News

Religious groups active in climate debate

December 6, 2009
By Brian Winter
USA Today

COPENHAGEN — Sunday started like any other day for Sister Joan Brown — with a period of prayer and meditation just before dawn at her home in Albuquerque.

Then, instead of going to Mass, the Franciscan sister boarded a plane to Copenhagen. When she arrives Monday, she'll join 20,000 other attendees at a United Nations summit on climate change, where she hopes to persuade leaders including President Obama to reach a worldwide agreement to cut pollution levels.

"Many people can't afford to make this trip," says Brown, who is using frequent flier miles and staying with a Danish family to cut costs. "But all our voices are needed, and this is one small way I can speak to the greatest moral and spiritual issue of our time."

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She will be among numerous preachers, rabbis, ministers and other faith-based figures who are bringing a spiritual presence — and, often, a strong point of view on the political issues — to Copenhagen. At a time when political leaders are struggling to pass environmental legislation in the USA and elsewhere, in large part because of the potential economic costs, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon says religious leaders "can have the largest, widest and deepest reach" when it comes to influencing the outcome of the summit.

The main goal in Copenhagen is to forge a long-range global deal to cut emissions of greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide, which climate data suggest is causing the Earth to warm. Representatives of 192 countries will attend, including Obama, who plans to arrive next week.

So how does Brown, an ecology minister in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, plan to make her voice stand out? For starters, she and a crowd of supporters held a candlelight vigil before her departure and wrote letters to New Mexico's U.S. senators, expressing concern over climate change.

Once she's in Copenhagen, she'll blog. And she'll do her best to navigate the dizzying two weeks of conferences, side events, parties and concerts that will make Copenhagen seem almost like the Woodstock of the environmental movement.

"I'm going to speak the truth to the delegates there, and try to educate people back here," she says. "It's our obligation for posterity to leave a world that exudes the beauty of the Creator for future generations."

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Other religious leaders in Copenhagen will include Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and spiritual head of the Church of England and the worldwide Anglican Communion; Richard Cizik, a former vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals; Jim Ball, head of the Evangelical Environmental Network; South African cleric and Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu; and representatives from the National Council of Churches (NCC), which encompasses more than 100,000 Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox, Evangelical and other congregations with 45 million members across the USA.

In all, as many as 100 religiously affiliated representatives from the USA plan to attend the summit, estimates Tyler Edgar, assistant director for the environmental arm of the NCC. Worldwide, she says that number will likely run "in the hundreds."

There is a wide range of views among — and within — different faiths as to the fundamental questions in the environmental debate: to what extent climate change is occurring, whether human activity is responsible for it, and what, if anything, should be done as a result.

Some are actively pushing against Copenhagen's agenda.

E. Calvin Breisner, a founder of the Cornwall Alliance, a coalition of clergy, scientists and academics, says recent data show the human role in causing global warming is minimal or non-existent. Religious figures who say otherwise, without a full background in science and economics, "risk an abuse of their moral authority," Breisner says.

Edgar, who also is traveling to Copenhagen, sees things differently. Broadly speaking, America's religious communities have shed their long-standing suspicion of the environmental cause "as that hippie, tree-hugging thing," she says.

In the past three years or so, many have rallied behind the belief that "we are all called upon to protect God's creation and God's people" by acting to stop climate change, Edgar says.

It's unclear whether such lobbying will be able to overcome a rough couple of months for the green cause.

In Copenhagen, Obama plans to present a goal of cutting U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 by about 17% compared to levels in 2005. But to make good on that target, he'll need the Senate to pass an energy bill next year over the objections of many Republicans, who say it could result in dramatically higher energy costs for businesses and consumers. The legislation has been stalled for months.

Then there's the "Climategate" controversy, in which hackers recently obtained and published e-mails exchanged among prominent scientists who say the Earth is warming. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., is seeking congressional hearings into whether the e-mails show the scientists deliberately censored opposing views, and manipulated data in order to exaggerate their claims.

If anyone can help move the debate, it's faith-based leaders, says Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn.

"This is a very religious country. God the Creator still does better in polls than any politician," says Lieberman, who backs legislation to mandate lower carbon emissions. He says he first began to embrace the environmental cause 20 years ago because of his own spiritual beliefs.

Lieberman, who is Jewish and has deep ties with evangelicals, says religious leaders and constituents could still help swing some Senate votes, especially among Republicans. "This helps put the issue in the broader context ... of exercising our responsibility to protect God's creation ... and that helps us," he says.

'A profound moral issue'

Ball, who arrives in Copenhagen on Friday, says he plans to spend most of his time "hanging out in the hallways" of the Bella Center conference hall, where international delegates will be negotiating a deal. He'll be looking to speak with senior Obama administration officials and members of Congress.

