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July 20, 2015

Drawing on Spiritual Faith to Curb Climate Change

May Boeve is Executive Director of 350.org and co-author of  Fight Global Warming Now.  This is a talk she gave recently at the Old First Reformed Church in Brooklyn, New York.  It appears on the website of Blue Mountain Center in upstate New York, where 350.org held a conference last year.  

By May Boeve

I’m going to get one thing out of the way right away, which is to say what this 350 number is all about. It stands for the safe level of carbon in the atmosphere.  It’s fun to say parts per million in church.

And absolutely-- Climate change is a topic where faith and reason come together, and

I’m here tonight to share that faith and climate change are linked together like twin ideas.   Faith compels us to believe in things we cannot prove and be sure of--and yet in doing so we are sustained and build resilience.

We cannot know what the worst effects of climate change will be—but we do know the problem is already with us. That we can no longer “stop” climate change.

But what kind of natural world will be preserved for future generations? And where will people be able to live in a changing climate? These are in so many ways questions with answers unknown to us. But just like we persist in our faith right along with our doubts, we must act to prevent the worst effects of climate change even when we can’t be sure if our efforts will add up to enough. It’s daunting—and in fact, faith can help push us towards action in the face of doubt.

I come to the climate change movement through faith and through church. I’ll get to that in a second, first I want to share a bit about the basics.

Obviously you know many of the effects of climate change, but did you know that it also connects to issues of poverty, inequality, and racism? Climate change is making the poor poorer, and the rich richer. Look at Syria, where in the midst of civil war, a horrible drought is driving already oppressed peoples in search of new homelands. Meanwhile, Exxon Mobil has made more money than any company in the history of money. It is a story of stark inequality.

Many of us were here a month ago, when Darnell Moore spoke about faith and racism. When we think about confronting racism—as we all are thinking about so much right now—we can be sure that this is part of the same struggle. A fight for a livable planet for all of us—and especially those who have been most affected by the economy of fossil fuel extraction. Who--most often--are low-income communities of color, the world over.  The goal of this series of talks is to engage topics of importance to the community—and I’m so glad that the first two are racial justice and climate justice because increasingly these struggles are uniting.

And then of course there are the other problems associated with burning fossil fuels like pollution, which affect human health and also disrupt natural systems like clean water. Take, for example, the Keystone XL pipeline, which my organization has been fighting since 2011. In order to dig up the tar sands, North America’s last rainforest was cut down. The tar sands occupy traditional people’s territories, and many communities are confronting never-before seen birth defects from living next to the ponds where polluted water is poured. The pipeline itself, in order to built, would run through the largest aquifer in the US. And if spilled, the oil destroy fresh water sources for everyone who depends on it. And then, when we burn it, it is the most polluting oil on the planet, so everyone living near a refinery is breathing toxic air. And all that oil goes into the atmosphere and makes climate change worse.

This is why we fight Keystone XL—because it is a perfect example of what’s at stake with climate change. And we might even win.

We of course have a better way. And we are starting to see it. Solar cooperatives are popping up all over the world. Recent blackouts in India resulted in the rural poor having more energy then wealthier city dwellers dependent on centralized coal plants.

So these are some basics about the problem. The most important thing that can be done today to address climate change is to leave all remaining carbon in the ground. It is possible, but only with political will and a movement. That’s the fun part—that’s the true climate solution.

Now I want to illustrate what this all has to do with Faith.

I grew up going to a Dutch Reformed church in Sonoma California, where my father was the pastor.  My parents were community activists who organized around nuclear weapons, homelessness, and affordable housing in our town. Beyond that my dad was active in a national commission on Christian Unity—with none other than Pastor Daniel Meeter of First Church.  

Spending every Sunday in church, and many other nights of the week in associated activities, meant that for me, the most important value I was taught to believe in was the power of community and the centrality of faith within that. For me that was firest expressed in an early and dogmatic crusade for animal rights…selling lemonade in the church parking lot and then donating the proceeds to animal rights organizations.  Holding meetings of my animal rights club in the church hall. Organizing and church were the same, no matter what the cause was.

As I grew older, and went away to college, I stopped going to church. And I didn’t really miss it very much. That was because I’d found a different church. I started attending weekly meetings of an upstart climate activist group on my campus. It fufilled the same values for me that church did. We had routines, we were serving a mission greater than ourselves. We even sang songs and met on Sundays!

The organization that I helped found and where I am currently executive director grew out of that college group but now includes 90 organizers all over the world in 20 countries.  Our sole purpose is to build a movement to confront climate change.  We unite community groups, like the one at my school, together under a bigger umbrella.

We began our work in 2008, and it was immediately clear that some of the most engaged groups in the world were faith communities, from the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim traditions.  Thousands of faith leaders participated in our very first day of action, which asked people to show 350s all over the world in iconic places. The most beautiful of all was one with a 3 in Jordan, a 5 in Palestine, and a 0 in Israel, a symbol that climate  change unites people who have so many other differences.

I was inspired to know that there was so much religious fervor dedicated to the climate cause. I hadn’t known that growing up. I also began to feel that even though climate activism had become my church, I still needed church. The more I learned about hurricanes and refugee crises and food shortages due to climate change, the more scary it felt and the more I needed something deeper to connect me to the work for the long haul. So I started going back to church. To this church, which in so many countless ways—from the hymns to the creed to the no clapping rule-- reminds me of my church in Sonoma.

You see—this issue is big. And very scary. And we don’t know if we will succeed. But the thing we can know is that climate change can only be confronted by communities linked together. From my friend Andy Sterm, a zen practioner in Syracuse who brought hundreds of monks to meditate during the Peoples Climate March; to Yeb Sano, government official from the Philippines who is taking a faith pilgrimage through the global south, ending at the UN climate conference in Paris; to the work of 350 NYC, working to get the city and state pension funds to be fossil fuel free. This is not a task for individual action, but a collective problem if ever there was one.

And here’s the hopeful part. There is a great deal this church can do—because it is already a collective! And I want to be a resource for this church doing everything it can. Here are some ways to think about taking action.

---Look at each practice of this congregation with a climate lens—from water use to waste to where the church’s funds are invested. How can this place be a model for sustainability?

---Investigate faith-based investment options, like the United Church of Christ Funds.

---Discuss the congregation's role as a community leader. I recall the first time I came to a service here was because I read about the work the church did to support Occupy. That is why I came back. In fact—now is a great time to get started because there is such vibrant faith and climate organizing in NYC, coming out of the Peoples Climate March.

To close—I want to confront a temptation. Sometimes I hear people say, “The Earth will be fine—it’s humans who are in trouble!” This implies, to me, giving up, throwing up our hands, not taking responsibility for a planetary crisis unfolding on our watch.

I think faith—and Christian faith in particular—has so much to offer to counter this dangerous notion. Christian tradition points to the idea that the life of an individual person can have enormous impact on the world. And so we each must do what we can because we are here to contribute every thing we can from our lives, from our time on this planet. We are here for a purpose, and we cannot be asleep as this crisis unfolds. We cannot lose hope.

Thank you.