As Anglicans and Episcopalians met last week in the Dominican Republic to share their stories and organize around issues of climate justice, in Panama heavy rains and floods killed at least 10 people, displaced 4,700 more, and forced the first-ever weather-related closure of the Panama Canal.
"While we are here for the conference on climate justice, in Panama people are being evacuated out of areas that are being flooded," said Bishop Julio Murray of the Episcopal Church of Panama Dec. 9, in an interview with ENS. "The groups that are mostly affected are the indigenous groups that live in the area of Alto Bayano ... it is the first time in my lifetime that the Panama Canal has had to suspend traffic … this is an example of what happens when water levels rise in rapid ways."
More than 30 people -- mostly Anglicans and Episcopalians and a few ecumenical seminarians -- from Cuba, the United States, Ecuador, Panama, Colombia, Haiti, Mexico, Brazil, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic met Dec. 7-10 at the Bishop Kellogg Center in San Pedro de Macorís, east of the capital Santo Domingo, to explore intersection between poverty and climate change and frame the conversation in terms of "climate justice." The meeting was convened by Bishop Marc Andrus of the Episcopal Diocese of California, and Bishop Naudal Gomes, Diocese of Curitiba, Brazil.
"It was just our two dioceses, California and Curitiba, coming together to work on climate justice during this time and it was like a magnet -- all these dioceses, I think 10, two provinces in addition to the Episcopal Church have gathered together here to tell their stories," said Andrus in a Dec. 10 interview with ENS.
"We've written a statement that expresses where we came from and what we hope," he said. "We are creating the beginning of a network … we are committed to each other and welcoming more partners to this network for climate justice."
Throughout the four-day gathering, attendees shared personal accounts of their witness to climate injustice and creative responses by dioceses, communities and individuals. At the close of the gathering, building on the week's presentations, discussions and a four-hour brainstorming session aimed at creating action points, attending bishops wrote a draft statement recognizing the urgency of climate change and the need to act. By vote, attendees winnowed down more than 50 action points, committing to five as a basis for collaboration and action.
The draft statement begins, "We are a group of Anglican Episcopals from Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States who feel the urgency of addressing climate justice at this time in the world we serve."
It ends with the commitments: to develop an energy fund for carbon reduction; to teach climate justice at all ages and levels of the church; to stay connected as a consortium for climate justice; to support outside initiatives aimed at emissions reduction, to provide support for people directly affected by deforestation and people living in forested areas, and to promote food sovereignty; and support for training missionaries from the global south to share stories of how climate change is directly affecting life in the developing world to people in the United States, who may not understand its direct effects.
Michael Schut, economic and environmental affairs officer for the Episcopal Church, addressed the last point in an interview with ENS Dec. 10, when he said the level of climate change-related suffering in the developing world doesn't resonate with most people in the United States.
"Meeting people from around the world with a very different perspective helps me at least understand a little bit more about what it's like to live in a different context," he said.
The Episcopal-Anglican gathering coincided with the second week of the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Cancun, Mexico, during which delegates from 193 countries developed a new global framework to help developing nations curb their carbon output and cope with climate change. The Cancun talks stopped short of coming up with an agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012. The protocol commits 37 industrialized nations to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent (below 1990 levels) by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050.
Although there were many environmental action groups on the ground in Cancun, the Episcopal-Anglican gathering was the only known religious gathering of its kind taking place at the same time, and was remarkable in that it brought churches from the global south and the north together.
This gathering has been a chance for all the churches from all parts of America -- northern, southern, central -- and the Caribbean to get together to discuss climate justice issues and to share ideas "about the things that we can do together, things that cannot be accomplished alone," Gomes told ENS, speaking in Portuguese through a translator.
Bishop Griselda Delgado Del Carpio of the Episcopal Church of Cuba shared how a 2,000 square-foot garden started by La Iglesia Santa Maria Virgen in Itabo, Cuba, grew into a community-wide project. A representative from Oxfam talked specifically about the connection between the Dominican Republic's changing climate and deforestation.
The Rev. Luiz Carlos Gabas, of Brazil, described how Brazil's "landless people's movement," which started in the early 1960s, became one of the world's largest grassroots movements. Gabas, who has been active in the movement, told how its original aim of access to land and agrarian reform has changed over the years from fighting large landowners to multi-national agribusiness biotechnology companies.
"There was a time when the struggle was easier. We could see the enemy, the landowner, but that has changed," said Gabas, as translated from Portuguese. "Now it has changed, the landlords are international and transnational agribusiness companies that influence what happens in the country … price controls in the consumer market … they want to control seed production."
The agribusiness companies have introduced monoculture and their own production methods. The remaining large private landowners have partnered with agribusiness, creating an uneven struggle, he said.
The grassroots movement now works to train people to be part of the struggle by educating them about social and Brazilian history, training agriculture students and teachers to work in rural areas. As a result, Brazilian farmers are rediscovering and saving native seeds and the government supports establishing a seed bank, Gabas added.
On Dec. 8, Bishop Armando Guerra of the Episcopal Church of Guatemala said that in his country's native language, "Guatemala means land of the trees," yet many of his country's climate-related problems are exacerbated by deforestation; Guatemala loses 73,000 hectares of forest a year, he said.
Guatemala's 14 million people emit 1 ton of carbon dioxide per person per year, in contrast to the 310 million Americans who emit 20.5 tons of carbon dioxide per person. Still, he explained, Guatemalans are contributing to climate change.
"Although Guatemala doesn't affect that much, the people can do things to stop the continuation of climate change," Guerra said, as translated from Spanish. "They can't use that it's a global problem as an excuse. They can't just stand by and not do anything."
Climate change is affecting all levels of society, Guerra said. He called the church to respond.
In the last 10 years, Guerra explained, hurricanes and tropical storms have increased in frequency and severity, and are beginning to take a psychological toll on the people most affected. Climate change has directly affected Guatemala's development and people's ability to find work, feed themselves and pay for life's necessities. As a result young people are leaving school early, turning to prostitution and other illicit business, and there has been a mass migration -- a situation that is only going to get worse, he said.
The church, Guerra said, just like average people, thinks that "someone else" is responsible for climate change.
"This situation brings a problem to Christian churches that have to decide what to do … the churches also have that same thought, that someone else is causing the problem … and the church always blames the political, social and economic areas of life and doesn't take responsibility for it … but if the churches are part of the problem, they also have to be part of the solution," he said.
In addition to the Anglicans and Episcopalians attending the gathering, a small group of students taking Professor Willis Jenkins's environmental theology class at Yale Divinity School, were in attendance.
"As part of that class, I emphasize that what environmental theologies should do to become effective is to figure out how to make difficult problems significant with the lived experience of faith communities," Jenkins said.
The Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies offers a joint degree program with Berkeley Divinity School -- an Episcopal Church-affiliate seminary that has been in collaboration with Yale Divinity School since 1971 -- that allows students to explore the "role of environment through an environmental lens."
The Yale program is unusual, Jenkins said, but is catching on at other universities and seminaries.
The church has to figure out how to "make issues of climate change as a way to act and pursue the mission of God," Jenkins said.
The Episcopal Church, through its General Convention, has adopted various resolutions related to the environment, including memorializing the Genesis Covenant, "a multi-faith effort to engage national faith communities in a single and significant course of action to reduce the damaging effects of climate change."