Canadian churches, climate change and Durban

 I have at times been critical of Canadian faith communities for failing to make the environment a moral priority. But a good number of religious leaders in Canada and elsewhere, weighed in for the climate talks in Durban, South Africa. I will get to Canadians in a moment but will start with the fireworks that arose from an advertisement in the Globe and Mail newspaper on November 30.

 Life and death issue 

(Polaris Institute Image)

The ad was signed by a group of people, including Desmond Tutu, the 80-year-old Anglican Archbishop Emeritus and Nobel Peace Laureate. The ad praised Canada for having imposed sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa in the 1980s, but then it called into question this country’s current stance on preventing climate change, referred to as “a life and death issue” for Africans. 

The ad went on to discuss Canadian energy policy. “By dramatically increasing Canada’s global warming pollution, tar sands mining and drilling makes the problem worse and exposes millions of Africans to more devastating drought and famine today and in the years to come…We call on Canada to change course…to support international action to reduce global warming pollution.” 

Shut your trap 

The advertisement generated a torrent of exaggerated invective from some of the usual suspects – including CBC Television’s Rex Murphy. The National Post newspaper said, “Archbishop Desmond Tutu should shut his trap when it comes to the oilsands.” The newspaper later removed that sentence — but not before the boorish comment was widely read and re-posted by many news organizations and NGOs. 

Peter Kent, Canada’s environment minister, accused Archbishop Tutu of “making unfounded criticisms of our petroleum industry.” Kent, who went to Durban, had the unenviable task of trying to justify Canada’s flawed policy on climate change. 

Science of climate change 

In June 1988 a NASA scientist named James Hansen testified before Congress in the U.S., saying that the planet was heating up because we were burning too much fossil fuel and emitting carbon dioxide as a waste product. More than 20 years along, we are experiencing the escalating results of human-induced warming: all-time high temperatures in most countries; melting of the ice cap in Greenland and elsewhere; wildfires and drought in locations as widely dispersed as Russia and Australia; mega-floods in Pakistan, Brazil, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and South Africa; beetle infestations that have decimated Canada’s boreal forests. Expert international panels are warning of much worse to come unless we take action. 

The Kyoto Protocol in 1997 set binding targets on developed nations to reduce emissions. In Canada, the Chretien government signed the protocol and promised to reduce carbon emissions to six per cent below their 1990 levels by 2012. The Liberals lost power in 2006 but their Kyoto plan would not have met the promised target. 

“Socialist scheme” 

In opposition, the Conservatives were staunch climate change deniers and Stephen Harper even called Kyoto a “socialist scheme”. Denial has become intellectually untenable but once in power the Conservatives have done everything possible to discredit Kyoto and to ensure that Canada makes no binding commitments on carbon emissions. There is a reason for this, which is, bathed in self-interest. The Conservatives, along with their oil industry backers, are committed to rapid development of the oil sands. But that has created a level of carbon emissions that makes the Kyoto targets impossible to achieve. 

Peter Kent said at Durban, and before, that Kyoto has been “ineffective and unfair” because it calls on developed countries to make binding commitments to emission reductions, while developing countries, including China and India, were allowed to make voluntary commitments. Canada emits far more on a per capita basis, but with their much larger economies China and India are larger overall emitters — and so the debate goes around.  Those countries moved some distance during the Durban Conference but Kent said Canada will simply not agree to Kyoto commitments (which we have not met anyway) and it is likely that Canada will soon pull out of the protocol entirely. 

Sowing discord 

Joseph Heath, a University of Toronto professor, recently described Canada’s strategy at talks in Durban, and before that in Copenhagen and Cancun. He writes, “it has become clear that so long as we have a federal government whose primary base of power is in the Alberta oil patch, our central objective will be to sow discord, create enmity, introduce unfriendly amendments, dilute the wording of agreements and otherwise do dirty work for the Americans. We are the new Saudi Arabia.” 

Interfaith call 

Enter the Canadian churches. There has in the past been talk by some among them about climate change, but little concerted action. Others avoided the issue entirely. But there was an historic meeting in Ottawa in October 2011, when about 30 faith communities met and discussed the urgent need for ecological justice — especially regarding the climate change crisis. This was the culmination of a laborious effort to pull together disparate faith groups around an overrding issue, one that they describe in moral and religious terms.  

