Community is key to climate justice following Copenhagen's 'disappointing' result, faith leaders say

December 23, 2009

In the California office of Interfaith Power and Light (IPL) on Dec. 18, staff members were reluctant to leave their desks, reported founder the Rev. Canon Sally Bingham. Instead they stayed glued to their computers, following the deliberations in Hall Tycho Brahe, Copenhagen, where on Dec. 19 at 4 a.m. local time, in the middle of a long winter's night, nations continued to debate the proposed accord of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP15).

When agreement was finally reached, Bingham could only say that she found the result "extremely disappointing" because of the lack of binding commitments for the nations to act.

The Rev. Jeff Golliher, program associate for the environment and sustainable development in the Office of the Anglican Observer at the United Nations, home from leading a delegation to Copenhagen, agreed that the outcome of the official Conference of the Parties was not promising. He noted that there were positive signs, in that China is taking some steps to slow greenhouse gas emissions, and the United States seems to be facing the scientific facts about climate change.

Golliher's hope, though, of seeing developing countries involved in the solution to global warming, was not met. He pointed out that developing nations were looking for both financial assistance to mitigate the effects of changing climates and some technical help with sustainable development.

Secretary of State Hilary Clinton's pledge for the U.S. to join other countries in raising $100 billion in annual climate financing for poor countries by 2020 marked recognition of this need. On Dec. 18, the National Council of Churches (NCC) announced support for Clinton's initiative.

"As the world's largest historical emitter, it is our moral responsibility, as a country, to provide for those who are at the mercy of God's changing climate," said Cassandra Carmichael, director of the NCC Washington office and eco-justice program. "Providing financial support for mothers, their children, the elderly, and communities around the world is vital in our faithful effort to work for justice for all of God's children."

The Rev. Benjamin Webb, director of the Center for Regenerative Society, who followed the proceedings from Cedar Falls, Iowa, said that the moral obligation is not just to help those suffering from climate change, but to offer the "technical support that helps the undeveloped world leapfrog over fossil fuels to clean energy."

Despite mixed feelings about outcomes, what Golliher found really hopeful in Copenhagen was that surrounding the COP15 were representatives of a huge number of dedicated observer organizations.

"Among the thousands of NGO groups were some of the most articulate and well-informed participants I have seen, and I've been attending U.N. meetings for the church for almost 20 years," he said. "It's the high level of knowledge and understanding grounded in experience in the people representing religious and secular NGO's that gives me hope."

Bingham underscores his hopefulness, noting that "COP15 was an awakening of sorts." Just by showing up to negotiate, leaders of the world demonstrated that they "understand the implications of a warming global climate and they want to do something about it."

But their failure to agree on how to do something makes it critical for religious leaders to engage going forward. "Our voices are more important now than ever before," Bingham urges.

Among the voices of faith heard in Copenhagen was Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town Desmond Tutu, who on Dec. 13 delivered more than 500,000 Countdown to Copenhagen postcards calling for climate justice to Yvo De Boer, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. When he addressed the crowds, Tutu said, "This is one problem where if we don't resolve it, no one is going to survive. We will either all be winners, or all losers."

Tutu told journalists that climate justice is a moral issue. "God is the God of all life, not just compartments," he said.

Later on Dec. 13, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams preached at an ecumenical service in the Church of Our Lady, Copenhagen's Lutheran Cathedral, starting from the text "Perfect love casts out fear" (I John 4:18), and elaborating on the fear that keeps people from loving one another and the rest of the created order.

"[A]sk how the policies you follow and the lifestyle that you take for granted look in the light of the command to love the world you inhabit," Williams said. "Ask what would be a healthy and sustainable relationship with this world, a relationship that would in some way manifest both joy in and respect for the earth. Start with the positive question – how do we show that we love God's creation?"

Voices of faith leaders in the United States will now be raised in advocacy for "strong greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction regulation [to be] passed by Congress in 2010," according to Bingham.

To help equip "religious communities to develop their responses to the challenges of climate change" in the coming months, the Forum on Religion and Ecology ( has added sections to its website on the science of climate change and the ethics of responses to it.

The work of IPL in helping houses of worship lead by example in reducing their carbon footprint will continue, and the eco-justice unit of the National Council of Churches offers a resource for Earth Day 2010, "Sacred Spaces and an Abundant Life" which can help congregations take stock of their energy use and make improvements.

When Episcopal News Service asked Golliher what role he envisioned for the Anglican Communion moving forward, he replied: "I think that our role is to be building and salvaging communities. The global culture we are creating now is ripping communities apart. Congregations are models of community, and we need to be modeling how to live in some kind of balanced relationship with nature and one another."

He added that the Episcopal Church is "uniquely positioned to build sustainable communities because of our experience with inclusivity. What we need to be doing now is deepening our understanding of what an inclusive church means by incorporating an ecological vision into the meaning of inclusion. The key word is community."

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