White House, Faith Leaders and Climate Change

On February 25, the White House convened a conference on environmental stewardship and climate change with leaders of religious communities from around the U.S. There was a noticeable absence of panelists representing some groups, such as the Native Americans, the Jews and the Buddhists. There were references to God's Earth and Creation as unifying concepts throughout the event although such concepts are not universally accepted by all religions. Still, the event was highly significant in the consensus it conveyed: The climate is simultaneously an environmental, social justice and moral issue that requires urgent action. The White House is to be commended for convening this timely gathering to mobilize support from faith leaders to address the deepening climate crisis.

The event highlighted President Obama's Climate Action Plan which focuses on cutting carbon pollution in the U.S., preparing the country for impacts of climate change and leading international efforts to combat global climate change. The statistic that in 2012 U.S. carbon emissions fell to the lowest level in two decades, "even as the economy continued to grow," was reiterated as a sign of progress in the right direction. There was an exhortation to embrace a bottom-up approach to climate protection throughout the event. Faith based leaders were encouraged to motivate their congregations to participate in the ENERGY STAR Program of the government which seeks to reduce energy costs and related greenhouse gas emission by 20 percent by 2020.

Although the White House event on February 25 could not provide room for deeper investigation of issues underlying climate change and environmental stewardship, broader views and discussion are essential. Can climate change be addressed from the bottom-up without top down change in the political-economic system? Moral stewardship of the environment cannot be limited to the faith-based actors. What are the moral obligations of big business, the dominant actor in the contemporary world?

Sustainable development cannot be achieved without changes in the prevailing patterns of economic growth. Shouldn't corporations using technologies and energy that harm the environment and human well-being be required to include ethical, social and environmental criteria in their decision-making? Shouldn't the financial sector that was bailed out at the tax payers' expense be challenged to invest in economic production that promote both green technologies and livelihoods for people?

Moreover, sustainable development cannot be achieved without changes in the prevailing 'way of life'. Impacts of climate change cannot be averted by strengthening roads, bridges and shorelines and improving fuel economy standards and advanced technologies alone. It is necessary to question excessive use of private transportation and encourage efficient public transportation alternatives.

The U.S. cannot claim to lead international efforts to combat global climate change without significant policy changes. The United States never ratified the Kyoto Protocol and at the Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2009, the industrialized countries led by the U.S. failed to agree on a binding agreement on carbon emissions. The 19th Annual Meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Warsaw in November 2013 also failed to secure a binding agreement to limit emissions from any country including the U.S.. The U.S. would need to make serious commitments showing the way to other industrialized countries, when a new climate treaty is to be signed in Paris to replace the failed Kyoto Protocol in 2015.

The controversial Keystone XL pipeline was not mentioned by the speakers at the White House event on February 25. Approval of the pipeline would significantly expand oil sands production, increasing greenhouse gas emissions and intensifying threats to environmental sustainability and human well-being, particularly the health and livelihood of indigenous people in Alberta. As the anti-pipeline critics point out, short term needs of corporate growth and U.S. economic competition with China should not dictate approval of the Keystone pipeline. March 7 is the deadline for Secretary of State John Kerry to finalize his recommendation to President Obama on the Keystone pipeline, which is the last step before the President's final decision. The approval of the Keystone pipeline will make a mockery of the administration's efforts to reduce carbon pollution and its potential moral leadership in climate protection.

While the government is confronted with political and economic challenges in addressing climate changes, the non-governmental civil society sector is making rapid and important strides. One important initiative in this regard is the emerging divestment movement. Faith based organizations are a leader in this effort. In the past, faith leaders and organizations played pivotal roles in the civil rights and social justice movements in the U.S. as well as in the global movement to end the apartheid system in South Africa. Similarly, they are now playing a leadership role to shift financial investments away from fossil fuel companies and reinvest in institutions that support clean, renewable energy technologies. Religious institutions, some of them represented at the February 25 White House event, along with many colleges, universities, cities, counties, and other civil society organizations around the country are now divesting money from fossil fuel companies. The White House can utilize the moral authority and participatory democracy represented by citizen and faith based organizing to forge a partnership with the business sector to protect the climate, the environment and human communities at this critical time.