Put Poor People on the Climate Change Agenda

By Jim Wallis 10-15-2009

Last week, a group of senators, many in the leadership of the majority Democratic Party, asked for a meeting with a small group of interfaith religious leaders. Their topic: climate change. The Senate now has a bill that will soon be up for a vote and the 10 senators wanted our feedback -- and also our support. I was asked to say a few words. Here is what I said:

Thanks for the invitation. You have, I am sure, heard us speak about creation care as the commitment we have to the environment. Most of us believe that human-caused climate change is a threat to God's creation. Religious leaders actually do listen to scientists, and they are telling us that the pace of climate change is all happening even faster than expected. A good climate bill could signal a whole new direction and could even be a "three-for."

  1. It could protect the environment and begin to slow and eventually even reverse the dangerous and deadly impact of climate change.
  2. It could create important and meaningful green energy jobs, many of which could be an opportunity for low-income and undereducated people, and also be good paying work.
  3. It could change our foreign policy, which has been dominated by successive wars over oil. This could begin to decrease our dependency on foreign oil.

But here is the heart of the moral issue for many of us. Simply put, those around the world who have contributed least to global warming and climate change will be the most and first to be impacted by the consequences of it all. Sadly, it's an old story. We, the affluent, create the problem, and the poor pay the price for our sins. It is wrong, and it is a sin -- ours.

Yet the amount of money to help poor people and countries mitigate or adapt to climate changes being proposed in this legislation is not nearly enough (through the emissions "cap and trade" penalties that wealthy countries would have to pay). The numbers are not clear yet in your bill, but the amount of funds directed toward "adaptations" for the poorest countries in the House bill (which came before the Senate bill) is pitiful -- really pitiful. It is wholly and woefully inadequate.

This is such an important issue for us that some in the faith community are considering not supporting this bill at all. They have called me to say that they might not support the final bill unless you do much better in the Senate. So if you hear anything from us today, hear that. Your Senate bill must do better -- much better -- for the poorest of God's children.

There are always concessions and money for other important constituencies -- all more powerful than poor people. The bill is full of those concessions to other special interests. I know you say you don't have the votes. And we know that the global poor are not on the agenda of U.S. domestic politics. But they are on God's agenda, and therefore on ours. And we ask you today to put the global poor back on the agenda of this climate bill.

If you do, we will help you commend it to the American people -- including the people in our faith communities. But the poorest of God's children will have to be included in the results of any bill worthy of our support.

After expressing concern and some consternation, and after giving advice to "not make the perfect the enemy of the good," the senators said they would immediately go back to their offices and staffs to try and do "better."

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