Reclaiming climate change as a moral issue

By Lynette Wilson
Posted Mar 30, 2015

[Episcopal News Service] When California Bishop Marc Andrus wants to engage people in a conversation about climate change he doesn’t throw statistics at them, rather he begins with a question like: When was the last time you had an experience of wonder in the natural world?

“If we can connect people back to it, or open them up for a fresh experience with wonder, it’s a great starting place for recovering a sense of why [climate change] is a moral issue,” said Andrus, during an interview with Episcopal News Service in Los Angeles, California.

Andrus made the trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles to speak on a panel about reclaiming climate change as a moral issue. The panel was one of two that took place during a March 24 forum – hosted by the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society and Los Angeles Bishop J. Jon Bruno – aimed at addressing the global climate change crisis.

A longtime environmental advocate, Andrus taught the first course on ecology and Christianity in 2013 at Virginia Theological Seminary and has long been engaged on the issue of climate change.

A few years back, he said, people involved in the movement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to curb global warming took a critical look at themselves, coming to the realization that the movement’s messaging was “so thoroughly negative” that it worked against it.

“People are frightened enough in their lives, they don’t want to be more frightened … it doesn’t enroll them into the effort,” said Andrus. “We actually know that fear is only a short-term motivator – as soon as you’re not quite afraid your effort slackens. If you ask what would be the opposite, love is a much stronger motivator over a period of time.

“So if we can help people understand how wonder is an experience of love, if we can remember when I fell in love with the earth … or if we can help people have an experience of love, and wonder, then you have people that will stick with the effort.”

The March 24, live-webcast in Los Angeles kicked off 30 Days of Action, an interactive campaign designed by the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society that includes advocacy days, bulletin inserts, stories, sermons and activities to engage individuals and congregations around climate change. The campaign culminates on Earth Day, April 22.

Mary Nichols, who chairs the Air Resources Board of the California Environmental Protection Agency, and a member of Los Angeles’ St. James in the City Episcopal Church, spoke on the panel alongside Andrus.

“Climate change is a moral issue because as we understand it, human beings are the principal cause for the exaggerated effects of global warming that we are seeing on this planet, and therefore it is incumbent on us to take responsibility for that and to take action,” said Nichols.

Climate change is the gradual change in global temperature caused by accumulation of greenhouse gases that trap heat in the atmosphere, altering the earth’s temperature. Some areas are getting warmer, as others are getting colder. For example, the mainland United States experienced the coldest winter on record since formal record keeping began in the late 1800s, whereas Alaska experienced an unseasonably warm winter.

Carbon dioxide is the primary greenhouse gas emitted by human beings through the combustion of fossil fuels – coal, oil and natural gas. Industrial processes, including factory farms, transportation and electricity make up the largest human sources of carbon dioxide.

Moreover, the population of the world has doubled since 1970, going from about 3.6 billion to today’s 7 billion people.

“The human population explosion of recent millennia, accompanied by exploitation of fossil fuels in recent centuries, have moved this planetary system out of dynamic equilibrium. Human appetites are responsible for the collapse of that equilibrium particularly in developed nations, and many species are threatened with diminishment and loss of life,” said Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori in her keynote address at the start of the March 24 forum in Los Angeles. “We are making war on the integrity of this planet. The result is wholesale death as species become extinct at unprecedented rates, and human beings die from disease, starvation, and the violence of war unleashed by environmental chaos and greed.”

The church’s forum was timely, said Nichols, as it begins a needed conversation about climate change as nations prepare for the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Nov. 30 – Dec. 11, in Paris, France.

The goal of the Paris conference is to forge an international agreement aimed at transitioning the world toward resilient, low-carbon societies and economies. If accomplished, it would be the first-ever binding, international treaty in 20 years of United Nations climate talks, and would affect developed and developing countries.

“We’re already hearing the drumbeat in Congress that it can’t be done, it won’t work, if we do it the Chinese won’t and therefore they’ll eat our lunch economically … and that’s why this discussion is so timely because hopefully it gives us a chance to gather together and push back against those arguments,” said Nichols.

Climate change is an increasingly politically charged, polarizing issue in the United States. The day of the forum, for instance, U.S. Senator Lindsay Graham, a moderate Republican from South Carolina who believes in climate change, blamed former Vice President Al Gore, one of the countries leading Democratic voices on climate change and a longtime supporter of initiatives to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, for inaction on climate change because Gore has turned it into a religious issue.

Graham was quoted in the news media as saying, “You know, climate change is not a religious problem for me, it’s an economic, it is an environmental problem.”

Members of his party, he said, “are all over the board” when it comes to climate change, and that the party doesn’t have a clear stance on climate change or a plan to address it.

Graham’s remarks followed the revelation of a state of Florida ban on environmental officials from using the terms “climate change” and “global warming,” that came into effect with Gov. Rick Scott’s administration and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s announcement of his upcoming bid for the presidency. Cruz is a Republican from Texas who denies the existence of climate change.

In December 2010, as the U.N. climate talks were underway in Cancun, Mexico, Andrus and Bishop Naudal Gomes of the Diocese of Curitiba, Brazil, convened a gathering in the Dominican Republic which explored the intersection between poverty and climate change, and aimed to change the conversation in the church from one of “climate change” to “climate justice.” The gathering included more than 30 Anglicans and Episcopalians from Cuba, the United States, Ecuador, Panama, Colombia, Haiti, Mexico, Brazil, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic.

