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.
The day after the Washington Post announced it was moving its top environmental reporter off the green beat to cover politics at the White House, this op-ed went up toeing an uncomfortably familiar line: by speaking out against the Keystone XL pipeline, environmentalists are “missing the climate-endangered forest for the trees.”
Leaving aside for a moment the uncomfortable irony of being reprimanded for missing the big fight by an outlet that is reshuffling focus on that very front: the editorial board, respectfully, is wrong. Not that it doesn’t have a point, but that point is concrete and incremental – and misses the entire meaning of the forest of protests over the last 18 months.
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.
Lent is a time when we try to identify with our own weakness, so since we are about to start the Church’s penitent season, it was shocking to read Virgilio Elizondo’s account of how a people generally considered weak on the geopolitical stage – poor Mexicans and Chicanos – do not treat Ash Wednesday as a day of penitence at all.
“For the masses of the people, it has little to do with the beginning of Lent. Lent as a season of self-sacrifice is not really of special interest to the people: the entire year is a time of suffering and abnegation. On Ash Wednesday Mexican-Americans renew their cultic communion with mother earth. For them the earth has always been sacred and they retain a fundamental identity with it. The earth supports and regenerates life; itis life.”
What a beautiful and unexpected connection!
“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.
This winter, fiction revealed truth about climate change.
As a teacher, I relish the escape provided by pleasure reading before I return to the classroom for the next semester at Warren Wilson College, where I teach environmental education.
In December, without reading reviews or making a list, I visited my independent bookstore, Malaprop’s and purchased two books: Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior (2012) and Lauren Groff’s Arcadia (2012). I’m a long-time Kingsolver fan and bought her book as a gift, with the goal of reading it before wrapping it. And the cover of Arcadia, with its teal VW bus and field of sunflowers, drew me into purchasing what I thought was my second random choice for recreational reading.
Both books, it turns out, integrated climate change into the plotline, weaving scientific truths about global warming into the lives of fictional characters. And just as compelling, both works of fiction featured spiritual community at the center of critical decisions about the future of the land and its inhabitants.
Of note, critics have bemoaned the lack of fiction centered on climate change, a paucity that seemed to mirror our public denial of this scientific reality. In a 2010 blog on openDemocracy, professor and author Andrew Dobson even outlined the components of a “climate-change novel” that include a grim future, characters who explore ethical choices around global warming, and (no surprise here) extreme weather events. He ended his piece with this challenge: “So there’s the recipe. Who’s going to write the book?”
After a 25-day hunger strike by Attawapiskat chief Teresa Spence, First Nation leaders will meet with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Jan. 11. Spence began fasting to protest a budget proposal that weakens native land rights and environmental safeguards. BBC reports:
On Friday, Mr. Harper released a statement which cited his January 2012 meeting with First Nations leaders and said he would meet with chiefs "in this spirit of ongoing dialogue."
Mr. Harper said the "working meeting" would focus on "the treaty relationship and aboriginal rights and economic development."
While the Attawapiskat leader has continued her fast, First Nations protesters and others have rallied around her, as well as Canadian indigenous rights movement Idle No More, in protest on a range of issues.
Read more here.
Some of my environmentally conscious friends have expressed concern about having a real Christmas tree in their house – it seems wasteful to cut down an entire tree just for a month or so of décor. After all, climate change is a huge problem, and its potential impacts on the world (most especially the poor) seem contrary to the Christmas spirit.
It’s not a new worry – Teddy Roosevelt actually banned the White House Christmas Tree during his time in office, as he was worried about the conservation implications of people running out to cut down the forest.
We can rest easy, though – the live Christmas tree industry that has developed since that time is actually a benefit to the global climate. Here’s why.
Nearly one-in-six people in the United States live in an area with unhealthful short-term levels of particle pollution. One in six. I was one of those one in six, growing up with moderate to severe asthma. I was hospitalized several times. My health was poor throughout my childhood and didn’t really show full significant improvement until after college.
It’s something I learned to deal with, not to focus on. Yet the truth is, I grew up in a part of the country with severe pollution. In our drive for cheap energy, society paid a social cost.
Luckily I grew up in a part of the world and during a time in history when medical advances kept pace with asthma, in my case just barely. My father also had asthma, as did his father before him. If I had grown up during my father’s time, I likely wouldn’t be here today. If I grew up in another part of the world I know I wouldn’t be here today.
The Global North and West is addicted to fossilized fuel. Myself included. And we are trying to push our addictions onto the Global South.
Everywhere we look the fossil fuel pushers are in our face, luring us into our next fix.
Not a week after the elections, the American Petroleum Institute launched ads in Alaska, Louisiana, New Mexico, Colorado, Virginia, Arkansas, and North Carolina targeting U.S. senators who are raising the issue of climate change; specifically, the ones calling into question oil company subsidies.
The oil and gas companies try seduction ("fighting for jobs"). They try fear ("we are too big to fail"). They accuse us of being unfair to them ("Discriminatory treatment of the oil and gas industry is a bad idea"). They try bullying and slandering.
