VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis issued a powerful call for the protection of the environment and of society’s most vulnerable during his formal installation Mass at the Vatican, while qualifying his papal power as a “service” to the church and to humanity.
The pope on Tuesday celebrated a solemn Mass in St. Peter’s Square in front of an estimated 200,000 people, as well as political and religious leaders from all over the world.
During the Mass, Francis received the symbols of his papal authority over the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics: the pallium, a lamb’s wool stole that recalls Jesus as the Good Shepherd, and the “ring of the fisherman.”
In keeping with the low-key style that has been the hallmark of his pontificate so far, Francis presided over a somewhat simpler, and definitely shorter, rite than the one that marked the start of Benedict XVI’s reign in 2005.
Francis was slowly driven around a sun-drenched St. Peter’s Square in an open-top car, shunning the bulletproof, air-conditioned popemobile preferred by his predecessors. At one point, he asked to stop the car and got out to bless a disabled person.
In his homily, delivered in Italian, Francis described the church’s mission as “respecting each of God’s creatures and respecting the environment in which we live.”
God’s creation is in danger; and to call upon the powers of the world to heal it, God’s people are prepared to go to jail.
Perhaps most famously in our recent history, the startling sight of a religious leader in jail was embodied in the willingness of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to go to jail more than 20 times in order to embody his religious commitment to racial justice, peace, and nonviolence.
As we approach the Holy Week of Christianity and Passover, we should be aware that this tradition goes back thousands of years. The movement of ancient Israelites seeking freedom from a lethal Pharaoh began even before Moses, when two midwives – the Bible carefully records their names, Shifra and Puah – refused to murder the boy-babies of the Israelites as Pharaoh had commanded. The recollection of that moment is the first recorded instance of nonviolent civil disobedience.
When that cruel and arrogant Pharaoh, addicted to his own power, refused freedom to his nation’s slaves, his arrogance forced the Earth itself to arise in what we call the Plagues – ecological disasters like undrinkable water, swarms of frogs and locusts, the climate calamity of unprecedented hailstorms.
Passover has kept alive and lively the memory of that uprising. So it is not surprising that the Gospels record that just before the week of Passover, Jesus led a protest against the behavior of the Roman Empire, its local authorities, and a Temple he and his followers thought had become corrupted from its sacred purpose.
To protest against the Empire of his era, Jesus chose a time that was both appropriate and dangerous, since Passover celebrates the fall of Pharaoh. His challenge resulted in his arrest and imprisonment, and then his torture and execution.
Both Judaism and Christianity can trace their origins to acts of nonviolent civil disobedience. Indeed, for several centuries of Imperial Rome, the very persistence of Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity were collective acts of civil disobedience.
Today, religious folk face modern plagues imposed upon our countries and our planet by a new kind of Pharaoh.
Last week, the State Department issued its next draft of the supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) assessing the northern route of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline. Officially, the State Department does not make any recommendations on whether the pipeline should be approved or denied. But the summation language is all to the positive — making it clear that the State Department still doesn’t understand global warming and its disastrous consequences.
I’m sure the scientists, policy analysts, and environmentalists among us will soon sort out and explain the hundreds of pages released by the State Department March 1. But until then, here’s the part I found most significant: “The life-cycle carbon footprint, for transportation fuels produced in U.S. refineries, would increase if the project were approved.”
Please note that this information is buried way way way deep in the documents. The general summary by the State Department is favorable toward industry and the pipeline, though there are some conclusions drawn that I think are not supportable.
This past Sunday an estimated 35,000 people gathered in Washington, D.C., to push for legislative action in response to climate change. In addition to speaking out against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, the “Forward on Climate” rally organizers urged President Barack Obama to limit U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and transition to larger levels of renewable energy. In addition to the mass assembly near the White House, environmental groups held similar rallies in cities across the nation, including a significant turnout in Los Angeles. All together, some have described the events of the past weekend as the largest collection of climate change rallies in U.S. history.
The president has recently emerged as a potentially strong ally in the struggle against climate change, for his inaugural address included a renewed commitment to environmental leadership, as he stated: "We will respond to the threat of climate change knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”
President Obama also addressed ecological concerns during his State of the Union speech, as he said: “We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science – and act before it's too late." While conversation surrounding climate change was notably absent during his recent re-election campaign, the president appears to be making environmental concerns a top priority for his second term of office.
