Is it ethical to invest in fossil fuels? How can environmental ethics inform our decision making? by Martin J Hodson and Margot R Hodson

The climate is warming and this will continue as we burn fossil fuels. There are already serious environmental effects. The poor suffer disproportionately, and will do even more in future if we do not take prompt action. Most fossil fuel reserves should stay underground, but the Church has substantial investments in fossil fuels. Should we continue with these investments? How can environmental ethics inform our decision-making?

We could look at the question in a principle-driven (deontological) way. We do the right thing regardless of the consequences. Carbon emissions cause huge problems for the environment and the world’s poorest people, and so the right thing is to divest even if it has potential problems for our pension funds. Alternatively, we could investigate the question with outcome-driven ethics (consequential/utilitarian). Here we want the greatest good for the greatest number. Prioritising pensions, we could keep our investments, hoping the share price stays up. We could engage with the fossil fuel companies in the expectation that they might change into energy companies. However, one oil executive recently said that these companies are on a, “decades-long transition away from a fossil fuels-dependent energy system.” Their time scale is too slow to avoid dangerous climate change. We might decide that having shares in fossil fuels is very risky, and could be a liability if world governments take action on carbon emissions at Paris in 2015. Renewable energy sources will only continue to grow in their market share. We may conclude that a staged withdrawal would best balance principles and outcome. If everyone withdrew oil investments at the same time it might trigger global recession with serious problems especially for poor countries. The worst carbon sources are tar sands and coal, so start with them and move on to oil and gas later.

Environmental ethics provides a further basis for decision-making. What is our core value? Taking an anthropocentric view decisions are made on the basis of providing for human wellbeing. A sub-category within this view has been described as moneycentric, where the focus is making the most money. An ecocentric ethic focuses on what is best for the whole ecosystem, humans included. Finally, faith communities have theocentric views, where choices are made that are most honouring to God. For Christians, this acknowledges the priority of humans as made in God’s image, but recognises that we need to care for God’s Creation. If we want human wellbeing and functioning ecosystems then we must deal with climate change, and transition away from fossil fuels. Even if we are moneycentric, investing in fossil fuels may be hazardous. Throughout the Bible, God shows his love for Creation, and his care for the disadvantaged. As Christians this should be our priority.

To conclude, whatever your ethical view, divestment makes sense. A staged withdrawal might bring the best overall outcome, but the timescale is very short.

This article was initially written as a contribution to a collection of essays for the Operation Noah “Bright Now” project and is reproduced by permission. The full collection of essays is available here.

Dr Martin J Hodson is a plant scientist and Operations Manager for the John Ray Initiative. He has over 90 research publications and speaks widely on environmental issues. Revd Margot R Hodson is an environmental theologian and Vicar of Haddenham Benefice, Bucks. The Hodsons have jointly taught environmental ethics at Oxford Brookes University and are authors of several publications in this area.