Even when our court system recently convicted one of them killing (BP convicted of "manslaughter" for the 11 murdered on Gulf Oil spill rigs), they are not stopped.
Midway through his nationwide, one-month Do The Math tour, Bill McKibben — author, environmental activist, and founder of 350.org — attracted a crowd that packed the Warner Theater in downtown Washington, D.C., on Sunday.
Joined both onstage and by video by a diverse group of speakers, including Rev. Lennox Yearwood of the Hip Hop Caucus, author Naomi Klein, and Archbishop Desmund Tutu, McKibben’s Do The Math tour brings to light the stark numbers of our current climate reality, first brought to the public’s attention in his viral article in Rolling Stone this past summer.
The three main numbers are as follows: 2 degrees Celsius is the maximum level of warming our planet can endure before real catastrophe occurs. To stay below 2 degrees C, we cannot burn more than 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide. But the problem is that the fossil fuel industry has 2,795 gigatons in their reserves — five times the safe amount to burn. As is their business plan, to reap the profit from these reserves, the fossil fuel companies plan on burning all of it, “unless we rise up to stop them” states the 350.org website.
On Saturday, Sojourners sent a group of staff members sailing down the Anacostia River.
But this was no pleasure trip.
Dottie Yunger, from the Anacostia Watershed Society, teamed up with Sojourners’ Creation Care campaign to teach some of our staff and a few other members of the local community about the state of the Anacostia river, how we as people of faith can be better stewards of our God-given resources, and how we can help create a healthier system where all creatures (both human and non-human) can survive and flourish.
Here are a few reflections from the trip.
Photographer James Balog has a story for you, and it might be one you haven’t heard before. Starting in 2005, he and a team of adventurous photographers set out to provide visual, undeniable evidence for climate change. What they found he described as “decrepit old men falling into the earth and dying:” glaciers worldwide disappearing at record rates.
The film Chasing Ice is the story of their Extreme Ice Survey as they place time-lapse cameras on glaciers in Greenland, Iceland, Montana, and Alaska, and watch as they disappear. The public does not want statistics, they say. The public is being misled to believe that scientists do not agree on climate change. The public is losing interest but needs to pay attention.
As Balog and his team will tell you, the memory cards in their cameras contain the memories of the landscape, a “limitless universe of forms,” that will never be seen again. Man-made climate change (as documented by ice cores from the very glaciers that may not exist in a few years) is fundamentally altering our geology.
It is not surprising that our purely secular “environmental” movements have played out their ability to change society. For the changes we need to undertake are not only technological and political, but deeper and more difficult. They call on us to shape new institutions and new values.
When God’s Wind shattered Pharaoh’s power at the Red Sea, it was only the beginning of the creation of a new society. It took 40 years of struggle, of transformation and mistake, backsliding and grumbling, to ready a people that could live in a sacred relationship with each other, with the Earth, and with the Breath of Life.
So even if we were to shatter the gross and domineering political and economic power of our modern pharaohs, the giant corporations of Big Oil, Big Coal, Big Unnatural Gas that will not relent from over-burning and overpowering us, we would still need to be growing what religions claim to offer: a new vision of our lives.
Editor's Note: Sojourners offices, which are based in Washington, D.C., will be closed due to the weather. We pray for the safety of our staff, neighbors, and all those affected by this storm.
God, we pray for all those along the East Coast in the path of Hurricane Sandy. Grant safety to all, including the first responders. We pray for all those who will lose electricity and whose homes may be been damaged. But we pray especially for those who have no homes and no shelters in times such as these. We ask that your hand would protect them and keep them safe. May our paths cross with theirs so that we might have an opportunity to love and serve them. Amen.
"O Lord of LIght" by the Innocence Mission
It was game time. The Saturday night crowd on the Vermont campus was festive, boisterous, pumped. People cheered and whooped when told that one of their heroes, climate activist Tim DeChristopher — serving a two-year federal sentence for his civil disobedience opposing new oil and gas drilling in Utah — would soon be back on the field.
When the man on the stage, 350.org’s Bill McKibben, said it was time to march not just on Washington but on the headquarters of fossil fuel companies — “it’s time to march on Dallas” — and asked those to stand who’d be willing to join in the fight, seemingly every person filling the University of Vermont’s cavernous Ira Allen Chapel, some 800 souls, rose to their feet.
McKibben and 350, the folks who brought us the Keystone XL pipeline protests, are now calling for a nationwide divestment campaign aimed at fossil fuel companies’ bottom line. Beginning with student-led campaigns on college campuses, modeled on the anti-apartheid campaigns of the 1980s, they’ll pressure institutions to withdraw all investments from big oil and coal and gas. Their larger goal is to ignite a morally charged movement to strip the industry of its legitimacy.
“The fossil fuel industry has behaved so recklessly that they should lose their social license — their veneer of respectability,” McKibben tells his audience. “You want to take away our planet and our future? We’re going to take away your money and your good name.”