Saturday, October 18, 2014

Reflections on faith and climate action: the People's Climate March

by Clara Summers

When you have a group of 10,000 people (within a larger group of 400,000), how do you speak in one voice? What do you sing?

At the People’s Climate March in NYC a few weekends ago, we sang “We are marching in the Light of God.” I was surprised at how many people knew this song, but I guess it makes sense: the words are easy to learn and remember, the tune is accessible, and after all, the 10,000 singing were the Interfaith contingent, so many of us were familiar with the hymn. We went on to sing “We’ve got the whole world in OUR hands,” and after several hours of barely-contained excitement, we finally started marching.

The Interfaith contingent at the People's Climate March
I was at the People’s Climate March in my capacity as the Baltimore Program Associate for Interfaith Power & Light, an organization that does climate change education and advocacy among faith communities. Even though I’ve only spent just over a month on the job, I’ve already been able to carry out this mission on a variety of levels: through participation in the People’s Climate March (to which we bused 180 people from the greater D.C. metropolitan area), to testifying at a hearing on nitrogen oxide emissions from coal fired power plants, to organizing almost fifty Baltimore homeowners to install solar panels. Working with Interfaith Power & Light is incredibly rewarding and empowering, and even if there are quieter days when I’m doing data entry or taking conference calls, I know that I am working for something far greater than myself, and that keeps me motivated.

What is this “far greater” thing I’m working for, though, and why is it relevant to me as a person of faith? I will spare you all the scientific details about climate science—those are available in plentiful numbers anywhere you care to look—and instead address how climate change has impacted my life and faith personally.

I spent two years of my childhood in Indonesia. My mother, a conservation biologist, moved us there for her job, and proceeded to take me and my brother on trips to natural areas all around the country. I experienced a variety of natural wonders, such as seeing tarsiers jumping through the rainforest, watching baby sea turtles erupting out of the sand like lava from a volcano, and being chased by Komodo dragons. During these trips we always made time to go snorkeling, and soon coral reefs became a fact of life for me. I knew they were threatened, but only on an intellectual level; I figured they’d always be there.

Seven years later I returned to some of those same spots where I had snorkeled before, and was confronted by the reality of environmental degradation as a result of climate change. In less than a decade, many of the coral reefs that I had found so breathtaking and eerie had become coral graveyards, thanks in large part to ocean acidification.[1] The underwater landscape of my childhood was disappearing.       

Two years later, I did a research program in Australia focused on ecology. This was literally a dream come true, because if you know anything about me, you know that I love koalas. I was truly blessed: I found an expert on koalas who agreed to advise, fund, and provide two assistants for my project, and was set loose on a national park in central Queensland where koala research had been done before. My job was to do a vegetation assessment during the day and spotlight for koalas and other arboreal marsupials at night. It was the height of the koala breeding season, so the timing was perfect.

Why am I marching? The ribbon will tell you.
Or so it should have been. We spent four days searching for koalas at that site, and the most we got out of that time koala-wise was a week-old urine stain. That same time the year before, six koalas had been detected over a period of two days. I returned to my office to write a report on why there were no koalas. Ultimately, that year had simply continued the trend of koala decline, which had been attributed to severe drought. Drought also played a role in my study, but koala decline at the site was further exacerbated by a bushfire that had decimated much of the area. It would be bad science to say that the drought and bushfire were only due to climate change, but it would also be bad science to say that their intensity was not exacerbated by climate change.[2]

While I feel a growing sadness at the biodiversity we have lost in my own lifetime, climate change’s effect on me has been much less damaging than it has been to others. When we think of climate change and our energy usage, we need to broaden the scope to include the victims of Hurricane Sandy, flooding in Pakistan, and extreme heat waves in California. We need to think of those who live closest to coal fired power plants (which more often than not are racial minorities), where asthma rates skyrocket, and those whose water becomes undrinkable due to fracking. We need to think about communities affected by mountaintop removal in Appalachia, where whole landscapes are blown to smithereens (and where my own family cemetery has been disrupted by the blasts). We need to think about the fact that farmers in central Sulawesi can no longer grow cashews, because torrential rain prevents the trees from fruiting. We need to think about the fact that farmers in the Sahel could lose up to 50% of their agricultural output by 2020. We need to think about…we need to think about…we need to think about…

We need to think about...
The issue is overwhelming, and it is easy to throw up our hands and say that nothing we do can make a difference; that the battle is already lost. But as a person of faith, I cannot take the easy route of despair. I am compelled to do the challenging thing and address my own energy usage just as I lobby for change at the state, national, and international levels. To some, the idea that we need to take personal responsibility for our contribution to climate change may seem radical. To me, that has never been a reason not to do the right thing; Jesus, after all, was all about being radical. He called us to leave everything we know and follow God, and chided those who focused on following rules instead of loving their neighbors and acting for justice.

People of faith have a duty to stewardship of Creation, no matter how hard that duty might be. No one ever said that religion was going to be easy. As people of faith, we must acknowledge that wider, systemic change needs to happen to combat climate change, but we also need to take action in our own individual lives and not be complacent. The Good News of Jesus Christ, as my dad always said, is that we as Christians are always given grace to overcome difficulties, no matter how overwhelming they may seem.

There are many actions that we can take to address climate change and our energy usage: turn off your lights and unplug your appliances when you’re not using them. Walk, bike, or take public transportation whenever possible. Buy locally-grown food and use energy-efficient light bulbs. If you’re a homeowner or pay a utility bill, look into switching to solar or wind energy (it’s cheaper than you think!). Minimize your use of plastic and reduce waste. Join your local IPL affiliate (find it here). And throughout all of these efforts, whenever you get discouraged, know that you are “marching in the Light of God,” and that “He’s got the whole world in His hands.”

I want to take a moment to acknowledge Episcopal Service Corps Maryland and all who are involved in making it a success. I’m so happy to be a Gilead this year and to have the opportunity to work on issues I care about! Thank you for making it possible.

[1] A brief lesson on how climate change affects coral reefs: rising concentrations of carbon change the pH quality of ocean water, which leads to ocean acidification. This creates a toxic environment for corals, which are very sensitive to acidity and temperature. The final result is coral bleaching: the tiny, colorful polyps that make up a larger coral wither and die, leaving a skeleton that looks like pockmarked, bleached rock. Without corals, many of the more eye-catching and interesting reef-dwellers either die or are forced to move to a healthy reef, and snorkelers like me are left with only a memory of what once was.
[2] Want more details on climate change impacts on Australia? Read this article.

1 comment:

  1. Looking forward to biographies of the rest of the house.