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July 14, 2014
Unitarians Craft Divestment Policy that Provides for Continued Engagement
    by Robert Kropp

SocialFunds.com talks with Simon Billenness of the Unitarian Universalist Association about the year-long process to develop a policy of divestment from fossil fuel companies while retaining shareowner engagement.


When the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) announced the adoption of a fossil fuel divestment policy for its $173 million endowment fund, Bill McKibben of 350.org tweeted, “The Unitarian church, the whole thing, voted today to divest from fossil fuels. This is what momentum looks like.”

350.org has been a driving force between linking stranded fossil fuel assets with long-term investment risk, which has given rise to the fossil fuel divestment movement that has grown beyond the endowments of colleges and universities to include an increasing number of institutional investors.

Actually, the divestment resolution adopted by an overwhelming number of UUA members is somewhat more subtle that a cursory perusal of McKibben's tweet would suggest. The resolution does state that the Association's endowment fund will cease purchasing stock in companies included on the Carbon Tracker 200 list of the largest fossil fuel companies. And, the resolution continues, the endowment will continue to divest its holdings in the largest fossil fuel companies, “reaching full divestment of these companies within five years.”

As important as divestment for a transition to a low-carbon economy is UUA's intention to seek reinvestment opportunities in clean energy.

But the subtlety of the Association's resolution is revealed in the following passage: “Invest an appropriate share of UUCEF holdings in securities that will support a swift transition to a clean energy economy, such as renewable energy and energy efficiency-related securities.” In other words, “The resolution allows the UUA to retain investments in fossil fuel companies with which it is engaged in shareholder actions seeking environmental justice.” the Association's press release states.

“We are encouraged that the UUA can continue its longstanding successes in shareholder advocacy while helping to lead the divestment movement with the approval of today’s fossil fuel divestment resolution,” David Stewart, co-chair of the UUA’s Socially Responsible Investing Committee, said. “We believe strongly that any effort that can change the current trajectory of climate change is a welcome improvement.”

Readers of SocialFunds.com are well aware of UUA's shareowner activism, especially as it relates to efforts to have Chevron—listed ninth on the CT200—improve its corporate governance in the wake of a multibillion dollar judgment against the company over environmental destruction in Ecuador. Shareowner advocate Simon Billenness has taken the lead for UUA in its engagement with Chevron, so much so that the company has subpoenaed him to surrender all correspondence relating to shareowner activism. Billenness has told SocialFunds.com that he has not surrendered a single document to Chevron since the subpoena was issued in 2012.

In a 2013 conversation, Billenness was unequivocal in his assertion that shareowner engagement is the better investment strategy.

“If Chevron does not fear shareholder activism, why did they subpoena me?” he asked. “Chevron would like nothing better than for us to divest our stocks. I'm not inclined right now to do anything that Chevron's management wants.”

Nevertheless, Billenness was deeply involved from the start in crafting UUA's divestment strategy, and in a recent conversation explained why.

“When I started on this, I saw it as an either-or proposition,” he told SocialFunds.com. “But I had an epiphany and realized it could be both-and.”

“One thing we realized during the year-long debate was that we're all on the same side here,” he said. “The differences are merely tactical.”

“The UUA is joining the fossil fuel divestment movement,” he continued. “I have become more and more convinced of the value of that bold statement. Symbols are banners around which we can organize effectively. The divestment movement is organizing people to stop climate change and counter the power of the fossil fuel industry. It's also influencing the way shareholder activists engage with companies that are not in the fossil fuel industry, like electrical utilities.”

Billenness also noted that because of the social screens employed in UUA's investment strategy, its endowment's holdings in fossil fuel companies amounts to less than three percent of the total, a fraction of that of the average investor. Furthermore, UUA holds no stock in coal companies.

However, he continued, “It would make no sense for the UUA to divest its stock in a fossil fuel company where there is shareholder activism on climate change. Selling to an investor who doesn't care would just take pressure off that company.”

In a b log post, Billenness wrote, “The UUA resolution should be viewed as model language for other religious institutions that also use shareholder activism on help halt climate change. This resolution safeguards the UUA’s critical shareholder activism while adding another powerful voice to the fossil fuel divestment movement.”

In his conversation with SocialFunds.com, Billenness further noted, “Any divestment has to be done in full compliance with our fiduciary duty. We have a responsibility to the congregations to manage their money with the highest standards. We are not going to do anything that would unduly increase risk.”

 

 
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