It’s an honour to be with you this morning, and I thank you for the invitation. I have been asked to speak with you today about climate change. And, you know, if I had to choose one congregation in this city who could teach me a thing or two about how to wisely and gracefully weather the winds of change, it would be Trinity. I know the past few years of transition have been difficult, and I imagine there must have been times along the way when you could not see a way forward, when you could not see a future beyond the known and the familiar and the well-loved. Today you find yourselves in this beautiful space, a place that has seen generations of the faithful from various traditions, and you are still together, still grateful, still very much a locus of goodness in the downtown core, and ready for what your future holds.
Yet, even having come through such a transition, and so well, I suspect at least some of you feel a queasy dread at the thought of yet more change. The type of change I’m here to speak about is climate change, and the ways in which it threatens to change much of what is known and familiar to us, to change much of what we have loved. Even thinking about this is difficult, undoubtedly, and so I’d like to share some of my reflections on what we are facing and what we can do. I’d especially like to reflect on how the practices, habits and bonds that you have forged and nurtured over the years can serve and sustain you in the days and years ahead.
For those of you who don’t know, let me tell you a little about Divest Waterloo. Some of you will have heard me describe our “creation story” this past Tuesday, when a group of people gathered here to watch a film called Do the Math. Back in 2013, a friend sent me an email saying, “I would love for a local church to screen this!” At the time, I attended Parkminster United Church and was a member of its Social Justice Committee, and we did indeed show Do the Math at our church. And then we talked about what to do next. Those conversations led, a few months later, to the creation of Divest Waterloo. Those who have seen the film may recall some words spoken by Bill McKibben, a long-time environmental scientist, activist and founder of 350.org, words that formed the nucleus of our position on fossil fuel divestment: “If it is wrong to wreck the planet,” he said, “then it is wrong to profit from that wreckage.” In other words, we need to become more familiar with what our investments are doing while we’re not looking—because too often, the lack of transparency in the investment world can lead us to invest in companies that do things we ourselves would never knowingly do. Things such as expanding tar sands development, for example, or supporting destructive mining companies in fragile countries, or supporting dictatorships with a flagrant disregard for human rights. And when we know that our profits are coming from investments in fossil fuels, we should sell those investments and instead put our money toward investment vehicles that can lead to a regenerative economy. With that in mind, for the past five years or more, Divest Waterloo has supported fossil fuel divestment campaigns in the Waterloo region, at churches and at our two universities in particular, and we have organized or co-organized dozens of events to inform people about the impacts of climate change and to share the public’s concerns with members of local, provincial and federal government.
Now, I was not asked to be among you today because I am a more environmentally friendly citizen than any of you. Perhaps you know the story about G. K. Chesterton. In response to the question, “What’s wrong with the world?,” Chesterton famously replied: “I am.” I could say the same. I am complicit in what’s wrong with the world. You are complicit, all of us alive in the world today—but especially those of us living in developed, industrialized Western countries—are complicit in the problem of climate change. So while none of us can speak from a position of moral purity, we are called to speak about climate change because it concerns the common good of humankind and Creation, and because the work of addressing climate change must be done by the many, not the few. Or, to quote a sign that sometimes appears at climate rallies: “To change everything, we need everyone.”
My interactions with members of this congregation leave me no doubt that you are a well-informed group of people, that you are conscientious in your learning, and diligent in how you put your knowledge into practice. So I will say little to define climate change or enumerate its many threats. With so much scientific evidence being readily available today, it perhaps suffices to say that climate change is real, it has been caused by human activity, it is here already and it is certain to get a great deal worse in the coming decades, perhaps in a linear way or perhaps abruptly, as certain systems of the natural world reach tipping points that cause dramatic shifts in other, related systems. It may be unnecessary to state that climate change is about much more than weather, although the weather is the most immediate way in which we experience it. Weather is to climate as checkers is chess: one is simple and straightforward; the other involves layers of complexity that belie the similarity of the red-and-black board on which both games are played. Climate change is a threat that needs to be taken seriously because it threatens the stability of the natural systems on which all life forms, including human life, are utterly dependent. Some have called climate change a threat to the continuity of Creation, unlike any threat that humans have ever faced.
The question for us today is in some sense the question of all ages, for all people of conscience: How, then, shall we live? The situation is dire, the need for change is urgent, and yet it is easy to become hopeless, complacent or tuned out because the prospects look too dim.
It may be helpful to pause for a moment at the word “hope” and examine what it means. I am indebted to Jim Antal, national spokesperson on climate change for the United Church of Christ in the United States, and author of Climate Church, Climate World, for his insightful distinction between optimism and hope. He writes: “Optimism is not hope. Optimism is all about the future and our expectation that things will turn out the way we want them to. Optimism is about attitude—not action—and because of that it carries neither cost nor risk.” Antal goes on to quote Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who says, “Optimism is a passive virtue; hope an active one.”
What I take this to mean is that hope requires us to work toward something rather than expecting the scales of justice, or the systems of the natural world, to magically right themselves. It also means that it is not enough to simply believe that the status quo—the world as we’ve known it—will always prevail. This position is not a virtue but rather a form of denial. And real hope can only be achieved in the light of truth. As Jim Antal writes: “Hope must be offered in a context of truth. Hope can never emerge from deception. We arrive at hope only after we have faced reality.”
For those who are ready for both reality and hope, I have some suggestions to offer as a way forward. Some will be new, but many will be, as I alluded to earlier, practices and habits that you have employed for a long time.
