This is a guest post by Matheson Russell. Matheson is a member of the Anglican church in Auckland, New Zealand and coordinated the successful call for the Anglican Diocese of Auckland to become the first organisation in New Zealand to vote to divest from fossil fuels. He is also a 350 Aotearoa Board member. (Aotearoa is the Maori name for New Zealand.)

The Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand voted to divest its funds from coal, oil and gas companies at its biennial General Assembly in Auckland, and encouraged its church members to do the same with their personal investments.

Rev. Bruce Hamill who introduced the motion to the floor of the Presbyterian General Assembly explained: “The Church has previously committed itself to act to help reduce the threat of climate change. There is clear scientific consensus that climate change, driven by human activity, is increasing. To avoid a catastrophe we need to limit global warming to 2C, which will require that up to 80 per cent of known fuel reserves stay in the ground.”

The Presbyterian Church becomes the second major denomination in New Zealand to go fossil free, following the decision of the Anglican Church of Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia to divest in May. Last month the New Zealand Quakers also endorsed the divestment movement.

Faith communities taking the lead in Australia & New Zealand

Just as faith communities in New Zealand have led the charge on divestment, across the Tasman Sea in Australia churches are also at the forefront of the movement.

The Uniting Church in NSW & ACT—an amalgamation of the Methodist and Presbyterian Churches—became one of the first institutions worldwide to embrace the step of divesting when it opted out of fossil fuel investments in April 2013. Since then the Uniting Church investment body, UCA Funds Management, announced in February it would pull out of thermal coal and unconventional oil investments, and in July this year the church’s national body, the Uniting Church in Australia, agreed to divest.

Uniting Church President Rev. Prof. Andrew Dutney celebrated the steps taken by his church: “With national governments reluctant to take difficult decisions, it falls to us as members of the body of Christ to show leadership in taking action to reduce damaging pollution. … Our partner churches in the small island states have been calling on Australia to take seriously the threat to their futures. We simply must act. This is a matter of social, environmental, and intergenerational justice.”

The Anglicans in Australia are not far behind the Uniting Church. The Diocese of Canberra and Goulburn and the Perth Diocese of the Anglican Church have passed divestment motions at their annual Synods in the past few weeks, taking up the encouragement of the national church’s Public Affairs Commission.

Industrial kickback to the “new morality”

The coal industry is hitting back against the divestment movement in Australia, attacking institutional investors and universities moving towards divestment and even hitting out at the churches. After the steps taken by the Uniting Church in NSW & ACT last year, the then CEO of the Australian Coal Association, Nikki Williams, labelled divestment campaigners “anti-development activists attempting to bludgeon society” with “a new morality of industrial sabotage.”

But churches see things differently. From their perspective the industrialized world’s love affair with fossil fuels is sabotaging God’s creation and rapidly diminishing its capacity to sustain life. Church leaders have heard the message of the scientific community and they understand that climate change threatens to devastate communities in the least advantaged corners of the globe.

As Rev. Hamill told the Presbyterian assembly: “Global climate change will disproportionately affect the poor and vulnerable – not least in the islands of the Pacific where sea level rise poses a grave threat – and is one of the most serious challenges to global health and social justice in human history.”

Faith communities at the vanguard

Catholic leaders, including the Pope, have made supportive noises in the struggle for climate justice. But until the Vatican throws its weight behind the divestment campaign, it is unlikely that Catholic churches around the globe will add significantly to the wave of faith-based institutional support being led thus far by Protestant denominations.

But whether the Catholic church moves sooner or later, faith communities around the world will continue to be at the vanguard of the fossil fuel divestment movement. That’s because faith groups pride themselves on placing moral convictions at the core of their decision making, and they have a long history of innovation in ethical investment. These two factors mean that faith groups are ideally placed to set the pace in the rapidly growing movement.

But what form will the next wave of faith-based action take once the divestment debates have been won?

In Australia and New Zealand the momentum from faith-based groups may swing behind other divestment campaigns targeting banks, superannuation funds, and other sources of finance for the fossil fuel industry. But it is likely we will also see an escalation of climate activism in other forms.

Australian church leaders have recently begun to embrace direct action as a strategy in the Love Makes A Way campaign aimed at convincing the Australian Government to release asylum seekers from mandatory detention. Could we see faith leaders Down Under raise the stakes over climate action in the same way?

Faith-based activism will not convert the fossil fuel industry, but it can help win the hearts and minds of ordinary citizens. When faith communities are engaged, a moral force is released that is hard to resist. Cranky Christians powered by the Holy Spirit and egg sandwiches cut into quarters are a formidable foe. Working together with the global community of climate activists, we have the power to defeat the fossil fuel lobby and protect God’s precious gift, our beautiful home.