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Some faith groups resist pope’s climate message

By Joe Gunn

12/16/2015
Tom Ryan, CSP

The United Nations’ 21st Conference of the Parties on Climate Change (COP 21) ended earlier this month. The real work for Canadians now begins: reducing our greenhouse gas emissions in substantial ways so that we can meet the targets established through these global negotiations.

That job will be tough enough to accomplish, but certainly more difficult if all our neighbours are not “on board” with the effort. Imagine that you go to all the effort of attempting to live more simply, reducing your unnecessary driving or car-pooling, retrofitting your home, planting trees and using fewer chemicals on your lawn, etc., but at the same time see your neighbour doing exactly the opposite. Would that encourage or deflate your enthusiasm to create change?

Among faith communities, significant leadership in addressing climate change has been evidenced in recent months. Pope Francis released the first-ever encyclical on environmental justice, and the Canadian bishops have now joined in his refrain. However, an unhelpful and strident backlash has arisen from some organizations that question climate action from their particular understanding of their Christian faith.

Prominent among these is the organization known as LifeSite, which describes itself as “a non-profit Internet service dedicated to issues of culture, life and family.” Readers will remember this group for its denunciation of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace’s partners in the Global South, labelling them as pro-abortion organizations. (Even when the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops visited the countries and consulted bishops from where these accusations emanated, giving CCODP their nihil obstat, LifeSite did not relent.) And now LifeSite has posted material on their website linking “the culture of death” to climate action.

LifeSite’s Paris correspondent believes that “saving the planet” in climate-speak “is foremost an anti-human enterprise.” This argument is advanced because, she believes, environmentalists have population control as their real agenda. Yet at the same time, she readily admits, at the Paris COP, “the draft agreement does not address population control.” LifeSite has even posted videos on its website produced by the Heartland Institute, a well-funded Chicago-based conservative and libertarian public policy think-tank, which has become the planet’s foremost climate denial organization. Supported by Tea Party groups today, in the 1990s Heartland was renowned for working with the Philip Morris tobacco company to question serious cancer risks of second-hand smoke, and lobbied against government public health regulations. This could hardly be considered “pro-life” activity.

Of course, social conservatives who deny climate change are present in other sectors of society — even if they are becoming an endangered species. Just last week, the New York Times reported that only eight Republicans in Congress, out of 278 in the caucus, had made on-the-record comments accepting the reality of human-made global warming. More frightening yet, most of the contenders for the Republican presidential nomination are solidly in the anti-science camp (http://www.cbsnews.com/news/where-the-2016-republican-candidates-stand-on-climate-change/).

Fortunately, neither the Vatican nor the Canadian bishops are buying these arguments against taking climate action seriously. Rather, they are calling upon us to ground renewed environmental action in a new understanding of our faith and its call to conversion.

Pope Francis referred to the Paris COP as “the last, best hope” for internationally agreed upon action on climate change, and challenged leaders to act “now or never.” The Vatican wrote to every bishop in the world to ask them to support the 2,300 climate marches that took place around the world on the First Sunday in Advent. For his part, the pope signed a climate petition and sent a pair of his own shoes to the Place de la Republique to be used in the symbolic demonstration for climate action that day.

Nonetheless, LifeSite criticized the pontiff by saying, “the pope . . . does pick up all the alarmist talk of the ‘warmists’ and seems to have made the fight against climate change into man’s first obligation today.”

For his part, Bishop Doug Crosby, president of the Canadian bishops, wrote to Canada’s Environment and Climate Change Minister on Nov. 10 asking her “to work toward fair, binding and truly transformational climate agreements, both nationally and internationally.” Bishop Crosby noted that his recommendation was shared by all the Catholic episcopal conferences of the world.

While some of our co-religionists may continue to oppose action toward climate justice, it is clear that the church has now seriously taken up this challenging ministry.

Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, www.cpj.ca, a member-driven, faith-based public policy organization in Ottawa focused on ecological justice, refugee rights and poverty elimination.