Faith communities have vital roles to play in tackling the climate crisis. Download a pdf of Margaret’s new article by clicking: How can faith communities address the climate crisis?
The Pope’s encyclical on the environment was officially released today, and I am relishing the response from both the secular and the religious climate movement. Surges of enthusiasm are rolling across the Internet like waves across the sea, and rivulets stream into my email inbox. Pope Francis’ landmark encyclical was addressed not only to Roman Catholics, nor only to Christians, but also to “every person living on this planet.” And all sorts of groups far and near are responding with invitations to Stand With the Pope. Hands down, the best invitation was extended by Forecast the Facts: name your identity and take your stand beside the Pope on climate. I’m a Mormon and I stand with the Pope on climate! I’m Buddhist and I stand with the Pope on climate! I’m a Republican… a pagan… an atheist… a Sikh… a Jew… a non-church-going Catholic… a Humanist… a parent… an Earthling… and I stand with the Pope on climate!
Guess what? It turns out that preserving a habitable world, caring for the forgotten and the poor, and honoring the Earth and its inhabitants, human and other-than-human, are values that resonate deeply with the human spirit, whatever our faith tradition may be and despite the lies that are peddled to us daily by the fossil fuel industry and by an extractive, exploitative, and consumerist culture. Climate change presents humanity with a decisive spiritual and moral crisis, and the papal encyclical has added precious momentum to messages that cut through the fog of inertia, denial, and political impasse and rouse the human family to unite in tackling the crisis before it’s too late.
Rabbi Michael Lerner describes Pope Francis a “the first international spiritual progressive voice who can go beyond the ‘common sense’ of global capitalism and articulate a different worldview,” and he urges an interfaith effort to support the Pope’s direction. Rabbi Lawrence Troster calls the Pope “a spiritual guide for everyone – believer and non-believer alike – and… perhaps the only person in the world with the potential to unite humanity to save itself and our increasingly fragile planet.” Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians around the world, expresses his deep appreciation for Pope Francis’ encyclical in a powerful essay in this week’s TIME magazine, noting that “We are not faced with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.”
It will take some time to absorb the comprehensive thinking that went into the encyclical, and I am grateful for the excellent analysis that some writers have already provided, such as James Martin, S.J.’s helpful essay on “Top Ten Takeaways from ‘Laudato Si.’”
Meanwhile the urgent work to build a sustainable, just and peaceful world goes on. Last night I sat with a group of Springfield, Mass. residents who are acutely aware of the health impacts of climate change on their struggling city, and the particular burden that is carried by the poor. Across boundaries of race, class, and religious and ethnic background, this growing band of men and women is organizing to resist environmental injustice and to promote sustainability, resiliency and equality for all Springfield residents. Last night none of us in the Springfield Climate Justice Coalition had read the Pope’s encyclical, but tonight we can all take heart from the Pope’s understanding of the “immense dignity of the poor” (158).
On Sunday I will travel to Washington, D.C., and will join about 900 other citizen volunteers – including a host of faith leaders – to lobby Congress for action on climate change. Our goal is to advance carbon fee and dividend as a solution acceptable to Democrats and Republicans alike. The Citizens Climate Lobby has made 3200 assignments, which means that every member of the House and Senate should receive a visit. How will it go? I have no idea. I’ve been assigned to meet with Republican politicians from Florida, Texas, Kentucky, and Illinois. It’s no secret that many conservative Republicans are staunchly opposed to regulating carbon emissions, and some of them began objecting to the papal encyclical even before it was released (I am grateful for the strong witness of my bishop, Doug Fisher of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Mass., who takes issue with their stance and speaks cogently about how Christians connect care for the Earth with care for the poor).
To prepare myself for lobbying on Capitol Hill, I inhale deeply, and breathe in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. I ground myself in the love of God. I am strengthened when I recall the Pope’s thoughtful critique of unfettered capitalism, especially when it harms the poor. “Profit,” says the Pope, “cannot be the sole criterion” of our decisions (187). Christianity has a long tradition of advocating for economic justice, and I intend to carry that message forward.
Today the Pope released a groundbreaking document that urges reverence for all Creation, and justice and mercy for all its residents. Tomorrow men and women around the world will get out of bed with a renewed commitment to fight the good fight – to divest from coal, gas, and oil, to keep fossil fuels in the ground, to build a society based on fairness and generosity, and to provide a habitable world for our children, grandchildren, and generations yet unborn. I hope that one day we will look back and remember the Pope’s encyclical as the electrifying moment when humanity finally grasped that we have the power to bear witness to love, and the responsibility to protect the Earth upon which all life depends.
Today the three faith leaders who serve on the Board of Trustees of Better Future Project released this statement, “Choosing Between Two Floods: Responding to Pope Francis’ Encyclical”:
“We have been called to heal wounds, to unite what has fallen apart, and to bring home those who have lost their way.” — Attributed to St. Francis of Assisi
We welcome the strong prophetic witness on climate change offered this week by His Holiness Pope Francis in his encyclical “Laudato Si’.”
Pope Francis addresses this encyclical to people everywhere: “Now, faced as we are with global environmental deterioration, I wish to address every person living on this planet…. In this Encyclical, I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.” We hope that indeed people of all faiths will heed his words and take action. As the Pope affirms, climate change is largely human-caused. In keeping with his commitment to the marginalized and vulnerable, Pope Francis emphasizes that climate change has especially devastating effects on the poor. Addressing climate change is an essential aspect of ethics. As individuals we must reduce our personal consumption of fossil fuels; as citizens, we must push for effective governmental and international action.
As ordained clergy and as members of the Better Future Project Board of Trustees, we applaud Pope Francis’ call to action. Since its founding in 2011, Better Future Project has been a leader in the climate action movement, empowering grassroots organizing through 350 Massachusetts and leading campaigns for divestment from fossil fuel companies, carbon pricing, and a shift to renewable energy in Massachusetts.
We believe that taking swift and responsible action to address climate change is an urgent moral imperative. Last September we walked with faith communities in the People’s Climate March, joining 400,000-plus people in the streets of New York. You might call it a kind of flood — not Noah’s flood, not the flood of a monsoon or hurricane, but a flood of loving determination, a flood of witness and hope for action on climate change. The climate movement is a flood of people calling for systemic change: for sharply reduced greenhouse gas emissions and for a swift transition to clean, safe renewable energy; for the protection of poor and vulnerable communities, for an end to fossil fuel subsidies, and for a strong international climate agreement in 2015.
Today we must choose between two floods: the flood of rising seas, or the flood of hopeful and courageous change. As Professor Mercy Oduyoye, an African theologian, has said, unless we take care of each other, we will lose our humanity; unless we become earth-keepers, we will be homeless.
Ban-Ki Moon, the U.N. General Secretary, has asked people of faith to urge bold action on climate change and to “provoke, challenge and inspire political leaders.” We celebrate the release of the Pope’s encyclical, which has done just that. We recommit ourselves to the struggle to provoke, challenge, and inspire political leaders and to mobilize a wave of religious activism to stabilize the climate, heal the Earth, and chart a course to a just and sustainable future.
The Rev. Dr. Robert K. Massie
The Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas
The Rev. Reebee Kavich Girash
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”).
Bloomberg View has posted articles about why even people who doubt climate science should support a carbon tax; how a well-designed carbon tax can cut harmful emissions; how carbon taxes don’t kill jobs; and how carbon taxes can shrink government and help the poor.
Climate XChange is pushing for a carbon fee and rebate in Massachusetts.
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.