Warnings on warming not enough; act now, says faith community

As lawmakers grappled on Wednesday with a climate change bill that appeared stalled in a senate committee, just hundreds of feet away on the Northeast lawn of Capitol Hill, religious leaders were issuing an urgent call for speedy and responsible action on the proposed legislation.

Editors:  Photos to accompany this story can be downloaded at http://www.churchworldservice.org/hires

John McCullough
Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Unitarian Universalists were two of many faith groups that joined CWS CEO The rev. John McCullough in the call for climate justice at the Capitol Hill climate change vigil.
Photo: L. Crosson

WASHINGTON, D.C.--As lawmakers grappled on Wednesday with a climate change bill that appeared stalled in a senate committee, just hundreds of feet away on the Northeast lawn of Capitol Hill, religious leaders were issuing an urgent call for speedy and responsible action on the proposed legislation.

Some 100 participants in a climate vigil focused on the justice dimensions of climate change, spoke, sang, waved banners and prayed in an attempt to influence legislative action prior to next month’s climate change summit in Copenhagen, Denmark. 

The event was sponsored by sponsored by 17 faith groups, including humanitarian agency Church World Service, the National Council of Churches and United Methodist Women.

The Rev. John McCullough, executive director and CEO of Church World Service, framed the day’s event as a response at a “critical moment.”

McCullough said, “We are here so that our voices and the voices of the poor will echo from this sacred space into the chambers of Congress and the halls of Barcelona, where policymakers debate the common good and seek to define reasonable standards, expectations and behavior in the global greenhouse gas emissions debate.”

Harriet Olsen 
United Methodist Women's Division President Harriet Olsen said women and children are the most vulnerable of all vulnerable populations.
Photo: L. Crosson

Vigil participants did not intend to stop at words.  They came to Capitol Hill armed with proof of public support postcards--13,000 and counting--slated for delivery to Congress and the White House and signed by citizens across the nation who are calling for specific climate change legislation provisions that would cap greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. and that commit adequate adaptation funding for poor countries hardest hit by climate change impacts
 
The postcards are the culmination of a yearlong Countdown to Copenhagen sign-on campaign spearheaded in the United States by Church World Service.  It is at the Copenhagen conference that world leaders will attempt to decide on a plan to extend the Kyoto Protocol climate change agreement. Contrary to some statements, the negotiations are not about ending the Kyoto Protocol, but about implementing it.
 
Rajyashri Waghray, Church World Service director of education and advocacy for international justice and human rights said, "The Kyoto Protocol is not a consumer product like a chocolate bar.  It has no expiration date. Many negotiators have stated this fact."

Only the first commitment period of developed countries greenhouse gas emission reductions, which began in 2008, ends in 2012.  All other provisions and elements of the Kyoto Protocol remain in force.  The international community has been negotiating the next (second) commitment period for developing countries in a working group so that the second commitment period can take effect by 2013, thereby ensuring that there is no gap between the end of one and the beginning of the next commitment periods.  Future commitment periods for developing countries will be negotiated on an ongoing basis.  The U.S. has not signed the Kyoto Protocol.

A demand for justice
Faith community advocacy around the issue is rooted in the demand for justice.

Climate change, said National Council of Churches General Secretary Michael Kinnamon, is “tied to patterns of excessive consumption, taking a disproportionate toll on those marginalized communities who can least afford it."  And that, Kinnamon added, “is the most grave issue of social justice facing this nation.”
 
It was important enough that Betty Henderson came all the way from Wisconsin to join the vigil.  Henderson, a member of the United Methodist Women’s group at Salem United Methodist Church in Waukesha and peace and justice coordinator for her church region, says she’s been committed to green issues for more than 15 years and has “seen it get worse and worse” as far as the climate is concerned.

“I do believe that it’s worth my time to come from Wisconsin to Washington for even just one appointment if I can see one senator, one representative, one staff member that I can impact with the concerns that I have.” 

Rev. Vernon Shannon
The Rev. Vernon Shannon, a CWS board member, invites participants in the climate change vigil to offer simultaneous, silent prayers from their own faith or cultural traditions.
Photo: L. Crosson

Henderson, who met with staffers and delivered postcards at several congressional offices, was just one of the United Methodist Women making their voices heard at the vigil, in a  continuation of the organization’s long-time commitment to issues affecting women and children.

“Women are the highest percentage of the poor, and women and children are among the most vulnerable in any vulnerable population,” said UMW executive Harriet Olsen in an interview following the vigil.  Olsen, who is deputy general secretary of the Women’s Division of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, described the UMW presence at the vigil as “a way of standing with women to take care of what’s going on in the environment.”

The fact that climate change has a global impact—particularly on poor people in developing nations, who contribute the least to the environmental degradation that causes climate change, yet who suffer the most from it—was brought to the fore in real time via an email message sent to Church World Service from a group in Ethiopia as the event was taking place. 

The message of solidarity, from the Ethiopian organization's Forum for Environment and its "America, Take the Lead" campaign, expressed appreciation for the efforts of the faith community in the United States, saying, “We thank you for shouting our shout, voicing our concerns.”

The Ethiopian group has mounted its own sign-on campaign on its website (http://www.americatakethelead.org/), attempting to collect five million signatures petitioning President Obama and the Senate to secure binding climate legislation.

"Climate change is not a matter of increased energy taxes for us; it's rather a matter of real life and death. Due to the inaction of countries like the US, we're paying not in cash but in lives of children and adults alike. Climate change is not a joke here," said Forum for Environment Director Negusu Aklilu.

In a final word yesterday, aimed at lawmakers, CWS’ McCullough said, "It is within our power to create an environment where all God’s children share in the abundance of this magnificent creation.”

And, by the end of the vigil, when the music of Gordon Kent and Alicia Gill had stopped and the legislative lobbying and postcard delivery visits were finished, there was reason for new optimism:  Word came that the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee had approved a climate change bill that would require industry to make a 20 percent cut from 2005 emissions levels for carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by 2020.  The bill is expected to go to the Senate floor early next year.

Media Contact:
Lesley Crosson, 212-870-2676, lcrosson@churchworldservice.org
Jan Dragin, 781-925-1526, jdragin@gis.net


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