I was part of the United Methodist delegation to Rio de Janeiro in 1992 during the world’s first major gathering of world leaders, nongovernmental organizations, and corporate heads to focus on climate change and related environmental and development issues. It was clear even then that environmental concerns could not be effectively addressed without simultaneously addressing poverty and inequity.
As of Nov. 30, government officials, corporate leaders, and nongovernmental organizations are meeting for the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 21) for climate negotiations, this time in Paris. World leaders and other official summit attendees will be protected by greatly enhanced security because of recent terrorist attacks. Civil society won’t enjoy such protections, as indicated by the prohibition of planned demonstrations in Paris.
Some are still demonstrating in Paris, including people committed to nonviolence who formed a 10,000 person human chain and left 20,000 empty shoes — including a pair of the Pope’s shoes — to represent the protestors who are not allowed to demonstrate. Still, around the world, people are gathering to pray for the success of the climate talks and for peace.
People on every continent will also gather to demonstrate and call on world leaders to take strong action to limit the emissions of greenhouse gases that cause climate change.
The governments of the world agreed in principle that “sustainable development” and justice for the poor were inseparable aspects of global action on climate change. There have been many summits, but greenhouse gas emissions are soaring, global temperatures are rising, extreme weather events are multiplying, and poverty and inequity continue unabated. People in poor and vulnerable nations, who are not responsible for historic greenhouse gas emissions, are being hit first and worst by typhoons, floods, and killing droughts. These are the very regions where churches reach out in compassion to provide relief to those who are in distress.
According to the National Council of Churches, USA:
“The impacts of global climate change threaten all creation and will make it more difficult for people of faith to care for those in need. With expected increases in drought, storm intensity, disease, species extinction, and flooding, the impacts of global climate change will increase the lack of food, shelter, and water available, particularly to those living in or near poverty.”
Calls for “climate justice” are growing louder. Negotiators from vulnerable, hard-hit nations are pleading with those in wealthier nations to take strong and binding action to limit greenhouse gas emissions now. They are calling on world leaders in Paris to establish a just process for transfer of renewable technologies and payment of “climate debt.” Young people whose futures are being foreclosed are demanding strong and binding action on climate change. They are calling on negotiators to end fossil fuel subsidies, go beyond corporate-friendly systems of carbon credits and offsets, and keep fossil fuels in the ground.
People of faith and conscience on every continent are calling for those who gather in Paris to establish justice for the poor and vulnerable, intergenerational justice, and justice for all creation.
We must give special attention to the voices of those who live and work on the front lines of climate change: climate activists from the global South, people living in “sacrifice zones” polluted by fossil fuel extraction, women farmers struggling to feed their families, young people speaking out for intergenerational justice, and indigenous peoples calling for policies that respect the rights of the earth.
Together, this rising chorus expresses the yearnings of people joining together in the growing movement for climate justice. Their pleas, demands, and warnings urge us to demonstrate God’s care and concern by praying and advocating for just policies on their behalf.
As we face the painful realities of climate change in the context of our faith, behind the facts and statistics we can see the faces of God’s children, our brothers and sisters around the world. As followers of Jesus, we are called to respond to them in solidarity and to serve them in Christ’s name.