As summer drew to a close, the hearts of Americans were with the millions of people in Texas and Louisiana who were pummeled by Hurricane Harvey, an unprecedented deluge that in one part of Southeast Texas dropped more than 4 feet of water, setting a rainfall record for the continental U.S. Less than two weeks later, Hurricane Irma was tearing through the Caribbean and up through Florida, displacing millions, causing billions of dollars in property damage, and marking the first time that two Category 4 Atlantic storms made U.S. landfall in the same year. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, torrential rains fell in India, Nepal and Bangladesh, as Southeast Asia endured a record-breaking monsoon season that caused over 1200 deaths. Then, following Hurricane Jose, along came the massive Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico and created a humanitarian crisis. Today, wildfires are tearing through Northern California, accelerated by high winds, extreme heat, and bone-dry landscapes.
Climate change didn’t cause these monster storms and fires, but it certainly made them worse. These so-called “natural” disasters are not entirely natural – they are driven by carbon pollution. Dirty energy like coal, gas, and oil is dumping carbon and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, destabilizing the climate and leading to extreme weather events.
As people of faith, we believe that the Earth and its web of life are precious in God’s sight (Genesis 1-2:3). Our Judeo-Christian heritage teaches that the Earth belongs not to us but to God (Psalm 24), and that we are entrusted with loving the Earth as God loves it (Genesis 2:15). The climate crisis presents people of faith and good will with a deeply moral question: Will we be faithful stewards of the world entrusted to our care, or will we stand idly by and watch as carbon pollution takes down cities, uproots millions of people, ravages the poor, and destroys life as it has evolved on this planet?
We are long past the stage of trying to fix climate change by swapping out a few lightbulbs. We need comprehensive legislation that puts a price on carbon and shifts the market away from dirty energy. We are thrilled that two carbon-pricing bills are being considered in the Massachusetts State House. Both bills put a fee on fossil fuels as they enter the state, and rebate some or all of the money to households and businesses. Senate Bill S.1821, introduced by Senator Michael Barrett, rebates 100% of the revenue. House Bill H.1726, from Representative Jen Benson, rebates 80% of the revenue and reinvests the remaining 20% into a Green Infrastructure Fund for clean energy, public transit, and climate adaptation projects.
Both these bills deserve strong support. For starters, they will reduce emissions of dirty greenhouse gases. Thanks to a higher price on carbon, households and business will turn to low and no-carbon options. What’s more, the two bills also protect the interests of low-income, moderate-income, and rural populations, who on average will receive more money from the rebate than they pay in higher fuel costs. Indeed, House Bill H. 1726 commits at least one-third of funding generated through Green Fund to low-income communities, and also sets aside funding for energy efficiency programs for people who rent.
Finally, these two bills will boost the economy and protect businesses, rebating money to businesses based on their number of employees. The Senate bill will create much-needed jobs in Massachusetts, especially in the transportation, resiliency, and clean energy sectors.
Our religious teachings affirm that our deepest responsibility as human beings is to love God and our neighbor. They also demand that we shoulder our human responsibility to care for planet Earth and to create a more just, peaceful, and life-sustaining society. Putting a price on carbon and supporting S. 1821 and H. 1726 is a powerful and faithful response to the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor.
Imagine there is a fire in your house. What do you do? What do you think about? You do whatever you can to try to put out the fire or exit the house. You make a plan about how you can put out the fire, or how you can best exit the house. Your senses are heightened, you are focused like a laser, and you put your entire self into your actions. You enter emergency mode.
These are the opening lines of a fascinating essay that every climate activist and every faith leader should read.
“Leading the Public into Emergency Mode: A New Strategy for the Climate Movement” recognizes that when we face an existential or moral crisis, we can pull back into paralyzed inaction or rush about in panicked, ineffective, chaotic action. But choosing between paralysis and panic is not our only option. Instead, we can enter a state of consciousness in which we become highly focused and purposeful, pour our resources into solving the crisis, and accomplish great feats.
Margaret Klein Salamon, author of the article and the Founding Director of The Climate Mobilization, calls this “emergency mode.” She considers emergency mode a particularly intense form of flow state, which has been described as an “optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.” She cites Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who pioneered the study of flow and who described it as: “Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one… your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
When we enter emergency mode, inertia or panic are replaced by focused, productive action toward a few critical goals. Non-essential functions are curtailed. Failure is not an option.
In ordinary times, a country is governed in what Salamon wryly labels “normal political-paralysis mode.” We experience a lack of national leadership, and politics is “adversarial and incremental.” By contrast, when a country is in emergency mode, “bipartisanship and effective leadership are the norm.” People work together because they face a shared and urgent threat.
Salamon accurately calls the climate crisis “an unprecedented emergency.” She writes: “Humanity is careening towards the deaths of billions of people, millions of species, and the collapse of organized civilization.” Her article and her organization, The Climate Mobilization, are devoted to developing strategies to mobilize an emergency response. Although I don’t agree with all her policy recommendations, I believe that her basic framing of the challenge is just right.
Most faith communities do not recognize the climate crisis and are not in emergency mode. Yet when faith communities enter this heightened state of awareness about our planetary emergency, we have significant gifts to offer.
I. When faith communities understand the climate crisis and enter emergency mode, what roles do we play? We…
• Address helplessness
People who are secretly worried about climate change often don’t take action because they feel helpless and overwhelmed (“The situation is dire. What difference can I possibly make?”). Faith communities address helplessness in multiple ways, both directly and indirectly. For instance, gathering for worship can be understood as turning toward a Higher Power (God, divine Mystery, Creator, Source) in whose presence we are uplifted, and feel our strength renewed. Entrusting ourselves to God can release within us unexpected power “to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).
• Face facts
A person of faith is someone who is committed to the search for truth. A Zen Buddhist might speak of facing reality as it is. A Jew, Muslim, or Christian might speak of relating to an all-seeing, all-knowing God who is truth and who leads us into all truth. At their best, the Abrahamic faiths believe that God has given us the capacity to learn about the created world through the lens of science. Science is one important avenue to discovering what is true. People of faith try to see through self-deception and illusion in their quest to discover what is true and to live their lives in accordance with the truth.
Truth includes both material and spiritual realities. By definition, facts are true until proven otherwise. We do not have any right to our own facts.
Science has established that climate change is real, largely caused by human activities, already inflicting widespread damage, and, unless humanity swiftly changes course, on track to make it difficult or impossible for civilization to continue to exist. We know that 80% of known fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground, lest we plunge past the point of no return. We know we must make a just and swift transition to a clean energy economy.
Such facts are difficult to face and absorb. But faith communities have the capacity to face facts, tell the truth, and dismiss denial. We trust, and are accountable to, a sacred reality that includes and transcends the material world. From this vantage point, faith communities are uniquely positioned to see through the lies of climate denial. Thanks to our commitment to the truth, we can let go the comfortable fibs and fantasies we may be tempted to tell ourselves (“I don’t need to change; I can continue with business as usual; climate change is someone else’s problem”). We also seek to uncover the confusion, misinformation, and lies about climate change that are deliberately spread by the fossil fuel industry and by the political leaders they fund. Not to do so is to participate in idolatry and to betray our own commitment to bear witness to the truth.
As a Christian, I believe that a religion that directs our gaze to a suffering, dying man on a cross is a religion that can face painful facts. As a Christian, I also believe that perceiving God’s presence in the very midst of suffering and death is a gateway to transformation and new life.
• Provide vision “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18, KJV).
