Cli­mate change is a top spir­i­tual pri­or­ity for these re­li­gious lead­ers

The Myanmar Times - Weekend - - Weekend | Environment -

OFF the Greek is­land of Spet­ses, the leader of 300 mil­lion Chris­tians world­wide told a group of nearly 200 re­li­gious lead­ers, aca­demics and ac­tivists that they needed to move beyond in­tel­lec­tu­al­ism when it came to the en­vi­ron­ment.

“What re­mains for us is to preach what we prac­tice,” said Ortho­dox Ec­u­meni­cal Pa­tri­arch Bartholomew of Con­stantino­ple, turn­ing a tra­di­tional phrase on its head. “Now we must be­gin the long and dif­fi­cult way from the mind, to the heart . . . May God guide you in your service to his peo­ple and the care of his cre­ation.”

The en­vi­ron­ment has de­fined 78-yearold Bartholomew’s ten­ure for more than a quar­ter cen­tury: The gath­er­ing at sea this month was the ninth he has or­gan­ised since the mid-1990s. This one fo­cused on At­tica, the penin­sula sur­round­ing Athens, Greece that juts out into the Aegean Sea, and Bartholomew brought to­gether sci­en­tists and clergy to ex­am­ine the state of wa­ter bod­ies rang­ing from the Danube and Ama­zon rivers to the Baltic and Adri­atic seas and the Arc­tic Ocean.

In Novem­ber 1997, he had de­liv­ered an ad­dress in Santa Bar­bara, Cal­i­for­nia, where he of­fi­cially clas­si­fied crimes against the nat­u­ral world as sins.

“For hu­mans to cause species to be­come ex­tinct and to de­stroy the bi­o­log­i­cal di­ver­sity of God’s cre­ation; for hu­mans to de­grade the in­tegrity of Earth by caus­ing changes in its cli­mate, by strip­ping the Earth of its nat­u­ral forests, or destroying its wet­lands; for hu­mans to in­jure other hu­mans with dis­ease for hu­mans to con­tam­i­nate the Earth’s wa­ters, its land, its air, and its life, with poi­sonous sub­stances,” he told a crowd that in­cluded then-in­te­rior Sec­re­tary Bruce Bab­bitt. “These are sins.”

Pope Fran­cis has like­wise­drawn global at­ten­tion­toen­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivism: On the same day Barthlomew was con­clud­ing his con­fer­ence in Greece, the pope brought the lead­ers of multi­na­tional en­ergy and in­vest­ment firms to the Vat­i­can to dis­cuss the path for­ward on cli­mate change.

At a time when some po­lit­i­cal lead­ers have be­come more cau­tious about - or have out­right re­jected - poli­cies aimed at curb­ing green­house gas emis­sions, sev­eral ma­jor faith lead­ers are mak­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal care a top spir­i­tual pri­or­ity.

But they have also strug­gled to in­spire some of their con­gre­gants into ac­tion.

“Even when there’s a will, there is not al­ways a will­ing­ness to act,” said Nige­rian Car­di­nal John Olorun­femi Onaiyekan, one of two car­di­nals who trav­eled to the pa­tri­arch’s con­fer­ence. “The spirit is will­ing, but very of­ten the flesh is weak.”

Still, Onaiyekan and oth­ers who had jour­neyed to Greece for the three-day “Green At­tica” con­fer­ence em­pha­sised that they would per­sist in rais­ing the moral and eth­i­cal di­men­sions of cli­mate change.

In his home coun­try of Nige­ria, Onaiyekan said in an in­ter­view that “there is a kind of am­bi­gu­ity about cli­mate change” be­cause it is “a na­tion largely de­pen­dent on oil rev­enue.” But those liv­ing on the Niger Delta have ex­pe­ri­enced the dam­age as­so­ci­ated with oil pro­duc­tion first­hand, he said. It would be naive, he said, to ex­pect oil com­pa­nies and gov­ern­ments to shift their prac­tices on their own.

“If you are wait­ing for them to change, you will wait till Je­sus comes back again,” he said. “We feel the only area where we can ac­tu­ally make an im­pact is to con­stantly keep chal­leng­ing our lead­ers to stop killing us. Stop killing your peo­ple.”

Fran­cis - who is­sued the first papal en­cycli­cal fo­cused solely on the en­vi­ron­ment, “Laudato Sì,” in 2015 pressed this mes­sage dur­ing his pri­vate au­di­ence ear­lier this month with ex­ec­u­tives from Exxonmobil, Eni, BP, Royal Dutch Shell, Equinor and Pe­mex.

Call­ing cli­mate change “a chal­lenge of epochal pro­por­tions,” the pope said that the pri­vate sec­tor had taken mod­est steps to­ward in­cor­po­rat­ing cli­mate risks into its busi­ness mod­els and fund­ing re­new­able en­ergy.

“Progress has in­deed been made,” he told the group as he wrapped up the twoday ses­sion. “But is it enough?”

Former en­ergy sec­re­tary Ernest Moniz, who at­tended the meet­ing, said in an in­ter­view that par­tic­i­pants dis­cussed “the moral and eth­i­cal di­men­sions” of cli­mate change, as well as ways to shift to a low­car­bon path.

“Every­body was there try­ing to find a way to go for­ward,” Moniz said.

The pa­tri­arch, who re­sides in Istanbul, has spent years bring­ing to­gether un­likely al­lies while also seek­ing to re­ori­ent the Ortho­dox Church. In 1989 his pre­de­ces­sor, Pa­tri­arch Dim­itrios I, des­ig­nated Sept. 1 as a day of prayer for the wel­fare of all cre­ation, and Barthlomew has ex­panded upon this ini­tia­tive.

