Lection Connection

September 6, 2020: Forest Sunday

From Paul Turley

Your superannuation fund is supposed to invest for the financial benefit of its members. A corporation is supposed to operate to maximize shareholder returns. A government is supposed to act in the best interest of its citizens. If governments, corporations, or superannuation funds do not take into account the short and long-term effects of climate change, they are in breach of their legal obligations.

This is the thinking behind climate litigators around the world who are taking their governments to court, suing their superannuation funds, and buying shares in corporations and calling them to account at shareholder meetings.

Roger Cox, lawyer for the Urgenda Foundation, a Dutch NGO, sued the Dutch government in what has become the most well-known and important case in climate litigation. Urgenda and Cox argued that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports required the government to act to safeguard the lives of it citizens by reducing national CO2 emissions. In 2019, the Supreme Court of the Netherlands agreed. The Dutch government is now required to reduce its CO2 emission by at least 25% below 1990 levels by the end of this year.

In Australia, in late July this year, Katta O’Donnell, a 23-year-old student, filed a civil action lawsuit in a Federal Court of Australia lawsuit against her government for failing to make clear climate-change-related risks to investors in government bonds. “Australia is materially exposed and susceptible” to climate change risks, according to the statement filed with the court. It alleges that the country’s economy and the national reputation in international financial markets will be significantly affected by the Australian government’s response to climate change. The case is thought to be the first of its kind in the world.

Also in Australia, a young ecologist has taken his superannuation fund to court, claiming the financial loss associated with climate change was not factored into his retirement investment.

“The law is clear – super fund trustees have an explicit duty to pursue the best financial interests of members. So, to the extent that climate change poses financial risks, the duty is already there. The problem is one of priority. Unfortunately, not all trustees see action on climate risk as a priority, at least not for their fund,” says the University of New South Wales Associate Professor Scott Donald, Director of The Centre for Law, Markets and Regulations.

ShareAction, a UK-based NGO, organizes and resources shareholders in corporations (and purchases shares itself) to allow the asking of questions and the introduction of resolutions at shareholder meetings seeking to force action on climate change. While corporations are rarely bound by these resolutions and can do little in response to climate questions, they do force companies to provide information, which keeps the issues on their agenda, and frequently shareholder activism can influence large intuitional investors to ask similar questions. In the UK this year, ShareAction was able to enlist the nation’s largest pension provider in questioning the activities of Tesco, the largest supermarket retailer in the UK.

While wins in these areas have been small to date, notice is being served to superannuation funds, governments, and corporations that citizens, members, and shareholders are watching and expecting change.

Explore…Acts 17:22–28

  • How does your denomination and your local faith community live out the idea that, “From one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth”?
  • How can your faith community express its profound connection as a part of all that God has made?
  • What do you know of your denomination’s relationship to ethical and environmentally aware investing? How can this inform your local faith community responses to the same issues? 

God, creator and sustainer of all that is, we give you thanks for the glories of the world in which we live. May we know ourselves as an integral part of your wonderful creation, understand our responsibilities in creation, and live in humble awe. Amen.

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