In a deeply politicized country where environmental officials in Florida are forbidden to use the words “climate” and “change” together in a sentence, and where a presidential candidate dismisses the notion that greenhouse gases are causing the earth’s atmosphere to warm, the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Episcopal Church hosted a forum March 24 to address head-on the global climate change crisis.

“Why do we call this a crisis? The planet’s regulatory system is being altered,” said Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, during a keynote address at the start of a live webcast forum.

“Like a human being with a runaway fever, the malfunctioning thermostat causes a body to slowly self-destruct as inflammation erodes joints, causes nerve cells to misfire, and prevents the digestive system from absorbing nutrients critical to life. This planet is overheating, its climate is changing, and the residents are sick, suffering, and dying,” continued Jefferts Schori, who holds doctoral and master’s degrees in oceanography and a bachelor’s degree in marine biology, and was a research scientist in those fields before entering the ordained ministry.

Close to 75 people gathered in the auditorium of Campbell Hall Episcopal School in Studio City for the climate change crisis forum presented by the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society in partnership with Los Angeles Bishop J. Jon Bruno. In addition to the presiding bishop’s address, the 90-minute forum included panels focused on the regional impacts of climate change and reclaiming climate change as a moral issue.

Panel discussion launches ‘Days of Action’

Moderated by Fritz Coleman, a climatologist for KNBC 4 television news, panelists included Diocese of California Bishop Marc Andrus, who has made climate change a focus of his episcopacy; Princess Daazhraii Johnson, former executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, one of the oldest indigenous non-profit groups in Alaska focused on protection of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; Lucy Jones, a seismologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and a visiting research associate at the California Institute of Technology’s Seismological Laboratory; and Mary D. Nichols, who chairs the Air Resources Board of the California Environmental Protection Agency.

Additionally, the event kicked off a 30-day interactive campaign developed by the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society that includes advocacy days, bulletin inserts, sermons, stories and activities to engage individuals and congregations around climate change. The 30 Days of Action concluded on Earth Day, April 22, though some congregations have chosen to follow them on other timetables.

“Climate change greatly affects us here in Los Angeles — we’re in a place where farmers are leaving crops in the ground and selling their water ration off to other people,” said Bruno, describing one of the reasons his diocese sponsored the March 24 forum.

Perspectives on the effects of climate change

The event came as California enters a fourth year of drought — snowpacks have dwindled and groundwater levels have reached historic lows in some areas — and as the East Coast received record snowfalls and below-normal, frigid temperatures.

“Climate is a broad description of weather variability and environmental conditions. We are experiencing more extreme weather and more frequent hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and droughts,” said Jefferts Schori. “Sea level is rising, because ice sheets are melting and because a warming ocean expands. As sea levels rise, coastal flooding becomes more likely and severe storms more destructive. The damage done by [Hurricane] Katrina and Superstorm Sandy are examples, as is the unusual winter much of this continent is experiencing.”

A crisis, by definition, said Fritz Coleman, the moderator, “is intense trouble or danger, a critical point in history, a point at which decisions must be made.”

Climate change, he continued, 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, he explained, which is why “climate change,” not “global warming,” is the preferred term.

“These changes are causing lots of very dangerous changes to our world — disrupting weather patterns, flooding, droughts, an increase in violent storms, and disease — widespread harm to the earth’s ecosystems,” Coleman said. “And here’s the key idea; the impact of climate change is not only to the environment, but it will have an extreme economic impact as well, like major food shortages, shortages of water. The bottom line is, without the reduction of these greenhouse gases, our planet faces serious peril in the 21st century.”

Lucy Jones, the seismologist, who serves as a science advisor for risk reduction in the natural hazards mission for the U.S. Geological Survey and who has spent her career studying seismological disasters and how they disrupt society, explained during the panel on regional impact how she has spent the last decade using the science of hazards to look at ways to improve a community’s resilience to natural disasters.

“The very first prediction of climate change is an increase of extreme events, when you put more energy in the atmosphere, there’s more energy to create storms to hold water,” said Jones, a member of St. James Episcopal Church in South Pasadena, California.
It was 20 years ago during a meeting that Jones first heard about climate change; at the time an increase in natural disasters was predicted, which has proved true.

“The expected losses coming from climate-change-induced meteorologic disasters dwarfs all of the other disasters we could be facing,” said Jones. “And if we want to be resilient, we have to be resilient to everything the earth is bringing to us. And our actions through climate change have increased those disasters.”

In an area prone to coastal erosion or flooding, for example, when a big storm or a wild fire happens on top of that, that’s when the system changes, when species are wiped out and the ecological system cannot recover, she said.

“So we see disasters and extreme events as the mechanism of the significant shifts that are going to happen as climate change changes our world,” said Jones.

