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Sunday, March 26, 2017
Global warming - a burning issue for the churches
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 The following is taken from a presentation Ellen Teague gave to Our Lady Help of Christians parish in Kentish town, North London, last night (10 May 2007). She is a Catholic journalist and a member of the Columban Faith and Justice Team. When my husband and I worked in Kaduna, a city Northern Nigeria, in 1981, as lay missionaries, one of our best friends was Baba Kofi. This elderly man used to tell us that when he first moved to the small settlement of Kaduna in the 1930s it was surrounded by jungle. By day, the community took food and fuel in abundance from the forest. By night, they would listen to hyenas howling and burn fires from wood gathered just a few feet away. We could hardly believe it. We looked around us at a semi-desert landscape with few trees, and shanty towns springing up everywhere blighted by scarce water. How the environment around Kaduna had changed in one lifetime! The long-time missionaries in the area confirmed that the Sahara desert was encroaching into Nigeria at a rate of around two miles a year. Listening to Baba Kofi was my first exposure to the links between environment and development. Then, for much of the 1980s, I worked for CAFOD, particularly on its education campaign, Renewing the Earth. There were clearly links between the 1984 famine in Ethiopia and the loss of its forest cover over the previous six decades. A barren, dusty landscape combined with drought, conflict, unfair trade terms, unpayable debt meant that millions of people were reduced to dependency on handouts. In Latin America and Asia too, it was clear that poverty was worsening amidst a model of development that was largely unsustainable. Yet, while the churches were addressing poverty, the destruction of the natural world, upon which ALL human society depends, was almost completely ignored. That is except for the foundation of the ecumenical Christian Ecology Link 25 years ago this year. Weather warning Yet, in the 1990s many were suddenly sensitized when the number of so-called natural disasters increased dramatically. From Hurricane Mitch, which devastated Central America in 1998, to the massive flooding which overwhelmed Mozambique in 2000, it was clear that the benefit of years of development programmes could be wiped out overnight by severe weather. Climate Change was identified as a key reason by the first report of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change in 1997. For the first time, scientists were in broad agreement that it was indeed happening ­ the stability of the world's climate couldn't be presumed anymore. Average global temperature had risen by at least 0.7 degrees and the increase was linked to human activity ­ specifically, the massive increases in carbon dioxide being churned out into the delicate atmospheric mantle that covers the planet. Why is global warming so disastrous for poor countries? The impacts on them are worse because many of them are already more flood and drought prone, and a large share of the economy is in climate sensitive sectors such as agriculture. They have a lower capacity to adapt because of a lack of financial, institutional and technological capacity and access to knowledge. Then, climate change is likely to impact disproportionately upon the poorest people within countries, exacerbating inequities in health status and access to adequate food, clean water and other resources. Just imagine the impact the loss of glaciers worldwide due to global warming. Lima is among those cities of the south ­ packed with shantytowns - which relies on glacial melt for its water supply. Catholic response Pope John Paul II gave a lead in alerting the Catholic Church to environmental concerns with his World Peace Day message of 1 January 1990, Peace with God the Creator, Peace with all of Creation. In it, he said that Christians should "realise that their responsibility within creation and their duty towards nature and the Creator are an essential part of their faith". Global warming is mentioned in the Vatican's Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. No. 470 of the Compendium suggests that the relationship between human activity and climate change must be constantly monitored for the sake of the common good. "The climate is a good that must be protected" it says, reminding consumers and those engaged in industrial activity to develop a greater sense of responsibility for their behaviour. The Precautionary Principle and the Preferential Option for the Poor are enshrined in Catholic Social Teaching as important moral values, which are relevant for the climate change issue where the impacts are falling disproportionately on the world's poorest people and countries. The US Catholic Bishops' Conference issued a statement in 2001: 'Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence, and the Common Good' in which they stated that the level of scientific consensus on global warming obligated taking action to avert potential dangers. "Since our country's involvement is key to any resolution of these concerns," it said, "we call on our people and government to recognise the seriousness of the global warming threat and to develop effective policies that will diminish the possible consequences of global climate change". The Bush administration was urged to undertake initiatives for energy conservation and the development of renewable energy. US citizens were asked to reflect on their lifestyles as "voracious consumers" and consider living more simply. In September 2006, New Zealand's Catholics were urged to adopt simpler lifestyles by the country's bishops who identified climate change as "one of the most urgent threats" facing Pacific peoples. Rising temperatures and sea levels, and the greater intensity of storms and natural disasters, they said, are already affecting the food and water supply for people on low-lying islands. They warned that the Pacific region could have a million environmental refugees before the end of this century. The bishops asked Catholics to use less energy, buy