Ball's pet cause is a proposal for rich countries, including the USA, to send poorer countries money — at least $10 billion a year will be needed, the U.N.'s Ban says. The funds would help the countries overhaul their economies to pollute less, and cope with possible consequences of climate change such as lower agricultural yields, or rising seas that could devastate island nations.

"Our role is to remind (politicians) that this is a profound moral issue, and that the basic moral teachings of religion apply to these environmental problems," Ball says.

Such talk is relatively new. It wasn't long ago that, broadly speaking, religious and environmental groups were at odds — an echo of the age-old tension between religion and science, exacerbated by the Bill Clinton-era culture wars of the 1990s.Fletcher Harper, executive director of GreenFaith, a New Jersey-based group, cites two recent turning points — the 2006 release of An Inconvenient Truth, the environmental movie featuring former vice president Al Gore, and the devastating impact the previous year of Hurricane Katrina, which Gore and others argue was made more deadly by warmer ocean water.

"When religious communities see human beings, particularly poor human beings, getting whacked like that, it's a real wake-up call," Harper says. "People saw the humanitarian side of this issue in a way they'd never seen before."

The debate is playing out worldwide. Last month, Harper attended a summit called "Many Heavens, One Earth" at Britain's Windsor Castle that sought to rally global religious leaders ahead of Copenhagen. The conference brought together leaders from nine major faiths — Bahai Faith, Buddhism, Christianity, Taoism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Shinto and Sikhism.

The power vested in those groups is enormous. Together, the world's churches and other faith groups control 7% to 8% of the world's habitable land, are involved in more than half of all schools, and hold more than 7% of global financial investments, according to the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, the British group that organized the Windsor conference.

That explains why religious groups are uniquely positioned to not only influence the political debate, but also be an active part of environmental solutions, says Olav Kjorven, an assistant secretary-general at the U.N. who was at Windsor. He says religious institutions can use their influence to promote investment in industries that emit less carbon, support education on environmental issues in schools, and make places of worship more environmentally friendly.

"We hope to spread that message to Copenhagen," Kjorven says. "The faiths are ready to move on these issues."

Concerns about cost

There are others in the religious community who believe the proposals on the table at Copenhagen would hurt, rather than help, the world's poor.

Breisner, a theologian, says "efforts to control future temperatures by reduced use of fossil fuels would cost trillions of dollars, condemning future generations in poor countries to abject poverty."

Sen. Inhofe says that efforts to bring churches into the "liberal environmental lobby" are failing, at least in his home state.

"I can't find one pastor of an evangelical church who isn't fired up on my side of the issue," Inhofe says.

Indeed, recent polls suggest some of the public urgency on the issue is fading. A survey completed in October — before the "Climategate" scandal broke — by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that 65% of Americans believe that global warming is a "serious" or "very serious" issue, down from 73% in April 2008.

That's still a majority, says Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University and co-author of A Climate for Change, which examines the global warming debate, and potential solutions, from a faith-based perspective. She says a better understanding of science has compelled senior religious leaders to join the environmental cause, even if some within their own congregations remain unconvinced.

"If you look at the heads of all major denominations — even Southern Baptists — you'll see that there's a real movement toward acknowledging the role that human activity is playing in climate change," she says.

Byron Johnson, director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, says there is evidence of a generational split on environmental issues among Evangelicals.

In a recent poll, his institute found that 73% of young Evangelicals agree with the statement that "Global climate change will have disastrous effects" — compared to 59% of older Evangelicals.

That's no big surprise, Inhofe says. "These young ones, their entire lives, all they've heard is that global warming doctrine," he says, shaking his head.

"The schools are just filling their heads with this issue."

The political debate

Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., says he has been "touched" by the role that religious leaders are playing in the environmental debate — and says they may help forge some kind of middle ground.

Brownback says he is not fully convinced that man-made climate change is occurring, but welcomes "prudent" steps recommended by some religious leaders to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

"I think their premise is right," Brownback says. "The question becomes: How do you tackle the issue?"

He ruled out passage of the energy bill that passed the House last spring, saying it would damage the economy — a stance echoed by Inhofe and many other Senate Republicans.

Brownback says he prefers a focus on innovative technology that he says could be just as effective in reducing greenhouse gases.

The White House — as well as governments in the European Union, China and much of the developing world — says anti-pollution efforts will be insufficient unless they set firm targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Whatever happens, people of faith around the world will be watching closely, says Mary Dickey, a spokeswoman for Odyssey Networks, a media organization that is sending a three-person video crew to Copenhagen to cover religious implications of the debate.

"You wouldn't believe how passionate people are about this," Dickey says.

"Faith leaders are going to be a big part of the debate at Copenhagen, and beyond."

 

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