Addressing climate change from a global consensus doesn’t mean that developing countries arrest development, it just means that developing countries look to technology and alternatives to fossil fuels so as not to create the amount of waste developed countries have created.

“We have to look at economy and equity and ecology together, and how they work to reinforce each other, and that’s not a pipe dream,” said Nichols.

Throughout history, the church has partnered with social movements on equal rights and justice issues. By beginning the conversation now The Episcopal Church, which has observer status at the United Nations, can begin to talk about how to contribute to the larger conversation on climate change that will take place later this year.

“For the last decade and a half, The Episcopal Church has focused on LGBT issues, and now we’re having a growing consciousness about the enormity of the climate change crisis … and without letting go of any of the other justice issues, we’re seeing that this is the emerging need for our global engagement,” said Andrus. “We are an organization that has some capacity to be a partner to a movement, to be a supporter to a movement, a resource to a movement, from which energy and resources can come.”

— Lynette Wilson is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service.


Comments (13)

  1. Ron Davin says:

    Will the Church ever have the time to go back to the work of spreading the Gospel ?

    1. Forrest Jones says:

      I agree the Church has gone to worshiping the Gods of climate change. Will Odin flood the earth as his rath? I wonder if the dinosaurs had gone vegan if they would still exist? Go back to the preaching the word of God instead of the word of the left.

    2. Ralph Sibley says:

      God blessed us with a beautiful, bountiful Earth and charged us to nurture and protect it.
      Is spreading this message not a crucial part of the church’s mission ?

      1. Ron Davin says:


  2. Greta Mesics says:

    I am very excited and heartened and glad that our church is taking this on. What I see is that people do feel overwhelmed by the bad news of the state of God’s Green Earth. When we are overwhelmed we shut down. Let us be brave and let us hear the good news of how we can improve our stewardship. I have 2 teenage sons who have both expressed their despair about the state of the planet. All I can say to them is that we can do better in ways both big and small. The small acts have ripple effects and make people feel that we can all do good. The big acts are possible if we allow them to be, if we believe in the good news. I loved that we began with a prayer.

    Thank you!

    Greta Mesics
    Mother of Joe and Teo Tomerlin
    St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
    Healdsburg, CA

  3. Thye Rev. Bob Spencer says:

    This seems to be an imperative for The Church to take on. Did God not create everything and then offer it to us to be GOOD Stewards of? Being good stewards is spreading the Gospel and honoring God’s directions to us.

    1. Paul E. Niedercorn says:

      Douay-Rheims Bible
      And he said: Let us make man to our image and likeness: and let him have dominion over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and the beasts, and the whole earth, and every creeping creature that moveth upon the earth.

  4. Dirk Gently says:

    Very interesting. However, the mathematics, science and engineering are irrefutable. The only way to reduce mankind’s carbon footprint enough to reach a plateau in atmospheric concentration is the building of nuclear power plants to replace all power generation other than hydroelectric. The only other approach would be mass executions, which one would assume the Episcopal Church would be against.

    I eagerly await the follow-up from the Church urging all people to write to Congress and sign petitions demanding nuclear power. If none is forthcoming, then the Church is not serious on this issue.

  5. Rev. Vicki Gray says:

    Kudos to the Presiding Bishop and Bishop Marc for speaking out on and doing something about this existential question for this fragile earth, our island home.

  6. Eddie Blue says:

    I wonder when we take on the more difficult task of urging volcanoes not to erupt, halting the break down of dead vegetation and all of the other natural sources of CO2 and methane. That way we could deal with the major sources of these and other gases instead of buying into the fable of anthropocentric climate change. Maybe after we have convince them to change their ways we could turn our attention toward the minor producers of CO2, human beings.

  7. Liz Olson says:

    Can we expect to see a carbon tax added to our diocesan assessment?

  8. Dr. Jay C. Means says:

    I celebrate the church’s attention to climate change.
    My focus in the past few years has been upon developing a theology for valuing and preserving creation. What does this mean? In scripture there are many environmental references, similes, analogies, and parables. God clearly respects and values His creation and we must do the same. When we preserve, protect and value God’s creation, we recognize that creation represents the spirit-powered renewal that is available to us. When we protect and preserve and restore the environment, we restore a portion of the harmony that God intended for us at the beginnings of time. When we respect the diversity of creation, we are lead to respect the diversity in humankind. When we recognize the connectivity in nature and inter-dependence of organisms including ourselves in ecosystems, we acknowledge our connection to creation and to our Creator on a continuing spiritual basis. When we preserve the environment for our descendants, we preserve the continuity of the gift of creation for those who follow us. When we value the least of God’s creatures, we open a window in our souls to value, respect, feed, clothe, educate and pray for all nations and peoples.

  9. Mike McLane says:

    Climate change has been cyclical since the world began. It has taken place since before man’s ancestors walked on two legs. While carbon emissions produced by fossil fuel extraction contribute to climate change I see no quantification of a significant contribution. Until it can be shown that reductions of fossil fuel extraction can affect the cyclical climate change I feel it would be more prudent to expend resources to minimize the effects of climate change which are strongly influenced by changes in solar radiation, plant and animal production of carbon dioxide and volcanic activity. Let us take steps to mitigate the effects rather than think we can change the world by working on one (perhaps) causative factor.

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