locally produced goods which require less transportation, and reduce their car use to bring down carbon emissions. In 2002, the Australian Catholic bishops took a lead in the Catholic world and set up a new agency to focus specifically on environmental issues. Named Catholic Earthcare Australia, its two most recent conferences in Perth and Melbourne during October 2006 focused on climate change. Throughout Africa, emergencies distract bishops' conferences from longer term issues such as climate change. This was summed by Archbishop Pius Ncube of Bulawayo in 2005 when he reported in the publication, Up in Smoke - Africa, that people over 50 years of age have noticed that there is much less rain in Matabeleland than there was 30 years ago, but "we have so many immediate crises in our country that the random chopping of trees for fuel and the diminishing wildlife are not really being addressed". The Bishops of the Philippines said back in the 1988 that "the assault on creation is sinful and contrary to the teachings of our faith". During 2001, the Catholic Bishops of Northern Mexico criticising lumber companies for having "no vision of the future" and "placing economic incentives before all else". In 2005 a Brazilian Catholic bishop succeeded in stalling a huge irrigation project for Brazil's impoverished North-east by staging a hunger strike. Bishop Luiz Flavio Cappio felt the project would exacerbate problems the area is already experiencing due to climate change. Global warming features prominently in the Environmental Justice section of Caritas Internationalis' 2005 Report. "Climate change will impact food security ­ through diminished agricultural productivity and fishing ­ and could hasten the spread of waterborne diseases and accelerate desertification" it says. The report suggests that climate change will increase the vulnerability of women to poverty. Caritas Oceania was mandated to take the issue of environmental justice forward, and it will be a major topic of study at the 2007 Caritas Internationalis General Assembly. Action in the UK The Catholic Church in England and Wales is, through its membership of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, signed up to the Operation Noah, a campaign by Christian churches to curb human-induced climate change. Participants are invited to sign a 'Climate Covenant' promising to cut their own greenhouse gas emissions, and encouraged to put pressure on the UK government and world leaders to do the same. Churches are urged to sign up to green electricity, deriving from renewable energy sources. This year, as Christian Ecology link celebrates its 25th birthday, it is important to acknowledge the key role it has played in raising awareness about these issues, especially through its excellent website ( It has promoted Eco-Congregation and Eco-Schools which start groups of with environmental audits and offer plenty of positive ideas. Its LOAF principles ­ urging people to buy food that is Locally produced, Organically grown, Animal friendly and Fairly traded ­ have been taken up by members of the National Justice and Peace Network. CAFOD, along with Progressio and Columban Faith and Justice, is now part of the Working Group on Climate Change and Development which has signed up to the Up in Smoke series of reports, available on the web. Key recommendations include rich countries cutting their greenhouse gas emissions and more support for community-based coping strategies and disaster risk reduction. CAFOD is now in the process of developing a Climate Change campaign and this is to be welcomed. This year's Live Simply initiative is already playing its part in sensitising people to how they use the natural world. The Future A number of Catholic theologians ­ particularly those with a creation-centred mission - have been addressing climate change for some years. Thomas Berry, Ed Echlin, and Sean McDonagh are amongst them. In his new book on Climate Change and the Churches, Fr Sean McDonagh complains that almost all Catholic Social Teaching overlooks the fact that life-giving human social relations are always embedded in vibrant and sustainable ecosystems. Anything that negatively impacts ecosystems or alters the equilibrium of the biosphere, such as global warming, is a disruption of the common good in a most fundamental way ­ especially if it creates negative irreversible changes. The work of these theologians should be better known and promoted, especially in seminaries. Prophetic clergy in the South include Fr José Andrés Tamayo, a Honduran priest who campaigns against deforestation which is contributing to a warming in his region. "Although Honduras makes a minimal contribution towards climate change, our poor communities are being impoverished by it" he told a G8 Climate Change meeting in Edinburgh in July 2005. Average temperatures in the Southern area of Honduras have increased by between 1.5 and 2.00 degrees over recent decades and areas which had a mild climate have now become desertified, with streams drying up. Fr Tamayo is the pioneering leader of the Environmental Movement of Olancho, a coalition of small-scale farmers and community leaders calling for a ten-year moratorium on logging. Twenty-five percent of the greenhouse has emissions from Honduras are from the burning of rainforests. His crucial work has led to tensions with local authorities ­ both secular and Church ­ but his prophetic stance is recognised internationally. The National Justice and Peace Network of England and Wales and the National Board of Catholic Women are amongst those groups within the Church moving into new areas of work to address climate change. This will mean taking on board the concept of inter-generational justice and moving beyond anthropocentrism. It will also mean questioning what true sustainable development really is, and valuing God's creation in its totality. In addition, a willingness to comprehend a paradigm shift in the way we live ­ to live more simply. This generation literally has Planet Earth in the palm of our hand. Let us take measures now to nurture it and treat it gently, rather than throwing it away.
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