They crafted the Canadian Interfaith Call for Leadership and Action on Climate Change and went public with it in advance of the Durban Conference. They wrote: “Our faith traditions and sacred texts call upon us all – individuals, civil society, businesses, industry, and governments – to consider the spiritual dimensions of the crisis of ocean and climate change; to take stock of our collective behaviour; to transform cultures of consumerism and waste into cultures of sustainability; and to respect the balance between economic activity and environmental stewardship.” 

Three demands 

It was signed by leaders representing most of Canada’s Christian churches, as well as the Association of Progessive Muslims, the Federation of Hindu Temples, and the Anishnabe First Nation. The Interfaith Call made three demands of Parliament:  

– sign and implement a binding international treaty replacing the Kyoto Protocol that commits nations to reduce carbon emissions and sets a target to ensure that average temperatures stay below a two degree Celsius increase from pre-industrial levels  

– commit to national carbon emission targets and a national renewable energy policy designed to achieve sustainability 

– help to design a Green Climate Fund under United Nations governance, and contribute public funds to assist the poorest and most affected countries to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change. 

Five assets  

What can faith groups bring to the debate and will it matter? No one can yet answer the second question. But Gary Gardiner of the Worldwatch Institute has written that faith communities bring at least five assets to the effort of building a sustainable world: the capacity to shape worldviews; moral authority; a base of adherents; material resources; and a capacity for community building.  

Noted American enviromentalist Bill McKibben adds that faith groups  are among the only institutions remaining in society that can mount a challenge to the dominant culture, particularly as it relates to environmental responsibility.  




7 thoughts on “Canadian churches, climate change and Durban

  1. Those in Canada who put wealth above all other needs have to deny climate change. The oil and gas industry pays huge wages for people to do much damage. Canada is a primary resource extraction based country, that relies on the USA to purchase as much petroleum resource as we can produce, and will be the Little Dog that supports the Big Dog to the bitter end. Any religious group that realizes the emptiness of wealth without responsibility, can be of assistance in moderating greed and will serve a valuable purpose in our survival!


  2. Of course most people want environmental stability and most people are interested in environmental everything.

    There is the point to which Dennis alluded, that Canada produces only 5% of the world’s man made green house gases, therefore by ourselves Canada can accomplish nothing of significance. All the nice words detracted people’s attention from the relevant fact that the needed players were not inside Kyoto.

    A wider perspective might bring more people into the fold. The person from the University of Toronto would be on more solid ground if he recognized that Canada’s equalization payments to provinces are partially dependent on Alberta’s contribution. Is Ontario willing to cough up more funds for equalization? If not, then any professor needs to mention what would happen in Quebec and the Maritimes when and if Canada stopped oil sands development. The Liberals, I note, did not stand in the way, nice words notwithstanding.

    And then there’s Climategate 2. We could spend all that money and have important issues ignored due to the constant bickering, and in the end accomplish absolutely nothing.

    Dennis replies: Thanks Lois for your comments. I suppose one question is whether Canada is prepared to do its share toward mitigating the consequences that will arrive if our temperature becomes three or four degrees warmer in future, as is predicted given current trends. It is true that China and India have been self-serving in what they are prepared to do — although they are beginnng to come around. But has Canada not been equally, if not more self serving? Our per capita emissions are far greater than those of either China or India. One thing we could do is to slow down the pace of development in the oil sands. Alberta would still have plenty of money in the treasury, but just not quite as much. Peter Lougheed, the much respected former Premier of Alberta, has made just that proposal — but no one, it seems, is listening to him.


  3. For myself there is something missing in the climate change debate by those who are working to change our ways for the better. It is the separation of climate change from justice and pollution. Cleaning up our poisonous ways will cost a lot of money and demand major changes in the way we do things. The second thing I believe is that if you investigate pollution issue there is also justice issues involved. It is the poor or weaker members of earth that suffer the immediate effect of pollution. Why have we encouraged to look only at climate change, because it takes away from looking at bigger picture of all pollution. Second there is a chance to make money through taxes and carbon swaps. What has been done to the poor people of Nigeria who live along the oil pipeline, the oppression of the people of Saudi Arabia, the polluting of the First Nations people in Alberta needs to be tackled instead of saying some vague words about sustainability.


  4. “Canada produces only 5% of the world’s man made green house gases, therefore by ourselves Canada can accomplish nothing of significance.”

    And every snowflake insists it isn’t responsible for the blizzard.


  5. Dennis, you are much too kind particularly in not mentioning the scandalous silence of Canada’s largest religious community, the RC Church.