Climate science has done its job, giving us essential facts about the potentially catastrophic consequences of continuing to burn fossil fuels. But facts alone are not sufficient to persuade people to take meaningful, concerted action. For that, we need vision – a shared goal, purpose, and values. This is what faith communities can do: lift up a vision of people living in just and loving relationships with each other and with the whole Creation, a vision energized by a deep desire for God’s love to be fully manifest in the world. Faith communities have a vital role to play in inspiring action to safeguard the world that God entrusted to our care.
As Antoine de Saint Exupery observed, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” Simon Sinek makes the same point in his terrific TED talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” when he says, “Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the ‘I have a dream’ speech, not the ‘I have a plan’ speech.”
• Offer hope
Human beings hope for so much: we want a good future for our kids; we want a livable world; we want the web of life to remain intact. The climate crisis challenges these cherished hopes. It renders uncertain the future of the whole human enterprise.
Faith communities offer a context in which to explore and take hold of the kind of hope that does not depend on outward circumstances but that emerges from a deep and irrepressible place in the human spirit. Animated by a radical, God-given hope, people of faith throw themselves into healing the Earth and its communities, human and other than human. Active hope – actively embodying ones deepest values and being ready at every moment to welcome and build the longed-for future – is a path to joy.
• Renew love
Climate change is a “threat multiplier” that exacerbates existing problems, such as poverty, hunger, terrorism, refugees on the move, and the spread of infectious diseases. Racism, militarism, and xenophobia – the fear of what is perceived to be foreign or strange – are likely to increase as the planet warms and as various groups battle over depleted resources, such as arable land and clean drinking water. Religious groups, like every other group, can be hijacked by fear and become sources of discord and violence.
Yet the deep message of all the world’s religions is that we are interconnected with each other and with the Earth on which all life depends. Faith communities can help to restore our capacity to love God and our neighbor. The climate crisis is already bringing together leaders and members of many faiths in a unified call to protect Earth and all its inhabitants, human and other than human. Pope Francis’ landmark encyclical on climate justice, Laudato Si’, generated an ardent and enthusiastic response from diverse faith communities around the world.
In a sermon, a D’var Torah, or a dharma talk, in prayer circles, worship services, and meditation groups, in pastoral care, outreach, and advocacy, faith communities can renew our intention and deepen our capacity to act in loving ways, to respect the dignity of every human being, and to cherish the sacredness of the natural world.
Faith communities speak to the heart of what it means to be human. When people are going mad with hatred and fear, only love can restore us to sanity.
• Give moral guidance
The climate crisis raises existential questions about the meaning, purpose, and value of human life. What is our moral responsibility to future generations? What does it mean to be human, if human beings are destroying life as it has evolved on this planet? How do we address the anger, self-hatred and guilt that can arise with this awareness? How can we live a meaningful life when so much death surrounds us? How determined are we to radically amend our personal patterns of consumption and waste? What does living a “good” life look like today, given everything we know about the consequences of over-consumption, inequitable distribution of resources, and being part of (and probably benefiting from) an extractive economy that depends on fossil fuels and unlimited growth?
Faith communities provide a context for wrestling with these questions, for seeking moral grounding, and for being reminded of such old-fashioned values as compassion, generosity, self-control, selfless service, simple living, sacrifice, sharing, justice, forgiveness, and non-violent engagement in societal transformation.
Maybe we should think of the climate crisis as our doorway to enlightenment. The climate crisis challenges us, individually and collectively, to expand our consciousness and to live from our highest moral values. As Jayce Hafner points out in an article published in Sojourners, “I’m Ready to Evangelize…About Climate,” “The act of confronting climate change calls us to be better Christians in nearly every aspect of our lives.”
I expect that this is true not only for Christians, but for people of every faith.
• Encourage reconciliation and seek consensus The coal miner who just lost his job… the CEO of a fossil fuel company who is making plans to drill for more oil… the woman whose home was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy… the farmer watching in despair as his crops wither from a massive drought… the construction worker laying down pipeline for fracked gas… the activist arrested for stopping construction of that pipeline… these are just some of the people who probably have wildly divergent views about the climate crisis and who may feel harmed by and angry with each other.
The climate crisis includes both victims and offenders. To some degree (though to quite different degrees) all of us bear some responsibility for the crisis. At the same time, all of us have a part to play in healing the damage and contributing to a better future. As we work to transition to a clean energy economy whose benefits are available to all communities, we need all hands on deck. Entering emergency mode requires that people work together toward a shared and deeply desired goal, and we need the participation and input of every sector of society as we try to protect our common home. As an African proverb puts it, “Two men in a burning house must not stop to argue.”
Faith communities can provide settings for difficult conversations, active listening, and “truth and reconciliation” groups modeled on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was formed in South Africa in the 1990’s after apartheid was abolished. By expressing compassion while also holding groups and individuals morally accountable, faith communities can create possibilities for reconciliation and collaboration that would otherwise never exist. What’s more, because of their historic commitment to the oppressed, marginalized, and poor, faith communities can give voice to the needs of people and all creatures who are generally ignored or exploited by the people in power.
• Allow emotional response The climate crisis can make us go numb. Why think about the enormous stretches of coral reefs in Australia that just died in less than two months? What can we possibly feel in response to the acidifying ocean, the children choking from asthma in our inner cities, the rising seas, the ever-increasing droughts and floods, and the cascade of species going extinct?
It is hard enough to face our own mortality or to mourn a loved one’s death. How do we begin to explore our fear and grief in response to the ecocide going on around us – much less express it? How do we move beyond despair?
Faith communities can give us practices, teachings, and rituals that allow us to feel, express, accept, and integrate the painful emotions evoked by climate change.
To ignite and sustain an emergency response, society needs to overcome what Salamon calls our “affect phobia,” our tendency to repress our feelings and to react to climate change only in terms of intellectual analysis and facts (How many heat records were broken last month? How many parts per million of CO2 are in the atmosphere now?). With the support of communities of faith, we can protect our human capacity to feel our emotional responses to the crisis without being overwhelmed by grief. Our emotions can also become a source of energy for constructive action to address the emergency.
(For a comprehensive overview of the psychological impacts of climate change, take a look at “Beyond Droughts and Storms,” prepared by ecoAmerica and the American Psychological Association.)
• Offer pastoral care Faith communities can provide practical and spiritual assistance during climate-related disasters such as hurricanes, floods, and wildfires. Congregations can make “disaster preparedness plans,” prepare a response in collaboration with local agencies, and develop networks of communication. One leader involved in this kind of preparation comments that congregations can be “sanctuaries of hope in times of disasters.”
Faith communities can also provide comfort and solace day by day. We can develop networks of pastoral care and spiritual outreach to address the rising rates of depression, anxiety, and other psychological challenges that are associated with climate change, being mindful that low-income communities may be particularly vulnerable to climate-related stressors.
• Heighten reverence for nature In a society that treats the natural world as an object to master, dominate, and exploit, faith communities can call us back to the sacredness of the Earth. Faith communities can support the efforts of land trusts to preserve farms, woods, wetlands, and open space (to locate your local land trust, visit Land Trust Alliance); can partner with organizations to bring inner-city children into natural settings; and can sponsor retreats and hikes that explore the wonders of Creation. Faith communities can learn, and help others to learn, what a stone or cloud or bird can teach (see, for instance, “Opening the Book of Nature,” developed by National Religious Coalition on Creation Care). They can help people from different religious background to become environmental leaders (see, for instance, the programs of GreenFaith and of The Center for Religion and the Environment at Sewanee). Some communities of faith gather for spiritual practice outside. For instance, Church of the Woods in Canterbury, NH, founded by the Rev. Steve Blackmer, is a new kind of “church”: “a place where the earth itself, rather than a building, is the bearer of sacredness.”
