Throughout history, church bells have invited people to worship and celebrate, as well as rung out warnings of danger like invasion or fire. On Sept. 20, 2019, they rang in solidarity with the climate strike of 4 million young people in 150 countries. Some rang for 11 minutes, signaling the 11 years scientists say we have to limit global warming to a maximum increase of 1.5 degrees C, or risk catastrophic loss of lives. Why should people of faith care about the current climate crisis? Why should they, in fact, see it as a burningly relevant question of justice?
Answers to that question lead us back to the psalms, ancient Celtic and Native American spirituality, St. Francis of Assisi who would sing in wonder at moon, stars or sun, and writers like St. Bonaventure, who said creation was God’s first book, leading us back to God if we “read” it properly. Today, Pope Francis’ letter “Laudato Si” is an eloquent plea. “The cry of the Earth and… the poor cannot continue,” he wrote there. If we don’t see creation as sacred, it’s much easier to exploit and destroy it. As the pope points out, we must love the beauty of our world or we’ll treat it like “consumers or ruthless exploiters.”
The faith community can be an effective force for change in the environmental crisis. Surely 1.2 billion Catholics and 2.2 billion Christians, united in stewardship, could make a difference. Many churches already take the lead: converting to solar or wind power, changing parking lots into community gardens, divesting from fossil fuels, investing in alternate energies, minimizing plastic waste, educating parishioners and neighborhoods about their carbon footprint.
Furthermore, climate change dovetails with other social justice issues because it has the worst effects on the poorest. People of color suffer higher rates of asthma and cancer, disproportionately affected by air pollution caused by industrial plants in their neighborhoods. Drought in Africa has led to starvation, forcing more refugees into exile. For their sake, and for future generations, the question rings with maddening frustration: If we could use almost-free, renewable, natural power sources like solar, wind, geothermal or hydro-electric, why would we choose toxic, diminishing fossil fuels instead?
“The young remind us that the earth is not a possession to be squandered, but an inheritance to be handed down,” said Pope Francis, affirming Greta Thunberg, outspoken climate activist, the first to strike in her native Sweden. At Davos in Jan. ’19, she challenged the World Economic Forum: “I want you to act as if the house is on fire, because it is.” Will the faith community act as decisively and respond to the climate crisis as brilliantly as this young girl?