December 13, 2009
By Stephen Scharper
Long before Al Gore blazed an inconvenient trail into our collective moral imagination, and two decades before the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, United Church of Canada theologian David Hallman was clanging the tocsin of climate change, often to an indifferent public.
As the World Council of Churches point-person on global warming, Hallman could often be seen at environmental gatherings, from church basements to UN summits, reusable coffee mug attached to his belt, reporting on the work of climate scientists and stitching together the World Council of Churches' interests in justice, peace and "the integrity of creation."
Hallman was among the vanguard in an international Christian movement that spoke out against not only the devastating ecological impacts of climate change, but also its impact on many of the world's poorest and most marginalized peoples, from Bangladesh to Nunavut.
These "bioneering" faithful spoke a different language than the scientists and policy-makers they engaged in climate change conversations. They spoke of the Earth, not as a resource, but as home, perceiving our planet's ecosystems as a divine gift, rather than merely a profitable commodity. Building upon the insights of recently deceased Roman Catholic priest and "geologian" Thomas Berry, these ecologically sensitive faith spokespersons viewed the universe not as a "a collection of objects" to be bought, sold, used and discarded, but as a "communion of subjects."
This Sunday, the alarm bell sounded by David Hallman and the WCC nearly three decades ago will be joined by myriad church bells in Copenhagen and across Canada at 3 p.m., to coincide with an ecumenical service at the COP15 climate change colloquy. Churches throughout Copenhagen and the world, it is hoped will ring their bells 350 times, in recognition of the 350 parts per million of carbon in our atmosphere deemed acceptable by climatologists. Until 200 years ago, these scientists argue, the atmosphere pumped along with 275 ppm, but today we stand at 390 ppm, and it is getting rather warm in here.
This clarion gesture is a further example of how religious traditions are reinventing and reshaping older ritual forms to deal with our present ecological challenge; in this case, combining the empirical and the empyrean, the hard science of climate change with the sonorous sacral richness of ecclesial bells.
What these actions denote is that climate change is not only a question of science, to be remedied by technological innovation, but a profoundly moral and spiritual crisis, in which the most affluent and industrialized nations are helping render the lands of the poorest on the planet uninhabitable.
The weight of suffering involved in climate change falls ponderously upon the poor. The Maldives islands, for example, are almost completely subsumed by rising seas, and in Bangladesh, around 1 million are displaced every year by flooding, with an impoverished government unable to provide new housing, leading to a surge in homelessness that parallels the rise of the oceans. Moreover, the majority of Bangladeshis live on land less than 10 meters above sea level, and 35 million live in coastal areas. If nothing is done to delimit climate change, these people are in grave danger of losing their homes and their livelihoods.
And that is not all. With a sea level crescendo of 40 centimetres, which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says is likely in this century, the number of people in coastal areas who could potentially be flooded out of their homes is 94 million, 60 million of whom live in Southeast Asia.
As Christian ethicist Michael Northcott states in his hard-hitting study, A Moral Climate: The Ethics of Climate Change, "global warming is the Earth's judgment on the global market empire, and on the heedless consumption it fosters."
What these religious voices are observing is that the climate crisis runs along the same fault lines of social, economic and political oppression, and it is to the seamless garment of social and ecological concerns that they should turn their rituals, prayer, advocacy and activism.
David Hallman and others in these movements have kept faith in Kyoto, even when Canada's political leadership has not. Their religious traditions, at least theoretically, are subject to a higher authority than popular opinion and moneyed interests. Their cycles generally are long-term, rather than simply the next election, and in many of their traditions there is a particular concern for the poor and marginalized. It is traditions such as these that can be heard amidst the tolling of church bells from Copenhagen to Canada, the sounds of those who, thankfully, unite their faith with the fate of the Earth.
Stephen Scharper is attending the COP15 meetings in Copenhagen on behalf of the University of Toronto's Centre for Environment.