Phyllis Creighton, a parishioner at St. Philip’s Anglican church in Toronto, was among the Anglicans at the Retreat on Climate Change as a Moral Issue held April 16 and 17.
About 50 Canadian leaders from various faith traditions as well as environmental and international development NGOs recently held a two-day retreat in Toronto to examine ethical and justice issues around climate change and to explore common ground for action.
“We have to work together in communities of congruence…. We must be prepared to speak the truth even in the midst of denial and even in the midst of ridicule,” said Mardi Tindal, moderator of the United Church of Canada.
Tindal said that in the course of advocating for climate change action, she has learned that “there is a deep hunger for hope” among people, and that “you and I are actually in a position to offer it.”
Graham Saul, executive director of Climate Action Network-Canada, said the challenge facing environment advocates is how to take action that would “count electorally,” saying that unless public outcry is felt in the ballots, politicians will not do anything to address climate change and environmental decline. “Faith communities have a moral voice,” said Saul, noting that public opinion surveys conducted by his group have shown that Canadians do not listen to environmentalists “running around talking about catastrophe.”
Anglicans present at the retreat said they would like to see more action and commitment within the church. “I would like the Anglican Church to speak out strongly with a voice of passion and with moral conviction, not just from lay people and especially lay people in secular organizations,” said Phyllis Creighton, from the diocese of Toronto’s St. Philip’s Anglican Church. “I think that it’s wonderful to green your parish and it’s wonderful to learn about walking more lightly on earth, and we should all be doing that. But there is definitely a lag in Canada.”
Creighton urged Canadian Anglicans to overcome political apathy and inertia around climate change saying “it is our country that has far too heavy a contribution to carbon emissions and we need to be engaging with politicians on a policy level.”
David Major, of St. Stephen’s church in Chester, Nova Scotia, said he would also like the church to be “committed to certain actions and not just to doing token things.”
Willard Metzger, director of church relations for World Vision Canada, said nearly every facet of his development agency’s work among the poor is being affected by climate change.
“Climate change isn’t a future threat. It’s happening now. Extreme weather and an increase in natural disasters are jeopardizing the ability of poor communities to grow crops, access water, and house and feed themselves,” said Metzger, quoting a 2009 World Vision-Australia report on climate change. “Billions of the world’s poor are the ones likely to leave their homes in search of water to escape flooding.”
Metzger cited a United Nations report which noted that 14 of the 15 emergency appeals issued in 2007 were climate change-related. Climate change has given rise to food crises and have been wiping out some hard-won gains on poverty, he said.
Claire Demerse, associate director of The Pembina Institute’s climate change unit, said Canada has one of the poorest environmental records of the industrialized countries. For instance, Canada ranks 27th out of 29 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries in per capita greenhouse gas emissions.
Demerse added that Canada is one of the world’s worst polluters and yet it has not made commitments strong enough to curb deadly emissions of carbon dioxide, nor has it made any pledge to the Copenhagen Green Climate Fund, which is aimed at helping poor nations adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change.
She also lamented how the Harper government has set some targets to cut Canada’s green house gas emissions but has not really set up a plan to meet them. She likened it to someone who wants to lose weight but who keeps on eating potato chips.
Dennis O’Hara, director of the Elliot Allen Institute for Ecology and Theology, decried the arguments being made by some developed countries that efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions should be delayed to avoid hurting national economies. This, he said, despite widespread acknowledgment that climate change has been caused by the past development of the rich economies of the developed world.
“Inaction or inertia is unacceptable especially since the Global Humanitarian Forum estimates that the effects of climate change cause 300,000 deaths each year and seriously impacts on the lives of 325 million people,” said O’Hara. “The requirement to act is not dependent on the ability or the desire to bear the economic costs associated with the harmful act, but is determined by the victim’s right to life, health and security and by the ethical principle of retributive justice, which judges that the polluter pays. Using willingness to pay as a criteria for action devalues the lives, the health, and security of those who have unwillingly been placed at risk by climate change.”
Stan Chu Ilo, a University of Toronto student from Nigeria, said that climate change is “devastating Africa in a very massive way,” citing the plunder by both foreign and local companies of its natural resources and the dumping by richer nations of toxic wastes on its lands. “I do believe that historical factors are responsible for the present condition of Africa. At the same time, I think that paternalism is not the answer to African survival.”
Solutions have to take into account that “the destiny of Africa lies in the hands of Africans,” he said. “The voice of Africans have to be listened to, especially in the small communities where you find… the strength and grace of survival, and the wisdom of all ages.”
Loren Wilkinson, professor of inter-disciplinary studies and philosophy at Regent College, Vancouver, noted that “denial, despair and indifference” are common barriers to climate change action. He also cautioned faith communities against moralizing on climate action saying, “there is a danger of feeling that we are the enlightened ones and we have it right and we need to draw the line between the righteous and sinners.”
Other speakers spoke about how churches and groups can learn lessons from the “great struggles in the past for justice,” including the movement for the abolition of slavery in England and the civil rights movement in the United States.