First, as you learn more about climate change and experience the loss of parts of Creation that you have loved, prepare yourself to grieve, and possibly even to enter the stages of grief identified by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Be gentle with yourself. You will come out the other side, likely finding strength in others who have been on a similar journey.
Second, since I am a member of a fossil fuel divestment group, I must address directly the importance of divesting your financial holdings from fossil fuels. Speak to your financial planner; speak to whoever manages your company’s pension plan or RRSP matching plan. Ask for fossil-free funds, green bonds, or social/impact bonds. Ask for funds that invest in the regenerative economy, such as renewable energy companies. Even better, invest directly in local energy co-operatives. And when you’ve done that, spearhead a divestment campaign at any institution where you have membership or involvement.
Third, create political will for climate action. Write to or visit your elected members of government. Let them know that you support climate action, including ambitious carbon pricing. Raise the issue of climate action whenever you attend a Town Hall meeting or in letters to the editor, and ensure that climate change is a constant topic of concern at election time. If we want our politicians to act on climate change, we have to communicate that we will vote for them if they campaign on a platform of climate action, that we will support them in the polls once they take climate action, and that we will re-elect them even if some aspects of our lives begin to cost more than before. Another way you can create political will for climate action is through protests. Join the Youth Strike for Climate that happens on the first Friday of every month at Waterloo Town Square, and add your voice and your presence to the cries of these young people who are facing a more daunting future than any previous generation.
Fourth, consider your personal consumption carefully and make informed decisions about your choices. A plant-based diet, with little to no meat, is the best choice for the climate. Using a car as little as possible, or switching to an electric vehicle, also has a moderate impact. One of the most impactful actions? Taking one less transatlantic flight. A remarkable study published in 2017 showed that flying less has a greater impact on carbon emissions reductions than almost any other personal form of conservation. In this vein, I encourage you to challenge yourself and others about our shared addiction to speed and mobility, and to become more mindful about such choices.
Fifth, amplify the impact of your personal choices by harnessing the collective power of the congregation, the national church, and even other churches and faith communities working together toward common cause. Yes, this takes organizing, and energy, and it may not be each person’s gift to make changes on a large scale. But it may be that some have this gift, and will share it for the betterment of all. And when you consider the millions of people in Canada’s churches, mosques and synagogues who could rally around the cause of climate change and all forms of environmental protection, you may begin to feel the strength re-entering your tired limbs.
Sixth, as you have done in recently sponsoring a refugee family, continue to practise welcoming the stranger in your midst. Reflect with fresh eyes and mind on the idea that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,” knowing that our generosity could be tested mightily. Refugee sponsorship of the kind Canada has undertaken in recent years, while praiseworthy, is likely to be little more than a drop in the proverbial bucket by comparison to the numbers of people that could come to our borders seeking haven in the near future. Canada has welcomed some 40,000 Syrian refugees out of five million who left their country because it was no longer safe to stay. But the total number of people who are predicted to be displaced by sea-level rise due to climate change in the coming decades will number in the hundreds of millions, even by the most conservative estimates.
Seventh, work toward preserving non-human life in an effort to halt the massive loss of biodiversity in the world that is happening hand-in-hand with climate change. In the words of the British ecological writer Paul Kingsnorth, “The revisionists will continue to tell us that wildness is dead, nature is for people and Progress is God, and they will continue to be wrong. There is still much remaining of the Earth’s wild diversity, but it may not remain for much longer. The human empire is the greatest threat to what remains of life on Earth, and you are part of it. What can you do—really do, at a practical level—about this? Maybe you can buy up some land and re-wild it; maybe you can let your garden run free; maybe you can work for a conservation group or set one up yourself; maybe you can put your body in the way of a bulldozer; maybe you can use your skills to prevent the destruction of yet another wild place. How can you create or protect a space for non-human nature to breathe easier; how can you give something that isn’t us a chance to survive our appetites?”
Take the long view, knowing that there are intrinsic reasons for doing the work, reasons that are not focussed on outcomes. The American writer and agroecologist Wendell Berry, in one of his most famous essays, “What Are People For?,” says the following: “Much protest is naive; it expects quick, visible improvement, and despairs and gives up when such improvement does not come. Protesters who hold out for longer have perhaps understood that success is not the proper goal. If protest depended on success, there would be little protest of any durability or significance. History simply affords too little evidence that anyone’s individual protest is of any use. Protest that endures, I think, is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one’s own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence.” In other words, we do the right thing because of what we would lose inside ourselves by doing otherwise.
As you have always done, live joyfully and share your resources as much as possible. Know that sharing conversations and meals with one another can be convivial acts, ones that knit up the ravelled sleeve of care and loss. Reject, as you have always done, the notion that success can be measured in material terms. Store up treasures for yourself that moths cannot eat and thieves cannot steal. Cherish those you love, and those you don’t love. In times of trouble, the bonds you have formed will be there for you, and the practice of seeing the divine in all who cross your path will have become deeply engrained. There will be more protection and peace in such ways than in any fortress protected by high walls.
Finally, treasure the earth and your days upon it. Tread lightly. Know that the earth breathes, not as you do but just as surely, and that, like you, it is both robust and fragile. Trust its strength; protect its weakness. Wait, watch and wonder, knowing that even as some terrible processes unfold, there will be beauty and joy in our future.
Thank you for listening to my words this morning.