Jane Lubchenco, who headed the Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion dur­ing Barack Obama’s ad­min­is­tra­tion and served as the sci­en­tific co-chair of most of these con­fer­ences, said the pa­tri­arch had worked to “po­si­tion the Ortho­dox Church as a very stew­ard­ship­fo­cused re­li­gion.”

Back in 1995, she re­called, he con­vened a meet­ing on the mean­ing of the apoc­a­lypse in the mod­ern world, to com­mem­o­rate the 1,900th an­niver­sary of the Book of Rev­e­la­tion. In that con­text, Lubchenco said, Barthlomew warned that the apoc­a­lypse could be un­der­way if hu­mans did not re­assess their im­pact on the Earth.

This month’s gath­er­ing - which in­cluded stops on the is­lands of Spet­ses and Hy­dra - in­cluded sim­i­larly dire warn­ings from re­searchers. Hans Joachim Schellnhu­ber, who di­rects the Pots­dam In­sti­tute for Cli­mate Im­pact Re­search, de­scribed the cur­rent changes aris­ing from fos­sil fuel burn­ing as “dis­rup­tion on a global scale.”

With­out a sharp re­duc­tion in green­house gas emis­sions, Schellnhu­ber told the au­di­ence, large swaths of Nige­ria, the Philip­pines and else­where “will be­come un­in­hab­it­able” sim­ply be­cause they will be too hot for hu­mans to live in.

Some of the most fiery rhetoric came from Columbia Univer­sity Earth In­sti­tute di­rec­tor Jef­frey Sachs, who spoke to the group in Greece be­fore de­part­ing for the Vat­i­can to par­tic­i­pate in the papal cli­mate con­fer­ence as well. In an im­pas­sioned speech, Sachs charted the his­toric devel­op­ment of the global cap­i­tal­ist econ­omy, ar­gu­ing that its foun­da­tion upon the idea of “limited li­a­bil­ity” has meant that cor­po­ra­tions will not take re­spon­si­bil­ity for the eco­nomic dam­age they’ve caused.

“What we’ve proved is greed un­leashed has no bound­aries at all,” Sachs said. “That is the mod­ern econ­omy: Un­leash the greed.”

The pa­tri­arch, who sat in the front row for the en­tirety of the con­fer­ence, opened and closed the pro­ceed­ings. Speak­ing in English, he framed con­ser­va­tion as a cause in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked to both his faith and the broader cause of so­cial jus­tice.

“Any kind of alien­ation be­tween hu­man be­ings and na­ture is a dis­tor­tion of Chris­tian the­ol­ogy and an­thro­pol­ogy,” he said.

Even small de­tails of Bartholomew’s itinerary car­ried sym­bolic sig­nif­i­cance. His top en­vi­ron­men­tal ad­viser, Fa­ther John Chrys­savgis, asked the con­fer­ence ho­tels to avoid plas­tic straws and nixed a planned bless­ing for Hy­dra’s fish­ing fleet that was spon­sored by an oil com­pany.

With his free-flow­ing white beard and braided pony­tail - high-rank­ing Ortho­dox of­fi­cials es­chew hair­cuts on the grounds that the prac­tice smacks of van­ity - the pa­tri­arch stirred an out­pour­ing of af­fec­tion as he vis­ited two small is­lands dur­ing his tour. Church bells pealed as his yacht came into the is­lands’ har­bors, and lo­cal res­i­dents thronged him as he made his way into town.

But it is un­clear if that rev­er­ence has trans­lated into an em­brace of his en­vi­ron­men­tal mis­sion, es­pe­cially in the United States. Fa­ther Ter­ence Baz, an Ortho­dox priest in Clifton, New Jersey, said his parish­ioners are “blue-col­lar work­ers, mostly Repub­li­can.”

He added that many con­ser­va­tives from the Epis­co­pal Church and other Protes­tant sects have re­cently switched to the Ortho­dox Church in search of a more tra­di­tion-bound faith, “So there is a re­sis­tance against recog­nis­ing the re­al­ity of what is go­ing to come.”

Chrys­savgis said the pa­tri­arch has plans to “reach out to parishes in a more sys­tem­atic fash­ion” on en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues through the church hier­ar­chy but added that “it’s a real strug­gle.”

Amer­i­can re­li­gious con­ser­va­tives such as E. Calvin Beis­ner, founder of the Corn­wall Al­liance for the Stew­ard­ship of Cre­ation, wrote in an email that “many Ro­man Catholics, Eastern Ortho­dox, and Protes­tants” share his skep­ti­cism of the idea that burn­ing fos­sil fu­els will cause ma­jor en­vi­ron­men­tal dam­age.

“The abun­dant, af­ford­able, reliable en­ergy gen­er­ated from fos­sil fu­els has been in­dis­pens­able to lift­ing and keep­ing whole so­ci­eties out of poverty,” he said, adding that these ben­e­fits “far out­weigh their costs, whether to in­di­vid­u­als, to spe­cific na­tions or re­gions, or to the en­tire world.”

But as the hy­dro­foil cruised to­ward Athens, the bishop of Sal­is­bury, Nick Holtam, said lead­ers such as Bartholomew and Fran­cis can bol­ster pol­i­cy­mak­ers’ con­vic­tions.

“Churches don’t look like cam­paign­ing or­gan­i­sa­tions,” Holtam said, but when it comes to politi­cians, “they do need the le­git­i­macy of peo­ple who will sup­port them in do­ing hard things.”

Photo: Shutterstock

When re­li­gions talk en­vi­ron­ment.

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