Elizabeth May, churches and climate change

In October 2011, the leaders of about 30 faith communities met in Ottawa to talk about the urgent need to take a stand on climate change as a moral issue. These deliberations were organized by the Commission on Justice and Peace of the Canadian Council of Churches. The faith leaders crafted and released an interfaith call for action in advance of an international conference in Durban, South Africa. They held a news conference, lobbied politicians on Parliament Hill and created a petition that MPs could table in the House of Commons. Recently about 100 people, including Green party leader Elizabeth May and three other MPs, gathered in a meeting room near the Hill for a panel discussion about whether last October’s interfaith call is having an impact.

“Did the interfaith call have an impact?” asked May. “Yes, it helped enormously. We had MPs who never would have talked about this issue standing up in the House of Commons and reading from your petitions as they introduced them because that is what MPs do when their constituents send in petitions.”

Elizabeth May on climate change

Bad faith at Durban

Despite that hopeful development, May was less sanguine about what happened at Durban in November 2011 – an international meeting where countries were to decide how to go beyond the promises which many of them had made in Kyoto back in 1997 regarding the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. May said she managed to attend the Durban conference as part of the delegation for Papua New Guinea. In this case, the Canadian government did not follow an earlier, more gentile parliamentary tradition of inviting other party leaders or opposition environment critics to attend a major environmental conference.

May said that Peter Kent, Canada’s environment minister, was there in bad faith. “He said that Canada did not intend to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol but within days of returning from Durban he announced that we would.” May said despite that plan the actual date of Canada’s withdrawal does not occur until the end of 2012 and she asked people to bombard the government with requests to remain in the protocol.

In 1997, Kyoto set binding targets on developed nations to reduce carbon emissions. In Canada, the Chretien government signed the protocol and promised to reduce 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.

Climate change science

The science behind climate change is not as recent as most people believe it to be. Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish scientist, was the first to claim in 1896 that fossil fuel combustion may eventually result in enhanced global warming.

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; the melting of polar ice caps; wildfires, drought and mega-floods. Expert international panels are warning of much worse to come unless we take action.

In opposition, the Conservatives were climate change deniers and Stephen Harper even called Kyoto a “socialist scheme”. Denial has become intellectually untenable but in power the Conservatives have done everything possible to ensure that Canada makes no binding commitments on carbon emissions. The government is committed to rapid development of the oil sands, but that creates a level of carbon emissions that makes the Kyoto, or even more modest targets, impossible to achieve.

Michael Chong

Michael Chong, an independently-minded Conservative MP from Southern Ontario, told the Ottawa panel discussion that, “Each day the issue is more clear with 97 or 98 per cent of scientists agreeing that climate change is happening and the government has to take action on it — but there are a lot of people out there who do not believe that the science is settled.”

Chong, who was first elected in 2004, declared his support for the Kyoto Protocol during that election, despite his party’s opposition to the measure. He served briefly in the Harper cabinet in 2006 but resigned because he did not support a government motion recognizing the Québécois as a nation within Canada.

Chong said that faith groups can play an important role in the climate change debate. “The science has been clarified yet a sizeable number of people disbelieve. They are searching for someone they can trust on climate change. It is important for people in faith communities to tell their neighbours, ‘I am someone you can trust and believe me this is important.’”

Elizabeth May on hope

May said that she went into politics because of her concerns about climate change. Asked by the panel’s moderator what gave her hope, May replied: “Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up. We have to work. We can’t wait until all Canadians are ready on this. We need a responsible government to take leadership.”

In addition to May and Chong, MPs on the panel on climate change included Anne Minh-Thu Quach of the NDP and Ted Hsu of the Liberals.

 Changing hearts

Joy Kennedy, chair of the Commission on Justice and Peace for the Canadian Council of Churches, told the four MPs: “We want you to know that we desire deeply to cooperate with you in the leadership process. We are here for the long haul. Changing hearts is our business, so let’s get on with it.”










4 thoughts on “Elizabeth May, churches and climate change

  1. I find it interesting that thirty faith communities were present at the deliberations, but I suspect there weren’t many from the evangelical movement or, as it’s often referred to, the “Christian right.” Biblical literalists (I’m always curious as to which translations they use in their literalism, or do they work in the original Aramaic or Hebrew?) can have reasons to disbelieve, based on their faith, as Rick Perry noted, speaking on September 9, 2011: ““If you have a biblical, Judeo-Christian worldview that sees the earth and its climate system as being designed by an omnipotent God… and sustained by a faithful God who has covenanted to sustain it, then your inclination is to see the climate system as robust, resilient, self-regulating and self-correcting.” http://blog.chron.com/rickperry/2011/09/rick-perry-and-galileo-the-religious-beliefs-behind-global-warming-skepticism/

    Call me a skeptic, but I’d also ask how these Christians’ ignorance of global warming serves them in other ways. Many of the deniers are Republican supporters, who also tend to represent the richest Americans (just as the Conservatives in Canada are likely more supported by the same demographic in Canada), and it seems to me more than a little self-serving to these people to claim human activities are not a part of the planet-warming equation. It seems to me their ignorance–willful or not–serves their interests well. After all, if humans have no part in this phenomenon (some do agree global warming is happening, but not because of human activity) then there’s no need to cut back on energy consumption, give up gas-guzzlers, or pay any attention to the “tree huggers.”

    Ignorance is about more than a mere lack of knowledge. It can also be actively constructed to serve specific ends.


    1. There were several Evangelical churches present at the October 2011 event both as participants and presenters, including The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.

      The Canadian Council of Churches now represents 24 member churches in Canada across the spectrum of Christian traditions.


      1. Dennis replies: Thanks Peter. Perhaps you could give me and readers a bit more detail. The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada is not, I believe, a member of the Canadian Council of Churches. Were they at the October 2011 event (on climate change) on a one-of basis because they thought this an important issue? Were they signatories to the call for action that was issued? Do they continue to be involved? And when you say you represent churches “across the spectrum of christian traditions”, would you say that some of your members are Evangelical churches (I know it is often not easy to say who is an Evangelical church and who is not)? Many of us are not fully aware of the relationships and nuances here and it would be good to know.


      2. Dennis,

        You are right, The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada is not a member of The Canadian Council of Churches but the CCC and EFC do cooperate regularly on issues of common concern. Both The Canadian Council of Churches and The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada participate in the Canadian interfaith conversation who played an important role in organizing the event on Parliament Hill in October 2011. There are 6 member churches of the CCC who are also members of the EFC… the CCC self-description notes the range of Christian traditions: “The Canadian Council of Churches is the largest ecumenical body in Canada, now representing 24 churches of Anglican; Evangelical; Free Church; Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox; Protestant; and Catholic traditions. Together we represent 85% of the Christians in Canada.”

        Not all member churches of the CCC signed onto the Interfaith Call for Leadership and Action on Climate Change so consequently the Canadian Council of Churches did not sign (we are a full consensus organization). Neither did the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada or several other important faith communities in Canada… there is still more work to do.


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