• Inspire bold action
Faith communities have a long history of leading movements for social and environmental justice, from child labor to women’s rights, peace, the abolition of slavery, and the civil rights movement. Faith communities tap into our capacity to dedicate ourselves to a cause that is greater than our personal comfort and self-interest. Faith in God (however we name that Higher Power) can inspire people to take bold actions that require courage, compassion, and creativity.
Faith communities can model best practices for “going green,” such as to get an energy audit, increase energy conservation and efficiency, look into installing solar panels, put in bike racks, replace lawns with community gardens, and so on. But taking care of our immediate buildings and community is just a start. An adequate response to the scope and speed of the climate crisis requires collective action and political engagement.
In the footsteps of trailblazers such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., hundreds, maybe thousands, of people, including countless people of faith, have been arrested in recent years as non-violent resistance to fossil fuels continues to grow. With fifteen other religious leaders, I was arrested on May 25 at a prayerful protest against construction of Spectra’s West Roxbury Lateral pipeline in Boston. On June 29 twelve faith leaders – Buddhist, Jewish, Protestant, and Unitarian Universalist – were among 23 people arrested in another protest of the same pipeline. In solidarity with the hundreds of people who recently died from deadly heat waves in Pakistan and India and were buried in mass graves, the clergy led a climate ‘mass graves’ funeral, featuring eulogies, prayers, and mourning, with some of the resisters lying down in the grave/trench for nearly two hours.
By inspiring significant action, such as divesting from fossil fuels and engaging in civil disobedience, faith communities can challenge the deathly status quo of “business as usual” and rouse society out of its apathy and inaction.
For religious leaders who want to network with colleagues to engage in visionary and prayerful civil disobedience, sign up at ClergyClimateAction.org.
To join an epic march, July 14-18, against new gas pipelines that will go all the way to the Massachusetts State House, visit People Over Pipelines.
II. When faith communities understand the climate crisis and enter emergency mode, what tools do we offer?
• Storytelling The myths, tales, parables and stories of religious traditions give us powerful ways to re-imagine our selves and our situation, and to absorb deep (not necessarily literal) truths. Stories speak not just to our rational mind but also to our affections, will, and imagination. From the Judaeo-Christian tradition, stories of Moses confronting Pharaoh and of Jesus healing, teaching, suffering, dying, and rising again – all these and more can be brought to bear to address the climate crisis and to give us courage, guidance, and motivation to act. Recently I learned that activists fighting to stop construction of a trash-burning incinerator in a low-income neighborhood of Baltimore are using the story of Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21:1-21a) to illuminate their own experience of social and environmental injustice and to inspire their own acts of resistance.
• Prayer and silence
Every faith tradition offers practices that teach us how to move out our habitual narrow orbit of self-involvement and to connect with a larger, sacred reality. The climate crisis invites people who until now have felt immune from any desire to pray, to explore practices of prayer and meditation.
Expressive forms of prayer empower us to move beyond denial and numbness and to acknowledge the full range of our feelings. My article, “Feeling and pain and prayer,” originally published in Review for Religious, presents four ways that Christians can pray with difficult feelings. The article also describes how expressive prayer can change us over time, deepening our sense of intimacy with God, our experience of a peace that passes understanding, and our capacity to move from helplessness and hopelessness to effective action.
Contemplative forms of prayer (such as Centering Prayer and mindfulness meditation) strengthen our capacity to sit in silence with the unknown, to accept impasse, and to keep listening and trusting even in the darkness. Practices that lead the mind into silent awareness offer more than a respite from thinking about the climate crisis. They can open us to an intuitive, non-verbal experience of communion, even union, with others, with the natural world, and with ultimate reality. Experiencing our unshakable union with a love that is stronger than death is the great gift of contemplative prayer. Rooted in that fierce and openhearted love, we are guided to actions commensurate with the emergency we’re in.
• Rituals Faith traditions offer a range of ceremonies and rituals that seek to awaken our awareness and revive our relationship with a sacred presence or power beyond the limited world of “I, me, and mine.” In a time of climate crisis, people need rituals that address our fear of death and give us courage to trust in a life greater than death. We need rituals that ask us to name our guilt and regrets, that grant us forgiveness, and that give us strength to set a new course. We need rituals that remind us of our essential connection with each other, with the rest of the created world, and with the unseen Source of all that is. We need rituals that remind us of how loved we are, how precious the world is, and what a privilege it is to be born in a time when our choices and actions make such a difference.
Faith communities have a heritage of holy days, festivals, days of atonement, and liturgical seasons that gain fresh meaning in light of the climate crisis.
• Sermons It takes courage to preach about climate change. If you’re a faith leader who speaks or preaches frequently about the climate emergency, then yours is a rare and much-needed voice. If you’re a member of a faith community whose leaders speak rarely, weakly, or never about climate justice, then please give them steady encouragement to say what needs to be said.
As my climate activist friend and colleague, Rev. Dr. Jim Antal (Conference Minister and President, Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ) often says, if clergy don’t preach about climate change every few weeks, then in ten or fifteen years every sermon will be about grief.
• Public liturgies and outdoor prayer vigils Over the years I’ve led or participated in many outdoor interfaith public liturgies about climate change. In the wake of environmental disasters such as the Gulf of Mexico oil spill or Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, or on the eve of significant environmental events, such as Pope Francis’ visit to Washington, D.C. or the U.N. climate talks in Paris, people of all faiths often feel a need to gather so that we can express our grief, name our hopes, and touch our deep longing for healing and reconciliation. Faith communities can lead the way in providing public contexts for renewing our spirits, both indoors and outside.
III. What does this add up to? Faith communities can become agents of transformation.
Humanity stands at a crossroads. As individuals and as a species we face a decision of ultimate importance both to our souls and to the future of life. “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19).
This is not a fire drill. This is an actual emergency. Martin Luther King, Jr. got it right: we face “the fierce urgency of now.” “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Corinthians 6:2).
Armed with this knowledge, faith communities can enter emergency mode. Speaking as a Christian, I envision a church in which every aspect of its life, from its preaching and worship services to its adult education and Sunday School, from its prayers to its public advocacy, grasps the urgency of protecting life as it has evolved on this planet. That is the kind of Church that the world needs today.
I am thankful for all people who are willing to face squarely the most challenging, even devastating facts; who reach into their reserves of courage, faith, and hope; and who step out to bear witness in very tangible ways – even in the face of suffering and death – to the ongoing presence and power of a love that abides within us and that sustains the whole creation.
“The huge West Antarctic ice sheet is starting to collapse and slide into the sea in a way that scientists call ‘unstoppable.’ …If ever there were a time to bear witness to our faith that life and not death will have the last word, now would be the time. If ever there were a time to take hold of the vision of a Beloved Community in which human beings live in right relationship with each other and with all our fellow creatures, now would be the time. The collapse of the ice sheet in Antarctica may be ‘unstoppable,’ but so is the love that calls us to stand up for life.”
— Excerpt of my sermon, “Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Climate Movement,” January 18, 2015
NOTE: I was prompted to write this essay after serving on a panel of faith leaders at the 2016 conference of Citizens Climate Lobby in Washington, DC. The panel’s moderator, Peterson Toscano, asked two questions: What role(s) do you see faith communities take on in times of crisis? What tools does your faith tradition offer that can be used to address climate change? The four panelists included Dr. Steven Colecchi (Director of the Office of International Justice and Peace, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops), Rachel Lamb (National Organizer and Spokesperson, Young Evangelicals for Climate Action), Joelle Novey (Director, Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light), and me. The hour was over well before we’d finished exploring the topic. This essay is a bid to extend the conversation.