The Arctic warms, glaciers disappear

Alaska’s indigenous people have already begun to experience significant changes in their natural environment, explained Princess Daazhraii Johnson, who grew up in Arctic Village, on the southeastern tip of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

“The Arctic is one of the fastest warming places on the planet and we’re seeing the melting of the ice sheets, our glaciers are disappearing, the permafrost is melting, coastal erosion,” said Johnson. “We have entire communities that are having to be relocated.”

Alaska and the Arctic, she said, are experiencing the same climate-related changes as other places, “But the intensity in which we are experiencing them is very great, it’s massive.”

In January, U.S. President Barack Obama pledged to ask Congress to designate 12 of the 19 million acres of the Arctic Wildlife National Refuge as a wilderness-protected area. If passed, the area would become the largest wilderness-protected area since the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964. Faith communities thanked Obama for taking action that “represents a critical step in protecting a sacred part of God’s creation, and we thank you for working to safeguard this national treasure.”

he wilderness designation also would protect the cultural and subsistence rights of the Gwich’in, an indigenous Alaskan people who depend upon the refuge’s Porcupine caribou for survival.

The Episcopal Church at its 77th General Convention in 2012 passed legislation saying it “stands in solidarity with those communities who bear the burdens of global climate change,” including indigenous people and marginalized and socially excluded people worldwide.

Asking the right questions

Some of the changes that have happened to the earth, said Jones, the seismologist, are not reversible and we’re seeing changes in atmospheric and oceanic patterns, but ultimately society needs to be asking the right questions.

“You get a bunch of scientists together and we’ll argue with each other … it’s a key moment when scientists stop arguing, and we’ve stopped arguing about whether climate change is happening,” she said, adding that they still argue over what is millennial cycle versus what is human activity, but they agree it’s happening.

Outside the research community, she said, the question should be: “Do our actions make a difference?” And the answer to that, she said, is simple: “Yes. When you build a fire and when you run a car, you are putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere … The human population has grown exponentially, and therefore, the number of people doing that has grown exponentially.”

Climate change as a moral issue

Jefferts Schori said in her keynote address: “Scientists have been studying human impacts on our global biosphere for decades, and today there is clear consensus about the effects of these gases on the mean temperature of the planet. There are a few very loud voices who insist this is only ‘natural variation,’ but the data do not lie. Those voices are often driven by greed and self-centered political interests, and sometimes by willful blindness.

“The Judeo-Christian tradition has always called those motivations sinful. It is decidedly wrong to use resources that have been given into our collective care in ways that diminish the ability of others to share in abundant life. It is equally wrong to fail to use resources of memory, reason, and skill to discern what is going on in the world around us. That has traditionally been called a sin of omission.”
Moving into the second panel, Coleman asked why climate change is a moral issue, to which Mary D. Nichols, who for years has worked on air quality and is a member of Los Angeles’ St. James-in-the City Episcopal Church, responded: “Human beings are the principal cause for the exaggerated effects that we are seeing on our planet and therefore it is incumbent upon us to take responsibility for that and to take action.

“It’s a moral issue, I think, because when we think of things in moral terms, it tends to stretch us a little bit beyond our everyday comfort zone, and we have to get beyond our everyday comfort zone in order to do some things that may seem difficult.”

If you look at any religious tradition, Nichols added, each has an element that recognizes humanity as subject to God, not the other way around.

“Certainly as an Episcopalian I can find citations in terms of gardens and stewardship and so forth … and therefore when we do something that massively upsets God’s creation, and God’s plan for us, we have a moral obligation to do something about it,” she said. “Though it makes some people uncomfortable to talk that way.”

The event, said Coleman, was very hopeful, not only for the Episcopal Church in its forward thinking, but that in her address the presiding bishop elevated the discussion from a religious discussion to a human discussion.

“I think it’s wonderful that The Episcopal Church has been at the forefront of having these discussions open to everyone on the Internet. What’s perplexing is that, in general, all faiths have been so timid about addressing this issue, publicly and up until this point,” he said.

Coleman speculated that it might be because religious leaders themselves are caught up in the politics, as well.

“We’ve been speaking up, the Episcopal Church is working hard,” said Bishop Marc Andrus, as evidenced by actions being taken in the Diocese of Los Angeles toward food justice, and the Diocese of California’s involvement with Interfaith Power and Light, a religious coalition that campaigns on the issue of climate change. “But the church lost the bully pulpit somewhere in the 1960s, and a lot of things changed.”

But, he said, there is some immorality involved and the media has been involved.

“The media has a lot to answer for; they are shaping the story,” he said, citing Chris Hayes, an MSNBC journalist who recently said it’s time to stop saying everything is balanced.

If a climate denier is running for political office, rather than cite the 1 percent of scientists on the fringe that may support that view, it would be more accurate to say, ‘This person denies climate [change] despite the evidence,’ and that’s what Chris was saying,” said Andrus.

And furthermore, we should take our own voice,” he said. “The church needs to, in my opinion, not rely overly on giving the last word to people who are being paid to do advertisements, but rather gain our own prophetic voice and put our own stories out.”

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