I've been at it again -- connecting the dots between faith and climate change. Some who have followed my posts may call it an obsession. This time, though, the events triggering my thoughts and feelings were unprecedented. And, as the clock ticks, the reasons for acting on climate change are becoming more urgent and obvious, and the religious community is increasingly stepping up to the challenge.
It happened over the weekend of September 20-21, 2014, and the days surrounding it, when the world seemed to come together around the issue of climate change. A string of remarkable events, in New York and in 150 countries worldwide, took place in advance of the UN Secretary General's one-day Climate Summit intended to inspire bold commitments in support of a far-reaching global climate agreement to be finalized next year.
The events organized by civil society leading up to the summit helped to put a human face on climate change and to dramatically demonstrate public demand for immediate action. Within these events, faith communities helped to connect the dots between core religious values and climate action.
At the "Religions for the Earth" conference, (held September 19-20 at Union Theological Seminary) 200 invited leaders from diverse religions and ethical traditions focused on the role of values such as justice, equity and stewardship in addressing climate change. They noted that those who are most vulnerable to climate impacts -- indigenous people, people of color, the poor, women and children, to say nothing of manifold species across the planet and generations yet to come -- have had little or no role in generating the related greenhouse gasses and have benefitted least from the energy produced. To see the injustice in this situation and to take steps to correct it is to connect the dots.
Then on Sunday, September 21st, participants from "Religions for the Earth" joined a multi-faith contingent (7-8,000 strong) in the huge People's Climate March, for which 400,000 had converged on New York City -- four times the anticipated turnout. Prior to the March, the bustling faith contingent had packed together for a worship service and rally, with signs and pennants from every faith tradition. Many who joined the vast river of marchers said that the event felt like a great unifying force, carrying all humanity forward with a common purpose. The sheer volume and diversity of participants was stunning. Many carried signs pointing to the climate crisis as a crisis of values. One that cut to the chase said, "The climate changes. Can we?" I believe we can, but only if we connect the dots.
That evening, I joined a large crowd at an uplifting multi-faith worship service in the massive Cathedral of St. John the Divine. During the service, prominent religious and spiritual leaders from around the world voiced their commitments. Referring to responsibility born of faith, Jewish ecologist, Rabbi Ellen Bernstein noted, "My tradition teaches that the land is a gift from God, and that that gift is conditional. If we do not care for the gift, we lose the gift. And my tradition teaches that we are all responsible for each other."
The next day, I observed two sessions of a 30-member Interfaith Summit on Climate Change that had also taken place over the weekend. That group released a statement committing themselves to a range of actions and urging world leaders to reach agreement on an ambitious, fair, legally binding treaty in 2015. They noted, "When those who have done the least to cause climate change are the ones hardest hit, it becomes an issue of injustice. Equitable solutions are urgently needed... As faith leaders, we commit ourselves to the promotion of disaster risk reduction, adaptation, low carbon development, climate change education, curbing our own consumption patterns and reducing our use of fossil fuels."
They continued, "Based on our spiritual beliefs and our hope for the future, we commit to stimulating consciences and encouraging our peers and communities to consider such measures with urgency." They too were connecting the dots.
The following day, I monitored the livestream broadcast of the UN Climate Summit. World leaders had obviously been moved by the events of the weekend and had heard the call for action. Several made commitments to substantially cut greenhouse gas emissions and reduce deforestation. This was an encouraging sign, but only if governments make further commitments next year in the form of a strong climate treaty will they demonstrate that they are truly connecting the dots.
Finally, what really put a cap on the weekend's events for me was the frank and passionate appeal to world leaders made by the young Marshallese poet, Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, who had been selected from among 500 applicants to speak for civil society. She offered both a stern warning and encouragement to world leaders. Pledging civil society's support, she concluded with a poem she had written for her seven month old daughter. It brought a standing ovation. Her powerful message connected the dots for all with ears to hear and eyes to see.
Emerging from these remarkable events I feel a sense of hope. The climate crisis is an opportunity to bring about a more just, healthy and prosperous world. That will happen only as more and more of us find ourselves connecting the dots.
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