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After U.S. Exits Paris Climate Accord, Faith Communities Can Lead The Way

The ecological power of religion is ultimately more efficacious than the top-down power of government, writes Dan McKanan. Pictured: Filipino Catholic nuns join the Climate Solidarity Prayer March in Manila, Philippines Sunday, Nov. 29, 2015. (Aaron Favila/AP)
The ecological power of religion is ultimately more efficacious than the top-down power of government, writes Dan McKanan. Pictured: Filipino Catholic nuns join the Climate Solidarity Prayer March in Manila, Philippines Sunday, Nov. 29, 2015. (Aaron Favila/AP)
This article is more than 4 years old.

President Trump’s reckless decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement puts the rest of the world — from the governments of Asia and Europe to families and local faith communities — on notice: The fate of the planet is in our hands. We cannot look to the federal government of the United States for leadership or even cooperation; indeed, we can expect federal policies that will actively promote those forms of energy that are most damaging to the environment.

At this perilous moment, we have the opportunity to discover that our collective power far exceeds that of the U.S. government. Within the United States, families and faith communities, municipalities and state governments must enact policies that will ensure that American carbon emissions stay within the limits set by the Paris agreement, even without federal help.

One of the most heartening aspects of Trump’s decision is the fact that almost the entire world rallied in opposition to the withdrawal of the U.S. World political leaders, religious leaders, corporate leaders, including some from the fossil fuel industry and even many of the president’s advisers, joined the chorus of voices imploring Trump to reconsider his campaign promise.

Religious communities can fight climate change by changing the way people eat, work, interact with plants and animals and think of our own place in the cosmos -- one person at a time.

As a scholar of religion and environmentalism, I am intrigued by Pope Francis’s emergence as the world’s number one climate activist — someone who has consistently spoken the truth about global warming and who has done so in ways that even President Trump could not ignore. As the leader of a faith community whose members are mostly poor and mostly reside in developing nations, Pope Francis reminds us that our planet’s salvation depends less on the leadership of the United States than on the leadership of the poor and of the land that they cherish. His role also highlights the fact that people of faith have been integral to every successful movement for social transformation, even as religious organizations are too often complicit in institutional structures of injustice.

For the past century, the global environmental movement has drawn strength from Buddhist practices of meditative gardening, from the seasonal festival of Judaism, from liberation theologians’ critiques of environmental racism, from the earth-based festivals of Neopaganism, from Native Americans’ defense of their sacred lands and from the spiritual agriculture known as biodynamics, which helped give birth to both the organics movement and community-supported agriculture.

Religious leaders, and others, gather outside the White House on April 19, 2017, during a demonstration to admonish Trump administration actions on climate. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
Religious leaders, and others, gather outside the White House on April 19, 2017, during a demonstration to admonish Trump administration actions on climate. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

Religious communities do not, of course, have the same sort of power as the federal government: They cannot mandate fuel emissions standards, prevent the construction of pipelines, or invest trillions of dollars in clean energy research. But if religious power is more dispersed than governmental power, it is also more profoundly ecological. Religious communities can fight climate change by changing the way people eat, work, interact with plants and animals and think of our own place in the cosmos — one person at a time. My guess is that the ecological power of religion is ultimately more efficacious than the top-down power of government.

At their best, prophetic religious communities turn our attention away from false gods and toward more authentic sources of power and love. In the case of climate change, the conservative ideology of cheap energy and unlimited economic growth is one false god, and the liberal faith in top-down government solutions is another.

the conservative ideology of cheap energy and unlimited economic growth is one false god, and the liberal faith in top-down government solutions is another.

The near worldwide rejection of Trump's decision is reason to hope that the new global consensus on climate change will continue to strengthen. Of course, not even a global consensus that climate change is real will translate into changed behavior. Indeed, this is why many climate activists have been skeptical of the Paris agreement: It creates the illusion of shared commitment, but holds no one accountable to doing the truly difficult work.

Sustained, intense activism is absolutely necessary. In this moment, politicians, families, local faith communities and activists everywhere must turn to every institution and ask, “What new actions will you take to reverse climate change, now that we know the world cannot wait for the cooperation of the federal government?”

Related:

Dan McKanan Cognoscenti contributor
Dan McKanan is the Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Senior Lecturer in Divinity at Harvard Divinity School

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