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  September 24, 2015

Top Pope Advisor Says Vatican Will Not Divest From Fossil Fuels

Pace University's Chris Williams and IPS' Janet Redman discuss the Vatican's contradictory policy in light of the Pope's call to fight climate change
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Chris Williams is an educator, author and activist, and has been published in numerous U.S. and international media outlets and his work translated into several languages. He is the author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis (Haymarket Books) and the forthcoming Creating an Ecological Society: Toward a Revolutionary Transformation (Monthly Review Press).

Janet Redman currently works with Oil Change USA, and is the policy director at Oil Change International. Previously, Janet was the director of the Climate Policy Program at the Institute for Policy Studies, and co-director of the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network, where she provided analysis of the international financial institutions' energy investment and carbon finance activities. Her studies on the World Bank's climate activities include World Bank: Climate Profiteer, and Dirty is the New Clean: A critique of the World Bank's strategic framework for development and climate change. She is a founding participant in the global Climate Justice Now! network.


JESSICA DESVARIEUX, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I'm Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

On Friday the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, continued his tour with a visit to the UN General Assembly to deliver a speech on climate change. The Guardian, however, is reporting that one of the pope's key advisors, Peter Turkson, said that the Vatican had no plans to rid itself of its holdings in fossil fuels, meaning that it will not divest from fossil fuels. He said instead the Vatican will be focusing on personal issues of life and death, and that specifically meaning the death penalty and abortion.

Now joining us to discuss the pope's call for climate change action, yet the Vatican's decision not to divest from fossil fuels, are our two guests. Joining us is Chris Williams. He is a longtime environmental activist, professor of physics and chemistry at Pace University. Also joining us from Washington, DC is Janet Redman. Janet is the director of the Climate Policy Program at the Institute for Policy Studies. Thank you both for joining us.

JANET REDMAN: Thanks for having us on.

DESVARIEUX: So Chris, major news coming out of the Vatican. What do you make of this?

WILLIAMS: Yes. It's quite startling that the Vatican decided to challenge the idea that was being booted about the Vatican divesting from fossil fuels, about the Vatican actually backing up with action some of the very exciting words and the rhetoric, the 180 page encyclical that calls out capitalism, that says cap and trade won't work, that there is a moral urgency to addressing climate change, the deification of the market is trampling underfoot not just the planet but the poorest amongst us and the people who are least responsible for climate change are paying the greatest price.

And yet it seems like in terms of actual action that the Vatican could carry out, it's in the face of a growing divestment movement calling for these kind of things, the Vatican is not willing to back up with action what the pope is saying in words. So I think it's a huge contradiction that is played out not just in the Vatican but in Washington DC with President Obama, with all the politicians who say they want to do something, take climate change seriously, and then feel that very little actually has to change as business carries on as usual and the planet and its people get more and more impoverished and degraded.

DESVARIEUX: But the Vatican is arguing that the amount that they have invested in fossil fuels is quite insignificant, it's about 6-7 percent. So Janet, do you buy that argument?

REDMAN: I mean, it's a great point. And that's been a critique of the fossil fuel divestment movement for a while, that hey, it's not a lot of money relative to what the fossil fuel industry can move. It's not a lot of money as part of people's, say, retirement funds. So what's the big deal? It's not going to make a hit. I think the point really is that actually it's a ton of money. If you even look at 10 percent of the Vatican's holding, which is about $6.5 billion, even 10 percent of that makes a big difference economically.

But I think more importantly what the divestment movement is talking about is actually taking away the social license of the fossil fuel industry. So divestment is certainly a way to hit the fossil fuel companies in the place where it hurts most, their pocketbook. But more importantly it's a way of saying fossil fuel companies, oil, coal, gas, the investment firms that make capital available to do the work of extraction, of combustion, of polluting our atmosphere and polluting our families' health, is not okay. We're not going to support it with our dollars, we're not going to support it in our society.

So while it may not be a huge amount of money, it's still relatively a lot of money. And the social message is most important. It's important to note, too, though that when we look at--there are other ways that we could be moving money. We've just completed a study that showed that actually, the CEOs of fossil fuel companies in the United States, the top 30 fossil fuel companies, are receiving about $6 billion in bonuses this year. So that kind of executive excess needs to end, as well. But the divestment movement certainly is one way that can push the message of saying no more social license for the fossil fuel industry forward.

DESVARIEUX: Let's talk more about the divestment movement. Chris, do you see this news coming out of the Vatican as a blow to that movement?

WILLIAMS: I mean, I think it can be seen that way. But it can also be seen as a way of building the movement, because we need to have more pressure on universities as well as the Vatican to back up their words with action. I mean, if you're calling it the most urgent problem that we face and a moral situation where it must be acted upon, and now that calls on one billion Catholics around the world to discuss the encyclical, decide on it, take action over it as some diocese are doing, then I think it raises the temperature of the movement to say, along with the earth if we don't fix it, to say what else can we be doing?

Because many university campuses say, they all have this narrative about caring for the future generations and the future of their students who are going to graduate from those institutions. And yet they also are resisting these calls for reasons that Janet went into, because they say well, it's not much money. But it's a question of how do we build the movement. This is one way of building a movement, because ultimately the only way we're going to win any change--and this is the other thing that is good about what the pope is saying, is that he's linking the ecological damage caused by capitalism to the social damage caused by capitalism. And we have to solve both questions at once. And that's absolutely, fundamentally true. And so we're going to do that in the way that we've always done it and won things in the past, which is through the formation of mass movements organized around clear principles and priorities. And I think the divestment movement is part of that reality.

So if they're not going to do it now, what are we going to have to do to put more pressure out on the streets in order to force change from universities, from other investment funds, and ultimately also from the Vatican, which has got this new stated position of wanting to take the environment and climate change seriously based on the science, and based on the fact that humans are creating the problem through the use mostly of fossil fuels.

DESVARIEUX: All right. Chris Williams as well as Janet Redman, thank you both for joining me.

WILLIAMS: Thank you.

REDMAN: Thank you.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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