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Religious Leaders’ Symposium on Climate Crisis – A Few Takeaways


June 11, 2018
By Jim Antal

When the leader of one of the world’s major faith traditions convenes two hundred leaders who have given their lives to combat climate change, an endless flow of creative ideas, perspectives and projects emerges. I offer the following takeaways in the hope that they will be useful to all who share a commitment to restore God’s great gift of creation.


We have been Given the Opportunity to Amplify our Ambition, Determination and Will

One of the things that most struck me is that three of the featured presentations all concluded that there is a single factor that is needed to avoid climate catastrophe. We must have the will, the ambition, the commitment to restore creation. Just as climate change is the greatest moral crisis humanity has ever faced, it presents us with the greatest opportunity we have ever been given.

One of those presenters is among the lead climatologists in the world, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber. Another has served for the past many years as the United Nations lead spokesperson on climate change, Christiana Figueres. The third is Figueres’ successor, Patricia Espinosa.

Each of us can readily identify numerous examples that span history and cross cultures of how religion has inspired communities and countries to rise up, how religion has amplified ambition and strengthened both the will and determination of people to seek a more just and compassionate way. Nevertheless, as perhaps the most powerful force on earth, religion has not yet brought its full, transformative force to bear on humanity’s disregard of God’s creation.

A similar point was made by the greatest living Orthodox theologian, Metropolitan John of Pergamon. He reminded us that the heart – not the mind - is where our WILL resides. Thus, if we seek to amplify ambition, we must purify our hearts. He urged us to take a eucharistic approach to creation – to constantly give thanks for the gift of creation – noting that as our gratitude deepens, so will our capacity to recognize that we have jeopardized the gift, spoiled the blessing, and so will our commitment to do something about it.


We must reconnect with seeds and with the soil

Indian scientist and activist, Vandana Shiva, made it clear that unless we undertake a radical transformation, we will pass on to future generations a death sentence. Years ago she abandoned her academic specialty as a quantum physicist and immersed herself in the science of food production when she realized that every element of agriculture is about war. For example, insects are viewed as enemies to be exterminated, in spite of the fact that 1/3 of the food we consume comes from pollinators. Most people don’t realize that virtually all fertilizers are created from fossil fuels, and that you can have at least a 300% increase in food productivity simply by caring properly for the land. In India, in the Punjab region, the rivers are gone and the farmers are committing suicide. Once she shared with us that only 5% of cancer has a genetic basis, and 95% of cancers are caused by toxic creations made by us, it made sense when she asserted that poisoning the world is sin. Nevertheless, 75% of diseases are linked to chemical/corporate farming, and she shared that 40-50% of CO2 comes from chemically grown food and transportation. In addition to providing her people and the world with these motivational facts, through her activism, India has passed a law preventing Monsanto from patenting seeds.


We can do this!

This is the rally cry of Christiana Figueres, who served as Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) from 2010-2016 and was the central figure of the Paris Climate Accord. While no one knows more about the challenges of climate change, no one is more convincingly positive in articulating hope.

Her starting point is that if we add up all the things humanity really wants, not only can we fulfill those wants but we can fulfill those wants by doing what we actually need to do build a sustainable world. For example, all people around the world want less pollution. We can accomplish that by closing down all coal plants and transitioning from internal combustion engines to electric vehicles. People want less congestion on the roads. We can accomplish that by having fewer cars and trucks. People want food security. By restoring degraded lands we will reduce the CO2 in the air and provide people with food where they live.

Without being Pollyannaish, she’s quick to point out the achievements since the Paris Climate Accords. 23% of the global energy grid is already renewable. Volvo, BMW and Volkswagen have all committed to build only electric vehicles soon. As of 2030, all vehicles in India will be electric.

Nevertheless, she offers a short, uncompromising list of behavior changes each of us can embrace:

  1. 1. Eradicate meat from our diets.
  2. 2. Take care of how we transport ourselves. We don’t need 4 wheels for all transport.
  3. 3. Those who live in a democracy must vote responsibly.
  4. 4. We must leverage the power of capital by divesting from fossil fuel companies and investing in clean, renewable forms of energy.
In her final comments, she charged the faith community to do two things. First, we need to strengthen the arch of faith. Amidst the many ups and downs, it’s up to the faith community to inject confidence that humanity can stand up for our highest purpose. A 1.5-degree Celsius rise is our fundamental moral obligation. Second, we need to expand the art of love. While feeling solidarity with the most vulnerable is easy, it’s also easy to exclude some from the arch of love. We must extend the arch of love to everyone.


What sort of ancestor do you want to be?

This question was raised by Raj Patel, Research Professor in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin. In many ways, it captures the challenging conversations that filled these three days, and provides a good end to this brief reflection.

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