Published January 25, 2016
In May 1927, a fearless aviator named Charles Lindbergh circled his fragile single-engine monoplane, waiting for tens of thousands of expectant Parisians to clear the runway at Le Bourget Field. When he landed, completing his solo trans-Atlantic flight, the jubilant crowd erupted — it was a unifying moment of “can-do” optimism that electrified people around the globe.
Eighty-eight years later, on Dec. 12, 2015, history was made again at Le Bourget. Delegates from 196 nations, for the first time ever, agreed at the 21st United Nations Climate Summit to reduce their carbon emissions, wean the world economy off fossil fuels, and give the human race a shot at surviving the rapidly escalating dangers of global warming in the decades ahead.
Well over 10,000 people crowded the summit venue, and in a fashion similar to Lindbergh’s landing, they were stunned by the outcome, abuzz, euphoric. Despite gloomy predictions, history had been made. The Paris Agreement — though voluntary and still fuzzy on how goals will be reached and enforced — exceeded the expectations of many.
That bolt of optimism also passed through faith leaders onsite and around the world. They sensed their moment had arrived. As COP21 participants celebrated, I dashed into the media center and stopped the first person I recognized, Joe Ware, a spokesman for Christian Aid, a faith-based group in London dedicated to environmental protection. He was breathless.
“Creation care is what this [Paris] agreement is all about,” Ware exclaimed, having just read the 31-page document. “And creation care is at the heart of every world faith. For too long, the movement has been hijacked by environmentalists, the good guys, really. But they only scared people away. The church is now playing catch up, even the Catholic Church, which moves at glacial speed. But now it’s in the forefront,” thanks to Pope Francis’ climate change and environmental leadership.
Two days later, I was in Rome, the seat of the Catholic Church. I had interviews arranged to test a premise: Would 1.2 billion Catholics, joined by Protestants, Jews, Muslims and Hindus, leave behind divisive issues such as gay marriage and abortion? Would they come together instead to fill a vacuum in environmental leadership left by politicians who have largely ignored melting ice caps and rising sea levels to side with the money, power and carbon pollution of big oil, gas and coal?
“People are saying this is the Catholic hour; the Christian hour,” Sister Sheila Kinsey told me in her office at the Christian Brothers House in Rome, where she runs the Justice Peace & Integrity of Creation Committee.
“We are dealing with issues that are critical to human nature,” she added. “There has to be a way to come together and do it right, to protect the environment and human rights. We can go to the moon, for goodness sake! Why can’t we deal with this? It’s a matter of setting our priorities, establishing our values.”
The Pope Francis factor
Last June, Pope Francis helped lay the groundwork for success in Paris when he released his historic and controversial teaching document Laudato Si, On Care for Our Common Home. In the 180-page encyclical, the Catholic Church made its latest by most visible stand on the environment — and it was a strong one. The encyclical asserts that it is possible for humanity to destroy life on earth through the unabated extraction and burning of fossil fuels, that degradation of the environment most hurts the poor and vulnerable, and that it is every human being’s moral duty to combat these evils.
The pope was not alone. In August, Islamic leaders from 20 countries called on the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims to support a strong Paris agreement in its Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change, which asks national governments to “re-focus their concerns from unethical profit from the environment, to that of preserving it and elevating the condition of the world’s poor.”
Though both were landmark declarations, Pope Francis and the Islamic leaders are actually late to the table of faith-based Earth stewardship. Grassroots groups such as Sheila Kinsey’s, Christian Aid and the ecumenical GreenFaith, among many others, have for years been pressing churches, synagogues and mosques to reduce their carbon footprint, divest from fossil fuel investments, and teach their congregations to reduce consumption. Even Christian fundamentalists, historically known for their climate change denial, have seen inspiring green leaders arise from their ranks, including Rev. Richard Cizik of the New Evangelical Partnership and Jim Ball of the Evangelical Environmental Network.
But Pope Francis, given his overwhelming global popularity and charisma, has dramatically raised the visibility of a faith-based movement which hopes to have a profound impact on climate change, forest preservation and environmental protection. He did so with great care and management savvy, Cardinal Peter Turkson explained to me in an exclusive Mongabay interview at the Vatican.
Turkson is from a mining town in Ghana. Some Vatican insiders thought he would succeed Pope Benedict XVI, not Francis, because of the rapid spread of Catholicism in Africa. Instead, he heads the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace, where the pope put him in charge of the 18-month effort to research and draft Laudato Si with input from world experts in myriad fields.
Sitting in his formal conference room outside his office, Turkson shocked me with his candor.
“At the time Pope Francis took over, the church had a lot of bruises,” he explained. “Pedophilia [by priests] was at its raging height, ok? So many accusations. He set up a commission to deal with it. It’s not that the bruises are gone. But his own sense of leadership, simplicity, authenticity and credibility have helped shove a whole lot of this bad stuff into the background.”
Turkson wasn’t finished. In a backhanded way, he acknowledged what led to Pope Benedict’s unprecedented resignation in 2013: “It’s not to say Benedict didn’t do anything. But Francis’ style of leadership is different. You don’t open The New York Times every day and read about pedophilia and all these scandals. It’s as if those are things of the past.”