While President Obama seems to be a more visible environmental advocate, many are doubtful of his sincerity and question whether such statements are motivated by political calculation rather than genuine policy priorities. For example, in what can be described as a thought-provoking twist of irony, while thousands marched past the White House to move the president “Forward on Climate,” he was out golfing, which just so happens to be a sport that many environmentalists perceive as an ecological tragedy.
People of faith are in the 'miracle business.'
An estimated 200 people of faith gathered in Washington, D.C., on Sunday morning in preparation for the Forward on Climate Rally on the National Mall. The brief prayer service preceded the larger rally of an estimated 40,000 people urging President Barack Obama to take action against climate change and to reject the Keystone XL pipeline.
My wrist was cuffed to the White House fence next to the wrist of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Our nation’s chief climate scientist James Hanson stood next to me; Daryl Hannah sat in front of us. A few feet away, also cuffed to the fence, Julian Bond stood next to Bill McKibben and Michael Brune, Executive Director of the Sierra Club. Altogether, 48 of us from all over America obeyed our consciences. The days of safety and silence have ended. The time of pretending is over. Humanity will be held accountable for our desecration of creation. It is happening already.
And it was Ash Wednesday. When I mounted the platform to address the rally that preceded our civil disobedience, many were unaware that Lent was beginning. In the context of climate disruption, anyone who cares about creation can embrace the significance of Ash Wednesday. It’s a day of conscience, repentance, and conviction; a day when we take stock of our lives and our life together on the planet; a day when we confess our self-indulgent appetites, our intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts, and our obsession with consumption of every kind. For Christians, Ash Wednesday is a day to acknowledge that we are accountable to the God who gave us life and who entrusted the earth to our care.
Ash Wednesday is a good day to be arrested, I told the crowd. It’s a good day to realign our lives with God's desire to preserve this good creation. I invited any who wanted to receive ashes as a sign of their repentance to approach me on their way to White House.
In contrast to the ongoing public and political debate surrounding the legitimacy and urgency of climate change, the global scientific body of knowledge appears to be overwhelmingly clear, as highlighted in The Great Disruption by Paul Gilding:
"The consensus position on climate change is reflected in the rigorously peer-reviewed journals in which research is presented and issues are debated. One study by Naomi Oreskes, published in the journalScience, demonstrated that of the papers whose abstract contained the keywords global climate changebetween 1993 and 2003, none questioned the consensus position – not one. Oreskes’s subsequent book,Merchants of Doubt, revealed how many who once fronted the tobacco industry’s anti-science campaign to deny the link between smoking and lung cancer are also now prominent and vocal climate change skeptics, and they are often funded to create doubt that has no credible scientific basis."
There is a tradition in the black church named “call and response.” It’s simply the experience of the preacher “calling” and the congregation “responding.” I’ve always loved it. When you’re preaching in a black church, and the congregants begin to actively and vocally respond, your sermon can actually get better, stronger, deeper, and more powerful than it might have been if everyone just sat there. Sermons get interactive. Congregations can be inspired by the preacher — and the other way around. Ideas grow, get taken further, and even develop during and after the sermon. And it can make things change.
After his first year in office, I sent a letter to President Barack Obama humbly suggesting he needed “the political equivalent of the black church’s call and response.” Just talking to and in Washington was never going to get important things done. Washington just sits there and mostly makes sure that things don’t change — and that the special interests that buy, shape, and control this city usually have their way. (That private letter to the president will be published for the first time in my new book about the common good coming out in April.)
I recalled something Obama said right after the 2008 election — that he would need “the wind of a movement at my back” to get anything really important done. He would have to go over the heads of Washington, to speak directly to the people that had elected him and also those who didn’t. He would have to have public debates about the common good and not just debate in Washington.
I saw him do that in this week’s State of the Union speech.
I had a happy childhood, with few moments of true anguish. One that I will always remember, though, is when they cut down the tree on Euclid Street.
Throughout my early years, I would often take walks with my parents down this street, stopping to play on this tree’s bulging roots and hug its large trunk. On this particular weekday, my favorite tree had been replaced with a stump and some sawdust due to the risk of it falling over and taking out all the power lines its branches had engulfed. My four-year-old self was in shock.
I spent the afternoon wailing, to the dismay of my parents and the neighbor who came over for a play date. To this day, when I walk down Euclid Street and see pieces of the branches still hanging on to the power lines, I remember what it felt like to lose my first friend.
There was truth tonight in the president’s State of the Union message.
There was truth that the rising costs of health care must indeed be addressed by serious reforms in our Medicare and healthcare system — but that it’s wrong to put most of that burden on vulnerable seniors, while protecting the most powerful special interests. Truth that you should not reduce the deficit by cuts in crucial investments in education, infrastructure, science, clean energy, or programs for the most vulnerable — but leave billions of dollars in tax loopholes and deductions for the wealthy and well-connected.
