Canadian churches and the moral responsibility to address global warming

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Isn’t climate change one of those issues where scientists, economists and politicians all disagree on the facts? So if it is indeed so complex, how can members of the public be invited to helpfully respond?

Canadian faith communities believe that global warming is a moral issue that people of faith can and must address. They stated, “We need to seek coherence between our beliefs and our actions, so that our lives and consumption habits reflect our relationship with the rest of humanity and the Earth itself...we have a moral imperative to act.”

Faith communities in Canada spoke out together publicly on climate change for the first time in October 2011. Their Interfaith Call to Leadership and Action on Climate Change was signed by 56 organizations, including CPJ.

In that document, Canada’s faith communities agreed that “the world’s religious traditions teach us to look beyond ourselves – individually and collectively, now and for future generations – as we confront the crisis of ocean and climate change, and to reflect on our choices and decisions. …We believe we must work together in transforming cultures of self-interest and unprecedented consumption into cultures of justice for all.”

But did this declaration by faith groups make any difference?

Their statement was issued before the UN’s climate conference in Durban, South Africa last December, and faith communities also assembled thousands of signatures in support of climate action. A range of federal Parliamentarians, including five members of the governing party, tabled dozens of petitions from their constituents in the House of Commons. But then Canada’s Environment Minister, Peter Kent, returned from Durban and announced that Canada would withdraw from the Kyoto Accord. So were the efforts of faith communities in vain?

A public event organized by Citizens for Public Justice and the Commission for Justice and Peace of the Canadian Council of Churches on the evening of May 14th, 2012 was designed to answer this very question. Elected representatives from each of four political parties engaged in the discussion, from their various points of view. More than 100 participants arrived on Parliament Hill to hear the politicians and develop next steps forward.

MP panelists at the climate change discussion

“Did the interfaith call have an impact?” asked Green Party leader Elizabeth May. “Yes, it helped enormously. We had MPs who never would have talked about this issue standing up in the House of Commons and reading from your petitions as they introduced them because that is what MPs do when their constituents send in petitions.”

Ted Hsu (Liberal – Kingston and the Islands) also believes that faith communities need to raise the moral implications of climate change, especially in terms of our responsibility to the people of the Global South. Anne Minh-Thu Quach (NDP - Beauharnois—Salaberry) concurred, although her own presentation was much more critical of the government’s action on climate issues to date, and thus called upon faith communities to respond more forcefully.

For his part, Michael Chong (Conservative - Wellington—Halton Hills) expressed the view that faith communities can play a role in building “trust” among the public that the science is firm and that Canadians have a responsibility to preserve environmental integrity. “Each day the issue is more clear,” he stated, “with 97 or 98 per cent of scientists agreeing that climate change is happening and the government has to take action on it — but there are still a lot of people out there who do not believe that the science is settled.”

The Canadian Council of Churches and Citizens for Public Justice plan to continue and deepen their efforts to raise the moral implications of climate change. The public interest was high in this evening’s discussion, and the expressed consensus from MPs that faith communities can and should play a role in convincing the public and governments to change was reassuring.

As Elizabeth May concluded, “Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up.” To face the crisis of global warming, Canadians need to moderate their consumption of fossil fuels and insist upon government leadership to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And faith communities have played, and in the future can play an increasingly effective role in promoting climate justice. Let’s keep hope alive, and roll up our sleeves and get at it!

Joe Gunn serves as Executive Director at CPJ.

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