    Talk about whistling past the graveyard!

    Their pastoral silence on humanity’s greatest moral issue is scandalous beyond words.

    Their present mummification equals the Orthodox Church’s arguing over what vestments they should wear as the Russian Revolution was gaining steam.

    Here they are promoting this abysmal new Latinized liturgy while the world is burning down.

    And they wonder why there are so few young people in churches.

    Dennis Replies: Thanks Ted for your comment. You are partly right about the silence of the Catholic Church in Canada on climate change and the Durban Conference. But it is the curious and cowardly silence of the bishops that you are describing — other Catholics did weigh in. We are talking about the Canadian Interfaith Call for Leadership and Action on Climate Change. This call was issued on October 25, 2011, as I reported in my blog piece. The document occurred only after a laborious process of consultation. The call was signed by more than 60 church and religious leaders, including those of the Anglican, United, Lutheran and Mennonite Churches, not to mention the Quakers, the Ethiopian Orthodox, a number of Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and other organizations. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops was conspicuous by its absence, and not one Catholic bishop signed on. Catholics who did sign on included leaders in various orders of religious sisters and priests, even the chair of the social justice committee at St. Basil’s Roman Catholic church in Ottawa. But no bishops. Not one. Where are they? Perhaps Ted you could give us more detail of the dynamic here. Why will the CCCB not speak out on climate change in concert with other church and religiously-based organizations?


  6. As a Roman Catholic, I am deeply distressed by the deafening silence of Canadian bishops on the environment generally, and the tar sands in particular. But I am not surprised.

    Canadian bishops have shown no inclination to strenuously criticize the sinful spending on multi-billion dollar fighter jets at a time when people are homeless and hungry; nor have they made any fuss about the Herods in our time bulding new prisons for the people despite the fact crime rates are going down; and although more than 20% of Canadian children live in poverty, the bishops appear too busy to address the slaughter of the innocents in our time.

    Alas, our bishops seem to have forgotten Jesus’ statement that “just as you did to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Today we have governments that exalt greed and desecrate the environment in order to justify their all out assault on the poor to make the wealthy even more bloated.

    Perhaps the Canadian bishops should re-read
    chaper 34 of Ezekiel where the prophet relays God’s message concerning false shepherds: “the fat and the srong I will destroy, I will feed them with justice.”

    The Canadian Catholic Bishop’s pathetic performance on the environment is, thankfully, not typical. Bishops elsewhere, and popes on occassion, have objected to sins against creation and pointed out the earth was given by God to be shared by all. As well, the Jesuits are deeply engaged in the effort to protect the earth from the greed so manifest in the way Ottawa and the provinces rush to commodify creation so the rich can become even richer.

    Our childern will pay the price for the greed of their hydro-carbon fathers. They, like we, are truly sheep without shepherds.


  7. Your point that religious groups should stand up for the environment and ethical progress in resource extraction. If that would help then why not? It seems the Judeo Christian support that stands behind the neo cons doesn’t seem to see any problem with the status quo. Harper wants to be re-elected, and he’s offering a pro-Israel defense in his arsenal of how to keep the lead. Catholics, for the most part, have voted Liberal. So they best get cracking to put forward a strong opponent. I do think that any other person, other than Harper would not cut Canada down to this level of corporate takeover of our resources. Not just the tar sands, but fracking too is taking over in B.C. Ontario Northland, Quebec and N.B. Both are hugely destructive to local land, air, water. Native Aboriginals may be our last hope to stand against the legality of land appropriation. We must support them. Petition. Iceland was successful in expelling Geo Thermal Engineering from the transnationals. Their situation was the same as ours now. Broke and eager to move forward, the country was becoming destroyed. But they fought and won against the big energy companies. Once corporations are the sole means of employment, democracy is lost. So, briefly, we cannot afford huge mega projects that tip the balance in favor of the rich WTO, globalized economy. It will only mean our riches will be exploited, exported, our land destroyed, gutted and 50 years from now there will be no fresh water, but soul less dirty jobs that kill our health. We need more women and alternative voices in the government to shake up the cronyism or old boys with guns, jets and nasty mouths.

    Dennis replies: Thanks for your comment. Lots to think about in what you said. I am especially alerted by your comments on fracking. I believe that Dallas, another reader and a frequent commentator, has some experience with this issue in New Brunswick. Anything to add Dallas?


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