Truth in the compassionate and committed words about “poverty” and “poor” children and families who deserve our attention to find ladders up from poverty. Truth that no one who works full time in the wealthiest nation on earth should have to live in poverty but have a living wage. That quality pre-school should be available to every child in America to create stable and successful families.
“We can’t wait any longer,” Sen. Chuck Schumer declared to his colleagues on Monday. “Ninety-one days ago, Sandy struck a body blow against New York. Today, finally, we can strike back and give our people the help they need to get back on their feet.”
Shortly following, the U.S. Senate passed a long-awaited $50.5-billion disaster aid package that was then sent to the White House for President Obama’s signature.
Superstorm Sandy was the largest Atlantic hurricane on record, though it was only ever a Category 2 storm at its strongest and had weakened to a Category 1 storm by landfall. Nevertheless, due to its immense size, incredible amount of moisture, and record-breaking storm surge, it is estimated to be the second costliest storm in the history of the United States after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“If we fully develop the tar sands, we will certainly lose control of the climate. We will get to a point where we can not walk back from the cliff,” says climate scientist Dr. John Abraham. The Keystone XL pipeline is the lynchpin to developing the tar sands in Alberta.
I’ve been paying attention to the Keystone pipeline development since 2011 when it was under review by the State Department. I joined a group of religious leaders to deliver thousands of petitions to Dr. Kerri-Ann Jones, Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, asking her to to stop the pipeline. I said to her, “If this decision about the pipeline was made purely based on the climate science, we wouldn’t be here having this discussion.” She didn’t disagree. The exploitation of tar sands will significantly worsen the climate.
Now, new scientific data shows that developing the tar sands (and the pipeline to carry it) is worse than previously known. The video above shows climate scientists countering the notion that the climate impacts of the Keystone XL pipeline are small compared to total U.S. global greenhouse gas emissions. Nathan Lemphers, a Senior Policy Analyst with the Pembina Institute, details how the Keystone XL is a critical ingredient to significant expansion of tar sands. He dispels the myth being promoted by the tar sands oil industry that tar sands development is inevitable with our without Keystone XL. That’s not true. All other routes are similarly being blocked.
President Barack Obama’s Inauguration Address this week included a bold statement about his vision for addressing climate change. In fact, he redefined the issue of environmental protection as not only morally important but a command from God. After the vacuum of discussion of climate change during the presidential campaign, this proclamation came as a welcome surprise.
Most analyses of Obama’s speech point to the fact that the reason he was able to say what he did is that American public opinion has solidified behind these ideas. Plenty of polls will tell you that the number of Americans who accept the reality of climate change has soared in recent years, perhaps partly due to the natural disasters the president mentioned.
One day after making climate change a key issue in his inaurugal address President Obama has decided to put off a decision on the Keystone XL Pipeline until April. The issue was thrust to the front of the agenda today when the governor of Nebraska approved the pipeline. The ultimate fate of the project is in Obama's hands. The Guardian reports:
Republicans immediately pushed Obama to approve the pipeline. "There is no bureaucratic excuse, hurdle or catch President Obama can use to delay this project any further," John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, said in a statement. "He and he alone stands in the way of tens of thousands of new jobs and energy security."
Campaigners against the pipeline said Obama should immediately shut down the project. "Approving Keystone XL would make a mockery of the commitment he made at the inauguration to take action on climate change," said 350.org, which has led opposition to the pipeline.
I attended the Inauguration Ceremony today. It was thankfully not as cold as last time. But it was one of President Barack Obama's best speeches — strong, clear, even tough, in a good way. My favorite line was: "… history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth."
In other words, God has made those principles always presented at inaugurals "self-evident" or ordained; but human beings must implement them. The president is saying that it is up to us to do that in our time. He elaborated. He was specific.
Editor's Note: The following is a transcript of President Barack Obama's remarks following his swearing in during Monday's Inauguration ceremony.
THE PRESIDENT: Vice President Biden, Mr. Chief Justice, members of the United States Congress, distinguished guests, and fellow citizens:
Each time we gather to inaugurate a President we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution. We affirm the promise of our democracy. We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional -- what makes us American -- is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Today we continue a never-ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth. (Applause.) The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few or the rule of a mob. They gave to us a republic, a government of, and by, and for the people, entrusting each generation to keep safe our founding creed.
And for more than two hundred years, we have.