A presentation to clergy and lay leaders in the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts that was given on Parish Leadership Day, March 5, 2016. A handout of suggested action steps is available for download here.
Friends, I’d like to take a page from writer Anne Lamott, who wrote a book a few years ago called Help, Thanks, Wow. She calls these our three most basic prayers, and they make a good framework for these remarks about caring for God’s creation, though I’m going to shuffle the deck a bit and take them in this order: Thanks, Wow, and Help.
“Thanks” comes first.
Thank you to every congregation that is exploring how to live more lightly and sustainably on the Earth.
Thank you to you churches that have joined Massachusetts Interfaith Power & Light and gotten an energy audit, maybe even looked into solar panels. I look forward to seeing which church in our diocese will be the first to go solar.
Thank you to you folks who have switched your homes to clean renewable energy from local sources – a step that is easy and inexpensive to take, thanks to an outfit called Mass Energy.
Thank you to everyone who is reining in your own consumption of fossil fuels by walking more and driving less, by turning out lights and turning down the heat.
Thank you to all who are “fasting” from wasteful over-consumption and from actions that pollute.
Thank you to everyone who is looking for ways large and small to “go green,” so that in our individual lives and in our communities we truly bear witness to the God who loves every inch of Creation and who entrusted the Earth to our care.
A special thank you to you clergy who are preaching about the climate crisis. I know that some fine preaching is going on, for some of you have sent me copies of your sermons. I also want to thank you lay leaders who encourage your clergy to preach about climate and who assure them of your support. Because it’s not easy to preach about climate. All kinds of voices tell us that the topic is too controversial, too political, and, besides, who are we to speak about climate – we’re not experts on the subject, we’re not scientists.
So thank you to everyone who sees through that fear and who understands that preaching and teaching and acting boldly on climate is not a political issue – we don’t care about the climate crisis because we’re Democrats or Republicans or members of any particular party.
We care about the climate crisis because we’re human beings, because we want to pass on to our children a habitable and healthy world, a world with clean air to breathe and clean water to drink.
We care about the climate crisis because we refuse to wipe out life as it has evolved on this planet and because we know the situation is grave – record heat, record levels of atmospheric CO2, record melting in the Arctic, a precious web of life on the brink of – or already – unraveling.
We care about the climate crisis because we’re Christian – because God’s love is being poured into our hearts through the power of the Holy Spirit and because we have chosen to follow Jesus’ way of love, justice, and truth. So thank you to all you good folks who in so many ways are expressing God’s love for our precious blue planet and for all its inhabitants, human and other-than-human.
That was Thanks. Here comes Wow. Wow is my response to what happened last year as a surge of religious energy rose up all over the world to safeguard life. How many of you have read or heard of the Pope’s encyclical Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home? Released last June, it was greeted with admiration by religious leaders around the world and elicited statements on climate action by Anglicans and Evangelicals, Muslims and Jews, Hindus and Buddhists. Never before have so many faith groups spoken out so strongly and so unequivocally about our moral responsibility to the poor, who bear the brunt of a changing climate, and about our spiritual responsibility to honor the sacredness of “this planet Earth, our island home.”
By the end of last year, faith groups of all kinds – including our own diocese and the Episcopal Church, at last summer’s General Convention – helped build the fossil fuel divestment movement to reach a combined total of $3.4 trillion in assets committed to divestment. Wow. And faith groups helped generate the momentum that brought us to the landmark climate agreement in Paris last December, when 196 countries came together through the U.N. and pledged to change the course of the global economy and to cap global temperature increases at 2º or ideally 1.5º degrees Celsius.
To all of this, I say: Wow. The wind of the Holy Spirit is blowing.
Here comes my last word to you: Help. I need your help. The Earth needs your help. This is an all-hands-on-deck moment, for the only way to avoid shooting past that 1.5º or 2º degree Celsius cap that protects us from runaway climate change is to keep 80% of known fossil fuel reserves in the ground. We simply cannot burn all that oil, coal and gas. We must transition quickly to clean sources of energy like wind and sunshine. This is a struggle, and we need your help.
I am grateful for your help, and glad to offer you mine: all are welcome to sign up for blog posts at my Website, RevivingCreation.org, and I’d be glad to come to your parish to preach or teach or lead a retreat about caring for God’s creation.
So to God we say:
Thank you. Thank you for your marvelous Creation and for giving us ears to hear the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor.
Gracious God, we say “Wow” when we see your awesome power transforming people’s lives and inspiring us to stand up for life.
And please help us, God – help us to stay grounded in your purpose for us and to become the people you created us to be, people who are a blessing to the Earth.
All this we pray in the presence and power of Christ Jesus, whose way we follow and whose guidance we trust. Amen.
I am blessed to be with you this morning. My husband and I now come to Grace-St. Paul’s whenever we visit Tucson, and I am grateful to be with you again. This is a special place: I feel the Holy Spirit here. Thank you, Steve, for inviting me back to this pulpit.
To say just a word about myself: after 25 years of parish ministry, I now serve as Missioner for Creation Care in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts. My dream is to help create a wave of religious activism to protect the web of life that God entrusted to our care. So I travel around, preaching and teaching and leading retreats about God’s love for this precious planet and its inhabitants, human and other-than-human, and the need to take action to express our faith. My particular concern is the climate crisis, so you can probably imagine my delight when I learned a few weeks ago that the couple who funded the first two years of my ministry raised the money by selling off their oil stocks. This is happy news to someone who believes, as I do, that divesting from fossil fuels is an expression of our moral values and will help propel a shift to clean energy.
So here we are in the second Sunday in Lent, a season for renewing our lives in response to the love of God. Thanks to the passage from Genesis, today we have Abram standing at our side, an old man who, along with his wife, was landless, childless, without an heir. The door to his future was completely closed, shut tight, locked, and throw away the key. Nothing good lay ahead. Then God spoke to Abram in a vision and made a promise, the kind of promise that God made to a whole line of prophets, one after another: the door to the future was open. Through the grace of God, Abram’s life would bear fruit; he would bring forth life; he would convey blessings that would reach far into the future, blessings as countless as the stars. And Abram responded with faith. He trusted in God’s promise. He stepped out into an unknown and open future, trusting that God would guide him and that God would make him a vehicle or channel for new life.
Today is a good day to stand with our faithful brother Abram and to reaffirm our trust in God’s promise that even when the future looks bleak or chaotic, even when we see no way forward, God is with us. God will open a path where there was no path, provide a way where there was no way, and pour divine hope into our hearts when our own hope is gone.
Heaven knows there are reasons to fear for the future. The web of life is unraveling before our eyes. In just 200 years – a blink in geologic time – human beings have burned so much coal, gas, and oil and released so much heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that atmospheric levels of CO2 are higher than our species has ever experienced before. So far that extra CO2 has forced the average global temperature to rise about one degree. That may not sound like much, but what’s so worrisome to scientists is that this process is happening so fast. Already oceans are heating and becoming more acidic; tundra is thawing; ice caps are melting; sea levels are rising; coral reefs are dying; massive droughts are spreading in some places and heavy rains intensifying in others. We’re on the edge, or in the midst, of what some experts call the sixth major extinction event on this planet. 2015 was the hottest year on record, shattering the record set just the year before.
We know that the situation is urgent. We know we have only a short time in which to avert a level of climate disruption that would render the world ungovernable and possibly uninhabitable within the lifetimes of our children and our children’s children. The World Bank – hardly a leftist organization – recently warned that unless we quickly rein in greenhouse gas emissions, climate change will drive 100 million people into extreme poverty – extreme poverty – in the next 15 years. Just imagine for a moment the human suffering and social upheaval that this would engender worldwide.