Scandals are still being reported, of course. But Turkson’s point is a good one. Francis believes so fervently in the dangers of climate change and its impact on the world’s poor, that he is putting the message of Laudato Si out front, making it a top priority for people of all faiths to rally around.
Francis has done this, Vatican observers say, because he believes strongly that fighting climate change is a moral and religious imperative. As a bonus, taking a strong stand on the issue allows him to make new allies in new constituencies long skeptical of the church.
And it places him squarely on the side of the church’s social justice wing — which cared little about the doctrinaire priorities of Pope Benedict. Remarkably, Francis has staked his papacy, observers say, on being green — of taking care of the environment and the poor.
“This is referred to as the Pope Francis factor,” Turkson told me.
The Paris climate agreement: “Defective and fragile”
The day I spoke with Sister Sheila in Rome, she invited me to a meeting of the Integrity of Creation Working Group. Thirteen international monks, nuns and other faith leaders, seated around a large table, shared their impressions from Paris.
Rodrigo de Castro Amédée Péret, a Franciscan monk from Brazil, cautioned that while media reports of the Paris Agreement were largely effusive, especially with the first-ever pledge to reduce deforestation, “We need to approach the document as defective and fragile.”
There is a goal to keep temperatures from warming another half-degree Celsius by 2100, but no plan as to how, he said. The entire agreement is voluntary, with no binding language or penalties for the failure of individual nations to meet their self-set carbon reduction targets. And funds to help vulnerable nations adapt to sea-level rise, for example, are billions in arrears.
“If we have the papal encyclical behind this document, that’s good,” said Péret, whose monastic group has fought illegal mining in Third World nations. “But we must remain vigilant. We must hold countries accountable. Human rights are at stake. And changing the habits of consumerism will be difficult.”
“Too many moneyed people still deny the reality of climate change,” Sister Sheila asserted.
Marcia Lee, who coordinates environmental protection activities for a Franciscan order in Detroit, cautioned, “This is not a political issue. But we’re going to have a real hard struggle with our governments to get anything done.”
Others around the table, from Indonesia, the Philippines, Ghana and Australia, were more upbeat.
“There are small people who are ready to listen and to act,” said Sister Maamalifur Poreku, with the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa. “For change to come, we need an approach from the bottom and the top. We will never ask for a plastic bag, for example. This is an action we can take. Make [others] conscious of our faith and action. If the grassroots are awake, something will happen.”
This is the flame of hope at the intersection of faith and environmentalism. Sister Sheila says that education is key. Where faith leaders preach forcefully and set consistent examples, using Laudato Si as their guide, congregations will be inspired and follow. Catholic marching orders — complete with point-by-point study guides — are currently flowing down through the church hierarchy, from bishops at the diocesan level to priests leading Catholic schools and congregations at local levels.
“This is the moment the spirit is trying to work,” Sister Sheila told me. “We need to be there, in all corners of the world, to carry out the message as best we can. We believe in it. We believe in it.”
“People need hope”
Tall and thin, easily spotted in a crowd, the Rev. Fletcher Harper is executive director of GreenFaith, Interfaith Partners for Action for the Earth. He has run the influential organization for a dozen years and is based in Highland Park, New Jersey.
His priest-like collar purple sweatshirt caught my attention at the climate summit. Harper, an Episcopal priest, was in high demand, constantly on his cell phone. But shortly before the Paris climate agreement was signed he agreed to talk at the media center about the role his organization has played since 1992 in faith-based environmental protection.
“Over the past 18 months, we launched a campaign called Our Voices designed to lift up the voices of faith leaders in support of a strong agreement in Paris,” Harper told me. “We do a range of things like leadership training for clergy and lay leaders.”
GreenFaith claims other practical accomplishments. It has installed a megawatt of solar projects in New Jersey communities. It advocated for state-owned vehicles to pollute less. It successfully sued an incinerator that was violating air emissions standards and won an $850,000 settlement.
Talk with Harper for just a few minutes and you get a sense of the vast potential of global faith communities that Pope Francis envisions coming together as one — from the grassroots action, to the solar-topped roofs, to the courtrooms — to care for “our common home.”
Harper is no idealist. He’s a pragmatist. He knows that charisma of the kind exuded by Pope Francis can only take you so far. Especially in America, where climate deniers are still legion — particularly among conservative Christians.
“The biggest danger of the encyclical, and the pope is very aware of this, is it’s not enough,” Harper told me. “You need people to do it. That’s why we’re making such a big commitment to leadership training.”
But even training isn’t enough, he said. If we are to save the world from global warming, we all have to change. Every one of us. We need to use less energy. We need to use less plastic. We need to elect politicians who do not politicize a dire scientific reality. We need to change the way we live.
“We need a green economy,” Harper says. “Religious groups are going to start speaking out more about this. We need a commitment nationally to create millions of new [green] jobs. We need solar panels and wind turbines. We have to retrofit buildings all over the country and around the world. That’s how jobs are created. That’s how you lift the poor out of poverty.
“And the apocalyptic narratives have to stop. People need hope. Martin Luther King Jr., didn’t say, ‘I have a nightmare.’ He said, ‘I have a dream.’ That’s how we move people. That’s how we affect change.”