and its emissions include the occasional puff of white smoke.

As the leader of 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, however, Pope Francis has some sway. His 2015 statement Laudato Si’ was an environmental landmark, highlighting climate change, pollution, biodiversity loss and inequality as major failures that the Church and humanity must address. Laudato Si’ received much praise – and criticism, including from free-market think-tanks and the coal industry. You know you’re doing God’s work when Old Coal complains. 

Francis upped the ante last week by joining with other religious leaders, representing some three quarters of the world’s population, to make a joint appeal for COP26 to offer concrete solutions to save the planet from “an unprecedented ecological crisis”.

Pope Francis calls on world religious leaders to join the fight against climate change

The “Faith and Science: Towards COP26” meeting brought together Christian leaders including Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, as well as representatives of Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism and Jainism.

The conference also kicked off Faith Plans, a major initiative to develop community-based, grassroots plans for faith communities to answer the climate call. The Plans are commitments by the major faiths of the world to develop a set of measurable, real world initiatives driving action on key issues including climate change, biodiversity and sustainable development. They involve each religious group planning how they will manage their assets and resources over the next seven to ten years – from their investments, schools, hospitals and youth organisations to their land, purchasing power, influence, advocacy – and wisdom.

This leadership from Pope Francis is welcome. Notwithstanding the hard work of many religious individuals, it’s fair to say that religious organisations have been largely absent in the climate fight. Historically, religious people have been champions of social justice, education, medicine, and human rights. 

The Church has been in the social welfare business since Jesus said “blessed are the poor”, but that charity is almost absent when it comes to the rest of Creation. The plight of the environment has been a blindspot for decades for the Church, and more broadly, religious organisations. A simple example: Christian Savings Kiwisaver promotes itself as an ethical fund yet continues to invest in a rogues gallery of mining, oil and fossil fuel firms as well as companies engaged in animal testing. 

Heralds of Change

This call to change is significant. From investment funds and property management to education and advocacy, churches are an untapped resource for climate action In New Zealand. Christian denominations sit on vast assets that could be deployed in the fight to transition to a low-emission economy, and some will need to move decisively to reallocate their portfolios.

How might that look? The Faith Plans call for seven pillars of action, including how religious people and organisations invest and spend their money. These are seen as areas where faiths can have long term environmental impact. They start with investment assets, but also include efforts and funding for education, faith wisdom, lifestyles (including pilgrimage and tourism), advocacy,  partnerships and celebrations, such as festivals. At the launch of FaithPlans, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby called for a “global financial architecture which repents of its past sins”, including changes in tax rules to promote green activity. “We have in the past 100 years declared war on creation… Our war against the climate affects the poorest among us.”

“Paul Gilberd, a senior member of the Anglican Church who works in the finance sector, who estimates the Anglican, Catholic and Methodist churches are collectively worth more than $10 billion”

New Zealand’s churches have billions of dollars under management, and the pews of those churches are filled with Kiwisaver investors and people who can create climate impact across their work and home lives. Faith leaders are trusted sources of information, and climate action, like vaccination, is critical for churches to get right. 

Some innovation is happening. In recent years, churches and religiously motivated people have done exemplary work in that other great crisis: housing. Stuff quotes Paul Gilberd, a senior member of the Anglican Church who works in the finance sector, who estimates the Anglican, Catholic and Methodist churches are collectively worth more than $10 billion, and he says they could be the “nation’s life preserver” if they put more of their massive wealth into housing.

 A good example is Community Finance, which has its roots in the aforementioned Christian Savings and is a collaboration between The Lindsay Foundation, The Tindall Foundation, The Matua Foundation, Christian Savings and the Wilberforce Foundation. It’s an impact fund that offers community bonds to wholesale investors. So far the bonds have funded the Salvation Army and CORT (a Baptist charity) to build more than 150 warm, dry, quality homes in Auckland. Many more are underway. 

We would like to see impact funds with a religious base for environmental causes. And it’s clear we will see, preferably soon, a transition for investment funds into areas where they can create environmental impact, as well as returns. 

Churches are the world’s oldest institutions, and they are famous for moving slowly and carefully. Unfortunately the climate crisis, which has been building for well over 150 years, has reached a stage where rapid action is required. At the Climate Venture Capital Fund we commend the Faith and Science declaration. We encourage local investors of all ilks, to consider how they can best support, and benefit from, the work required to preserve our lives and our planet.

We challenge New Zealand churches and people of all religious conviction to heed the call to deploy every effort, including finance, into fighting climate change.