We know we can do better than that. And as people of faith we refuse to stand idly by and to let business as usual destroy human communities and destroy life as it has evolved on the planet. As Pope Francis so beautifully explained in his landmark encyclical, Laudato Si – in a message that was picked up and amplified by Anglican, Jewish, Muslim, and many other religious voices the world over – we bear a moral and spiritual responsibility to respond boldly to the climate crisis.
Lent invites us to come back into balance, to align our lives with our deepest intention, and to make the changes we need to make in order for God’s love to be manifest more fully in our lives. Today, in the presence and power of God, and with Abram at our side, we dare to ask some big questions: Through the grace of God, how can my life bring forth new life? How can I contribute to a better future? How can I live so that my life becomes a blessing to those who come after me? As Ella Fitzgerald once put it, “It isn’t where you came from, it’s where you’re going that counts.”
You know, there are many ways to be healers in the world, many ways to help our neighbors. But regarding climate change, here come three suggestions.
One: sign up online for the Ecumenical Lenten Carbon Fast. During Lent, we seek to restore the limits that give life. Let’s you and I learn how to fast from carbon. Let’s you and I learn together how to make choices that cut back dramatically on our use of fossil fuels. This is an honorable, and I would argue, a necessary, Lenten practice. When you sign up for the Ecumenical Lenten Carbon Fast, you receive a daily email with inspirational reflection and a specific action step to reduce your personal consumption of dirty energy. Right now the fast is being carried out by thousands of Christians who care for God’s Creation.
Two: write a postcard to your members of Congress. After the service, stop at the table for Citizens Climate Lobby and pick up some postcards. You might think that writing a letter or postcard to your member of Congress is a waste of time, but it’s not: your representatives probably have no idea that you care about climate change and that you’re tracking what they’re doing. And Citizens Climate Lobby is pushing for a way to price carbon that will get us off fossil fuels, create new jobs, and accelerate a transition to a new economy based on clean, renewable sources of energy, like sun and wind. Last summer I joined scores of other faith leaders to lobby on behalf of Citizens Climate Lobby in Washington, D.C. We didn’t push for carbon pricing because we were Democrats, or because we were Republicans, or because we were socialists or members of the Green Party. It wasn’t politics that propelled us to support carbon pricing. It was faith: faith in a God who utterly loves us and all Creation, faith in a God who envisions a healthy, just, and sustainable society, faith in a God who wants our lives to be a blessing to the vulnerable poor and to those who come after us.
Three: go to the Website 350.org, sign up to receive emails, and build the global climate movement. 350.org is the grassroots non-profit that is helping to create a wave of global resistance to keep coal, gas, and oil in the ground, where they belong. This coming May, actions will be held in places all over the world to “shut down the world’s most dangerous fossil fuel projects and support the most ambitious climate solutions.” Already the movement to keep fossil fuels in the ground is gaining momentum. People are blockading oil trains and protesting the construction of new pipelines; thousands of so-called “kayaktivists” took to the water in Seattle to block an oil-drilling rig; and two men in a lobster boat near Cape Cod disrupted the delivery of 40,000 tons of coal. Just this week, beloved writer Terry Tempest Williams took part in an auction in Salt Lake City that was selling off leases for oil and gas drilling on public lands. As a climate protester, she bought up land rights on a parcel near Arches National Park in Utah in an effort to prevent any drilling. Later she commented, “It has deeply shaken my core as an American citizen to watch these beautiful, powerful public lands that are all of ours, and our inheritance, being sold for $2 an acre, $3 an acre… I’m both heartsick and heartbroken and outraged.”
Yes, it can be heartbreaking to take part in the struggle to stabilize the climate and to heal our relationship with the Earth. But the pain we feel is an expression of love, and love is what sustains us, and guides us, and will see us through. So I invite you to take up my three suggestions: to join the Ecumenical Lenten Carbon Fast; to sign postcards to your legislators on behalf of Citizens Climate Lobby; and to join 350.org and the global climate movement.
As people of faith, we’re here for the long haul. We’re not going away. We’re going to keep fighting for a future that runs on clean energy like sun and wind. We’re going to keep fighting for a society and an economy that leave no one out. As Pope Francis reminded us, the cry of the Earth is intimately connected with the cry of the poor. We hear that cry. We share that cry. And we intend to answer it, by divestment and direct action, by voting and lobbying, by making personal changes in our lifestyle and, perhaps, by engaging in peaceful civil disobedience.
A new world is on the horizon, and we hope to act like midwives, helping that new world to be born. We hope to act like Abram, trusting in God’s promise of new life. And we hope to act like Jesus, who when Herod threatened to kill him, refused to be intimidated or deterred. Despite all the forces arrayed against him, Jesus continued to heal and to set free. He refused to be stopped. “Today,” he said, “tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way” (Luke 31:33 ).
And so it is for us. We, too, must be on our way — on Jesus’s way — today, tomorrow, and the next day. Who knows what God in Christ will be able to do through us, now and in the days ahead?
“You will show me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy, and in your right hand are pleasures for evermore.” (Psalm 16:11)
I am blessed to be with you this morning. Thank you, Thomas, for inviting me. I serve the other diocese in Massachusetts as the Missioner for Creation Care, so I travel from church to church, preaching the Gospel and speaking about our Christian call to protect the Earth. This morning I must begin with a word about the violence in Paris and in Beirut. Our hearts go out to everyone affected by these acts of terrorism, to the people who were wounded and to the innocents who died, to the families who mourn, to the first responders, and to everyone who is playing some part in weaving these two rattled, frightened, assaulted cities back together into a place of security and peace.
These tragic events shock us. They move us to anger, fear, and grief, for we feel a visceral connection with our French brothers and sisters across the Atlantic, with our Lebanese brothers and sisters across the Mediterranean, and with people everywhere who are subject to acts of violence and terror. We share their human vulnerability. We, too, are mortal. Like it or not, we too live in a world of danger, violence, and uncertainty.
Jesus also lived in such a world, and every year, in late November, as the cycle of the church year draws to a close and we start to head into Advent, we hear Scripture readings that turn our attention to the end times, giving us images of breakdown and distress. In today’s Gospel passage, just as Jesus is coming out of the temple one of his disciples admires how solid the building is, how large it is, how grand. Surely it will last forever! But Jesus turns to him and says, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (Mark 13:2). All will be thrown down. He goes on to predict natural disaster and social unrest, “wars and rumors of wars” (Mark 13:7a). “Nation will rise against nation,” he says, “and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines” (Mark 13:8).
Christianity is bracingly realistic about the human condition and the reality of natural disaster and human-caused disaster. Today Jesus predicts suffering and turmoil, and he says, “All will be thrown down.” Yet in the very same passage, in practically the very same breath, he also says: “Do not be alarmed” (Mark 13:7). “Do not be alarmed… This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” (Mark 13:8).
Birth pangs? It seems that Jesus was so deeply rooted and grounded in the love of God, so attuned to God’s dream for the world, so open to God’s creative Spirit and power, that even in the midst of suffering and war, even in the midst of violence, terrorism, and death, he could see beyond everything that was passing away and stand fast in the unshakable, ever-new, ever-abundant love of God. Jesus trusted in God’s abiding presence and in God’s vision for the future. He trusted in God’s dream that human beings can find peace within themselves, with each other, and with the whole creation. Jesus knew that even in the midst of death, something new and holy is being born, and he offered himself to that birthing process as a midwife, a healer and peacemaker. He showed us the path of life and he invited us to walk it with him.
