Religious Communities Press for Climate Justice

The Rev. Dr. Janet L. Parker discusses how religious groups see climate action as a matter of fairness and equality.

A Buddhist monk is fitted with electrodes in a neuroscience lab. (WIRED/<a href=Brian Ulrich)" data-srcset=" 450w, 450w, 450w, 450w, 250w" data-sizes="auto" />
A Buddhist monk is fitted with electrodes in a neuroscience lab. (WIRED/Brian Ulrich)

Religious communities are putting their faith into action by rallying around a common call for earth care and environmental justice as the nation celebrates the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. One example of this action is the multifaith contingent that will gather for the Climate Rally on the National Mall on April 25. The group was organized by Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light, whose website highlights many religious communities’ moral motivation for participating in the rally: “For the sake of all that we hold sacred, for people and for Creation, we are gathering with thousands of others on the Mall to raise our voices together, urging the Senate to support strong, fair, comprehensive climate legislation this year.”

Religious observances of Earth Day range from the climate rally’s activism to the solemnities of worship as many congregations now host an Earth Day worship service every year. But the Earth Day efforts provide a glimpse into a bigger story about religion’s growing role in public debates about planetary stewardship. In particular, religions are demanding a place at the table when it comes to climate change. And around the globe, people of many faiths are joining forces to tell the world that solving climate change is a moral imperative and a matter of basic justice.

This insistence on the justice dimension of climate policy also puts religious communities at the center of the burgeoning worldwide movement for “climate justice.” The climate justice movement both emerges from and links up with the broader environmental justice movement in the United States, which has deep roots in the churches. In fact, the United Church of Christ’s landmark report on “Toxic Wastes and Race,” released in 1987, helped spark the environmental justice movement in the United States.

This religious component of the climate justice movement grows out of longstanding religious concern for human health, well-being, and social justice, and is a recent but natural extension of what churches, synagogues, mosques, and sanghas have always done: diagnose the human condition and attend to human need. This common purpose helps explain how religions with widely divergent beliefs and theologies can work together on climate justice. Religious leaders from Pope Benedict to the Dalai Lama to Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams are calling for action. And within the past year the Catholic Church launched its “Who’s Under Your Carbon Footprint?” campaign, emphasizing the need to care for the poor who are most affected by climate change and calling on Catholics to take the St. Francis Pledge to Care for Creation and the Poor.

A particularly compelling instance of interfaith cooperation on climate justice was seen at the Christian-Muslim Youth Forum at the U.N. Climate Conference in Copenhagen when forum leaders issued a statement including the following recognition of climate injustice: “We are aware that changes in our climate will have disproportionate effects on the poor and irreversible consequences for future generations. Our faith obligates us to care for the earth and to attend to those who are in need and as our representatives we call on you to take heed of this and act effectively.”

Religious traditions address climate change from a different angle than businesses, governments, and even many environmentalists. The starting point is not macroeconomics or national security, national self-interest or ecosystem health. Instead, most religions focus on the human being as the center of God’s concern, and this belief is particularly strong for the Abrahamic faith traditions. Tyler Edgar, associate director of the National Council of Churches’ Climate Change and Energy program, explains, “We focus on the impacts of climate change on God’s people, because that’s what people can relate to. Once the human impacts are understood, the interdependence between human health and the health of the rest of God’s creation can be addressed.”

Alexei Laushkin, director of major projects for the Evangelical Environmental Network, agrees with this human-centered focus. He says that evangelical climate advocates teach that mitigating climate change and its impacts “is a natural extension of their pro-life ethic—the people least able to deal with environmental impacts are the poor and vulnerable…those Jesus taught us to serve. If we want to serve the poor around the world, we have to look at environmental issues as well.”

One critical aspect of climate justice is the acknowledgement of “climate debt,” which the developed countries of the world owe to the developing countries as a result of decades of polluting the atmosphere with greenhouse gas emissions. In late February the World Council of Churches Executive Committee issued a statement asserting that a fair, ambitious, and binding climate agreement must include “the recognition of the historic responsibility for the CO2 emissions of industrialized countries, a measurable commitment to have a maximum of 350 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere, concrete ways of adaptation, mitigation, technology transfer and funding.”

Many religious groups consider international adaptation assistance to help developing nations cope with climate change a moral responsibility and a matter of climate equity. Those who benefited from years of indiscriminate pollution must now make provisions for developing nations to chart a prosperous path for their people through a cleaner energy economy while protecting their populations from the harmful effects of climate change.

This is a hard message to sell to the average American citizen and his or her elected representatives. Yet without adaptation assistance and technology transfer, the world’s developing nations will rightly resist a binding climate agreement. The religious community could make a valuable contribution to achieving a successful international climate agreement by reframing climate justice as a matter of deep religious conviction and high moral duty rather than an ideological position staked out by warring political parties.

Domestic and international climate justice also requires attention to race and class dynamics that hamper poor and minority communities’ lives and expose them to greater climate risks. Faith communities, which are among the first responders to natural disasters, see firsthand the inequities experienced by poor and minority communities in both the prevention and response to natural disasters. As a result, they often become the greatest champions of marginalized communities. Politicians may come and go, but the church stays in the community.

The interfaith unity of purpose on climate change is one that policymakers, politicians, environmentalists, and justice advocates would be wise to heed because tackling climate change may prove impossible without the moral and spiritual energies of the world’s faiths. What’s more, if religious leaders and their communities are treated as partners in mitigating climate change the outcomes of global climate negotiations and national climate policies are more likely to protect the weakest populations and to hold polluters responsible. In other words, the outcome is more likely to be just for all parties.

Rachel Cohen, senior legislative assistant for the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, cited the words “Justice, justice, you shall pursue” from Deuteronomy in an interview for this article, noting that “[What this means is that] not only do we have to get to our goal of a sustainable environment, but we have to do so in a way that’s fair, just, and equitable. This is central to what we’re all about.”

The Rev. Dr. Janet L. Parker is the pastor for parish life at Rock Spring Congregational United Church of Christ in Arlington, VA, and a Scholar Associate with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress.

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