I wonder what it would it be like to share so consciously in Jesus’ mission of justice, compassion, and hope that we, too, thought of ourselves as midwives helping a new world to be born. I wonder what it would be like to throw our selves into birthing that new world with the same ardor that Hannah felt as she prayed to conceive and give birth to a child. As we heard in today’s first reading, Hannah prayed so ardently to be a generator of life that the priest who was watching her accused her of being drunk!
May we all get drunk like that! Heaven knows that our beautiful, suffering world needs people who are wholeheartedly committed to the struggle to safeguard life as it has evolved on this planet and to conceive and bring forth a compassionate, just, and life-sustaining society. We know what we’re up against. The terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut are linked with other deadly threats, such as climate change. Researchers tell us that ISIS, the Islamic State, arose partly because of climate change, which caused an extreme drought in Syria between 2006 and 2009. When crops failed, as many as 1.5 million people were forced to migrate from rural areas into cities. Social unrest escalated into civil war and eventually into the multifaceted conflict that now affects many millions of people.
Of course climate change is not the only cause of terrorism, but it’s what the Pentagon calls a “threat multiplier.” Earlier this week the World Bank – hardly a leftist organization – warned that unless we change course quickly and rein in greenhouse gas emissions, climate change will drive 100 million people into extreme poverty – extreme poverty – within the next 15 years. We don’t have to be expert analysts in order to grasp how much suffering, upheaval and conflict that would engender worldwide.
When I look around, I see a planet at risk of catapulting into runaway climate disruption because of an ever-expanding economic system that depends on fossil fuels. I see terrorism and poverty, rising seas and melting glaciers, and I see people so locked in fear, anger, or despair that they are unable to imagine, much less to create, a better future. It’s as if we’ve fallen under a spell and made what U.N. Secretary General Ban-ki Moon has denounced as a “global suicide pact.”
But I also see this: person after person reaching deep into their souls and then standing up to offer their energy and time to the shared struggle to re-weave the fabric of life and to create a just and sustainable future. I see a wave of religious protest and activism rising up around the world, propelled in part by the release of Pope Francis’ groundbreaking encyclical, Laudato Si, which makes a powerful connection between the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. I see people rising up for life, refusing to settle for a killing status quo, and proclaiming with one voice that climate change is a spiritual and moral issue that must be tackled without delay.
Just think of all the signs we see of a new social order being born. We see people blocking the path of new fracked gas pipelines and being arrested for civil disobedience as they read aloud from Pope Francis’ encyclical. We see people lobbying for a fair price on carbon, so that we can build a clean green economy that provides decent jobs and improves public health. We see our own Episcopal Church deciding – miracles of miracles! – to divest from fossil fuels, since it makes no financial or moral sense to invest in companies that are ruining the planet. We see new coalitions being formed and new alliances forged, as people realize that the environmental crisis is closely connected with the social crises of poverty, income inequality, and racial injustice. Just this week I spent a day lobbying at the State House with a new interfaith coalition that is dedicated to climate justice right here in Massachusetts. Together we are fighting to keep fossil fuels in the ground and to accelerate a transition to clean, safe, renewable sources of energy, such as sun and wind, that are accessible to all our communities, including low-income. As climate activist Bill McKibben has pointed out, “The fight for a just world is the same as the fight for a livable one.”
The Church was made for a time like this – a time when God calls human beings to know that we belong to one Earth, that we form one human family, and that God entrusted the Earth and all its residents to our care. We may live in a society where we’re told that pleasure lies in being self-centered consumers who grab and hoard everything we can for ourselves and the devil take the hindmost, but we know the truth: our deepest identity and joy is found in being rooted and grounded in love and in serving the common good. With the psalmist, we turn to our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, and say: “You will show me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy, and in your right hand are pleasures for evermore” (Psalm 16:11).
The Episcopal Church voted to divest from fossil fuels.
I write that sentence and lean back in my chair, beaming in amazement. I’ve been working toward this moment for a long time, and lo, it is here. I can hardly believe it.
Other faith groups are also moving forward on divestment. To cite some examples, last year the World Council of Churches, which represents half a billion Christians worldwide, decided to divest from fossil fuel companies. In January, the United Methodist Church announced that its $21 billion pension fund would divest from coal. The Church of England is divesting from coal, and Anglican churches and dioceses in New Zealand, Australia, and the United Kingdom have divested from fossil fuels.
So far the Episcopal Church is the largest denomination in the U.S. to divest from all fossil fuels, and surely it won’t be the last.
The decision made by the Episcopal Church’s 78th General Convention on July 2, 2015, came as a surprise even to the most ardent supporters of the divestment resolution. Several members of our grassroots network of activists, Episcopalians for Fossil Fuel Divestment and Clean Energy Reinvestment, attended the convention, which was held in Salt Lake City. A friend tells me that shortly before the House of Deputies took the vote that sealed the deal, she and another activist exchanged a look of amazement and confessed to each other their tentative hope: Maybe the resolution will actually pass!
Not only did the resolution pass – it passed by an overwhelming margin of 3-1.
I had the sweet responsibility of informing Bill McKibben. It turns out that one of the greatest satisfactions in the life of a climate activist is to be able to give Bill McKibben some good news.
Bill called the Episcopal Church’s decision “unbelievably important.” He added: “The Episcopal Church is putting into practice what the Pope so memorably put into words. It’s an enormous boost to have communities of faith united on the most crucial question facing the planet.”
Why is this decision such good news? Because the Episcopal Church is sending a powerful message to the world: it makes no financial or moral sense to invest in companies that are ruining the planet.
Divesting from fossil fuels and investing in clean energy will accelerate the transition to a just, healthy, and low‐carbon future. Engaging in stockholder activism isn’t good enough – not when an industry’s core business model needs to change. Changing light bulbs isn’t good enough – not when an entire social and economic system needs to be transformed. Waiting, watching, and wringing our hands isn’t good enough – not when the Earth cries out for healing, and when the poor, who are affected first and hardest by climate change, cry out for justice and mercy.
Averting climate catastrophe requires that at least 80% of known fossil fuel reserves remain where they are, in the ground. The only way to keep them there will probably be some combination of carbon pricing, governmental regulation, and strong international treaties. How can we build the spiritual, moral, and political pressure to accomplish that? We can divest from fossil fuels. We can align our money with our values. We can make it clear that fossil fuels have no place in a healthy portfolio if you’re hoping for healthy kids or a healthy planet.
I don’t know to what extent the release of the Pope Francis’ encyclical several weeks ago affected the divestment decision that was made by the Episcopal Church, but I do know that countless people the world over have been inspired the Pope’s bracing reminder that the climate crisis is not just a scientific, political, or economic concern, but also an issue that raises fundamental moral and spiritual questions.
What kind of world do we want to leave our children? What does it mean to live with reverence for the living, intricate, beautiful biosphere into which you and I were born? What responsibility do we have for ensuring that the web of life continues intact for generations yet to come? What responsibility do we have for the poor? How can we possibly love God and our neighbor if we scorch and desecrate the world that God entrusted to our care, and dislocate, drown, and starve our neighbors, beginning with the poorest?
The Episcopal Church resolution commits more than $350 million for divestment, and it urges all parishes and dioceses in the Church to engage the topic of divestment and reinvestment within the coming year, potentially unlocking an additional $4 billion in assets. The pension fund, which manages $9 billion, was not included in the final version of the resolution. Episcopalians for Fossil Fuel Divestment and Clean Energy Reinvestment looks forward to ongoing conversations with the pension board, recognizing that all of the Church’s assets are called to serve God’s mission and that the Episcopal Church is now on record in recognizing that restoring Creation is at the center of God’s mission today. (For more discussion of the resolution, here is an interview I gave to our local newspaper.)
Sometimes it seems that human beings are determined to careen toward catastrophe. Oddly enough, it gives me hope when I consider that no one knows whether or how we will save ourselves from disaster. I keep thinking of a piece of wisdom that has been attributed to Mahatma Gandhi: “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.” Not knowing what, if anything, will make humanity change course gives me energy to be persistent and creative, even if my efforts seem insignificant. Maybe this letter to urge divestment, this phone call, this lobbying for carbon pricing, this climate rally, this campaign to stop new pipelines, this vegetable garden, this decision to walk rather than drive, this willingness to borrow rather than to buy – maybe each small effort will combine mysteriously with other people’s efforts and suddenly we will surprise ourselves and society will shift to a life-sustaining path. I can’t argue with a remark that country music singer-songwriter Naomi Judd once made: “A dead end street is a good place to turn around.”
Unexpected changes, shifts, and transformations happen. Call it chaos theory. Call it an expression of “punctuated equilibrium,” Stephen Jay Gould’s term for the way that a system can look completely stable even though an unseen tension or energy is secretly building up. Suddenly it bursts forth, producing a new species, moving tectonic plates apart, or generating abrupt, rapid, and unforeseen changes in society. (For a wonderful essay that develops these ideas, see David Roberts’ “For a Future to Be Possible: Hope & Fellowship.”)
History is like that: non-linear and full of surprises. So, too, is the Holy Spirit. She blows where she wills, opening minds and touching hearts, making all things new.
The prophet Isaiah was right. Awakened to the presence of a merciful, dynamic, and ever-living God, Isaiah heard God say: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:18-19).
We just saw it happen: the Episcopal Church voted to divest from fossil fuels.
Want to know what will happen next in the ever-expanding, unpredictable, and non-linear movement to save the planet? Find out. Jump in and join the struggle. Do what you can, even if it seems insignificant. And get ready to be surprised.
On a sultry summer morning this week, with the temperature already climbing past 97˚ and a heat index of 102˚, I paused on the steps of the Capitol Building to pose for a quick photograph. As volunteers with Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL), nearly one thousand people had traveled from near and far to lobby for a carbon fee and dividend in Washington, D.C.
Being a first-time volunteer, I had recently attended CCL’s basic training in how to lobby members of Congress about climate change. Here is how I usually prepare to lobby, especially when facing people whom I consider adversaries: Do research. Assemble talking points. Brace for confrontation.
By contrast, here is what Citizens Climate Lobby advises: Do research. Assemble talking points. Search for connection.
This is harder than it sounds. As I surveyed the voting records of the four Republican members of Congress to whom I’d been assigned, my heart sank. What connection could I possibly have with these conservative men? I am an ardent, long-time climate activist who lives in Northampton, a particularly liberal city in liberal Massachusetts. These House members hail from Kentucky, Florida, Illinois, and Texas, all of them states that have a strong interest in protecting the coal, gas, and oil industries. Just about everything these men had voted for, I was against. Just about everything they had voted against, I was for. Politically, we stand on opposite sides of the aisle. In one portfolio or another, I read phrases like these: Supports fracking and Keystone XL pipeline. Prohibits use of funds by the Administration to conduct a climate change agenda. Opposes and votes against any effort to increase taxes. Voted to gut the E.P.A’s ability to limit carbon pollution from power plants. Voted to open the Outer Continental Shelf to oil drilling.
To my consternation, it turned out that CCL asks its volunteers not to browbeat members of Congress but instead to build relationships and to find common ground. CCL maintains that if you can’t find something to respect and admire in a politician’s life or work, then you should not lobby that person. So I forced myself to slow down. I looked more carefully at the voting records and I tried to exercise some empathy and imagination. What could I appreciate about each person? What did this person seem to value, and why? How might I connect with him?
Spiritual traditions tell us that human beings are essentially inter-related. When we are spiritually awake, we can see the dignity, even the beauty, of each person. Despite whatever may divide us, in fact we are more similar than different. For starters, all of us are mortal, all of us we want to be happy, and all of us want to love and to be loved. It is easy to forget such basic truths when you are caught in the heat of political struggle. It is easier to demonize than to humanize, easier to seek safety behind the walls of righteous judgment than to meet ones “enemy” with an open heart.
This does not give us license to be naïve and sentimental – far from it. Jesus urges us to be “wise as serpents” as well as “innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Yet if we are to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44) – to say nothing of praying for those whom we want to persecute – then we must stay grounded in a transcendent love that embraces all beings, even the person we might want to condemn as a villain or a fool.
Who knew that lobbying could be a spiritual practice? Not I.
My first meeting was with an aide to Representative Ander Crenshaw, an Episcopalian from Florida. I introduced myself as an Episcopal priest who believes that climate change is the great spiritual and moral issue of our time. I told the staff member that I’d left parish ministry in order to focus all my efforts on building a wave of religious activism to address climate change. She listened politely, courteous but reserved. I could feel the distance between us.
Pressing ahead, I said that I appreciated Rep. Crenshaw for working tirelessly – for eight long years – to secure passage of the ABLE Act, a significant piece of legislation that protects disabled Americans. I said that I appreciated his concern for the vulnerable, his persistence in accomplishing something difficult, and his capacity to stay focused on an issue to which he was passionately committed. By now the aide was smiling, and I was smiling, too. I was surprised by my own happiness as we looked at each other: it is a pleasure to express and to receive sincere appreciation. It is like striking a chord of kinship: we feel the resonance. Dimly or clearly, we remember our shared humanity.
I went on to propose that, just as the representative was a champion for the disabled, maybe he could also become a champion for the poor, who are affected first and hardest by climate change. Maybe he could apply his passion, his persistence, and his capacity to get a difficult bill passed, to becoming a leader on tackling climate change. The aide listened and took notes. By the end of the meeting, after everyone on our team had had a chance to speak, to listen, and to share some facts about CCL’s proposal, I sensed the possibility that Rep. Crenshaw might now see a way to take effective action on climate change in a way that is consistent with his own values.
I left the meeting with renewed hope that people on opposite sides of the aisle can come together – before it’s too late – in the race to stabilize the climate and to create a just and habitable future. That vision is not just pie in the sky. The carbon fee and dividend proposed by CCL is a way of pricing carbon that has potential to unite people of very different political persuasions. According to an independent study conducted by REMI (Regional Economic Modeling, Inc.), CCL’s plan to place a steadily-rising fee on the carbon dioxide content of fuels at the source (such as a well, mine, or port of entry) and to return all revenue to American households on an equal basis would cut carbon emissions by half within 20 years while adding 2.8 million jobs to the economy. Under this plan, about two-thirds of all households would break even or receive more in their rebate checks than they would pay in higher prices due to the fee, which means that low-income and middle-class folks would be protected.
If you hate taxes, the CCL proposal should be acceptable: the fee is not a tax, since revenue is not spent by the government but instead is returned directly to the people. Nor does this carbon-pricing plan add layers of bureaucracy or additional regulation. It simply allows the free market to do its work, because carbon-based fuels would become increasingly expensive, and clean, renewable sources of energy, such as sun and wind, would become increasingly cheap. This process would unleash entrepreneurial energy and investment in clean energy.
The CCL proposal is no magic wand, but it has power to bridge the political divide and to appeal to our shared desire for economic prosperity, a healthy environment, and homegrown, affordable energy production. It’s an approach to stabilizing the climate that is embraced not only by Dr. James Hansen, the renowned climate scientist, but also by George Schultz, Secretary of State during the Reagan Administration. Both of them serve on CCL’s Advisory Board, along with Bob Inglis, who spent 12 years in the U.S House as a Republican representative from South Carolina, and Dr. Catharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist and evangelical Christian. (For a 2-minute video about carbon fee and dividend, visit here.)
Those four days of CCL training and lobbying have changed me. I am still an ardent climate activist. I am still prepared to go to jail to stop the Keystone XL pipeline. I am still convinced that we need a complete overhaul of how we live on Earth, and that Pope Francis and Naomi Klein are on target when they call for the deep transformation of our social, political, and economic systems. I still want to build a powerful grassroots movement to address the climate crisis, to re-weave the web of life, and to protect a habitable world for future generations. As Jonas Salk once said, “Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors.”
What has changed is that I have found a fresh path forward. I am excited about CCL’s proposed carbon fee and dividend, which I believe is an idea whose time has come. What’s more, thanks to my training with CCL I also feel a renewed commitment to constructive dialogue and to the spiritual discipline of moving beyond “them” and “us.” My experience with CCL draws me to prayer, especially to the prayer for the human family that is found in the Episcopal prayer book. I pray that God will “look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth…” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 815)
If anyone asks what I learned this week in D.C., here is what I will reply: together we can build a low-carbon future, and, when carried out in the right spirit, lobbying can be work that is good for the soul.
P.S. To participate in workshops that teach you how to open up a space for “constructive dialogue where conflicts are driven by differences in identity, beliefs, and values,” visit Public Conversations Project. To see how this kind of approach is being put into action internationally, visit Karuna Center for Peace Building.
How do we stay spiritually grounded in the midst of tackling very complex issues? That question came to mind as I sat with a row of panelists behind a table in the chapel of Amherst College, waiting for my turn to speak. The focus of the conference was on whether we can make a carbon fee and rebate work in Massachusetts. Every speaker emphasized that in order to solve the climate crisis we must put a price on carbon emissions and put the money that is raised back into people’s pockets. My role on the panel was to address the spiritual and ethical foundation for supporting a carbon fee and rebate.
Climate XChange, an organization of advocates and citizens working for a carbon fee and rebate in Massachusetts, had assembled some leading thinkers to address the issue’s complexities, including Professor James Boyce, who teaches economics at UMass/Amherst; State Rep. Tom Conroy (13th Middlesex), the author and co-sponsor of the 2013 Carbon Tax Bill; Dan Gatti, the Executive Director of Carbon XChange; and State Rep. Ellen Story (Third Hampshire District). The moderator was Professor Jan Dizard, who teaches sociology and environmental studies at Amherst College.
I was glad to be the last panelist to speak, for as I listened to my co-panelists, I could see how much time, patience, and effort it takes for economists and politicians to explain clearly – and for listeners to grasp – how the carbon rebate will work, how it will achieve emissions reductions, and how it will be set up so that lower income and disadvantaged residents are not harmed. (For a clear and pithy explanation of how a carbon fee and rebate works, view this 4-minute clip from the forum, in remarks by economist James Boyce.)
Enacting a carbon fee and rebate is one of the most promising tools we have for changing consumers’ behavior, reducing our use of dirty energy, developing clean, renewable energy, creating green jobs, and stabilizing the climate. (Another promising tool would be for our government to quit subsidizing fossil fuel companies, but that’s another story.) A carbon tax can also strengthen a region’s economy: British Columbia has had a carbon tax since 2008, and that province’s economy has become the fastest growing in Canada.
But from the discussion in Amherst that night, it was clear to me that understanding how a carbon tax works, and pushing for its passage, will take a good deal of effort, stamina, and skill. What will keep our personal and collective energy from flagging? From what source of spiritual and ethical wisdom will we draw as we struggle to build a better future?
The answer, it seems to me, is no further away than our body, where everything begins. We may come from different spiritual traditions, or from none, but we all have a body. Perhaps through our bodies we can tap into a spring of spiritual energy that will renew our hearts and give us strength and guidance for the struggles ahead. What follows is based on what I said to the audience in Amherst about the spiritual and ethical foundation of our efforts to secure a carbon tax and to stabilize the climate.
I invite you to take a moment to feel your feet on the ground. Beneath the floor is the earth. Let yourself feel the support of the good earth beneath your feet. Feel the sensations of your feet on the floor, and let the good earth hold you up. Feel how solid your body is, as solid as the earth… I invite you take a couple of good, deep breaths. As you take in the sweet air and then let it go, feel the air passing into and out of your lungs. Notice that you are exchanging the elements of life with plants and green-growing things… Take a moment to experience yourself as a living creature, connected to the earth and air and to all living beings.
As we sit here with our feet on the ground, breathing with awareness, we may notice that none of us owns our breath. Our breath does not belong to us. We can’t hold on to it or save it up for later. We simply receive it freely and then let it go. Moment by moment, each breath is given to us. Breath by breath, we receive the gift of life. All of it is gift – everything we see and hear and taste and touch. This is where amazement springs up, along with wonder, gratefulness and awe. Here we are! Breathing!
Gratitude is the wellspring of all spiritual traditions, and from gratitude flows the perception that everything is precious. Everything is sacred. We belong to a sacred Mystery that is much larger than we are. We are part of a much larger whole. In our stressed and busy lives it’s easy to forget that we are part of something greater than ourselves, which is why so many of us come home to ourselves when we spend time outdoors – when we climb a mountain and get the big view, or when we pause in the midst of a busy day to admire a bird or a tree.
When we are spiritually awake we feel our connection, our kinship, with other living beings, human and other than human. We recognize that we’re in this together, that all of us are part of one single, precious, and intricate web of life. Perceiving the world like this elicits a certain tenderness: we want to nurture and protect the mysterious gift of inhabiting a living planet. That’s the spiritual wisdom we can learn from being aware of our feet on the ground and our lungs filling and emptying with air.
But our bodies also teach us about the ethical dimension, the justice dimension of the world. The good earth beneath our feet is the same earth that fossil fuel companies are blowing apart by mountaintop removal in order to extract coal; the same earth that is being violently injected with tons of chemicals that crack apart shale, release natural gas and methane, and poison rivers and streams; the same earth that is flooding in some places, going dry in others, and manifesting unpredictable, violent extremes of weather because of the abrupt changes inflicted by global warming.
The life-giving air that fills our lungs is the same air into which fossil fuel companies are pouring greenhouse gases as if the atmosphere were an open sewer; the same air that contains more carbon dioxide than it has for millions of years; the same air whose delicate balance is being disrupted and destroyed.
Our own bodies connect us to the wounding of the world and to the cries of the poor, who are affected first and hardest by climate change, and who are already suffering from its effects, including extreme storms and rapidly rising seas, food and water shortages and infectious diseases.
That is the spiritual and ethical context in which I welcome a carbon tax and rebate. Putting a stable and meaningful price on carbon, and distributing the fee in a way that is fair and does not harm the poor, is an essential step in moving toward a fossil free economy and healing the devastation of climate change.
We need to protect the web of life, which is unraveling before our eyes. We need to move quickly to build a just and sustainable future for our children and our children’s children. We need to plant our feet firmly on this beautiful earth, to take a good deep breath of air, and to press together for a strong, fair, and equitable carbon fee and rebate plan. I hope that Massachusetts will lead the way.
A YouTube video of part of the conference is here (MBJ’s remarks begin at 8’30”).
Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL) is supporting national carbon-pollution fee and dividend legislation. CCL is a non-partisan, international, volunteer organization whose mission is to create the political will for a stable climate and to empower individuals to have breakthroughs in exercising their personal and political power.