Heading Into Paris: A Dozen Years in the Making
By: Allis Druffel
As the international UN Climate Talks commence in Paris, there is great hope from multiple sectors for serious, long-term action. As a California Catholic involved in the faith/ecology nexus, it is fascinating to review the development of sustainability efforts in the last dozen years and how our state has become a leader for the world, with people of faith in the lead in advocating for strong policy, as well as individual and communal action. This short overview portrays one Catholic’s perspective on the growth of sustainability efforts from the congregation to state and national action.
In 2003, the issues of climate change and sustainability had not, by and large, permeated the U.S. national consciousness. As director of Community Services for Holy Family Church in South Pasadena at the time, I believe our church was a snapshot of the understanding of climate change. Presentations on environmental stewardship were still new, but also crucial in educating the faithful. One such forum at Holy Family featured high-level experts and theologians but was not well attended.
In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit. It took almost 2,000 lives (1,836) and remains the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history. The images from Katrina were heartbreaking to the nation, while at the same time, brought about a burgeoning awareness of a changing climate. It also highlighted the sad reality of severe weather events, that already vulnerable areas – usually inhabited by communities of color – suffer “first and worst.”
2005 and 2006 were revolutionary in terms of climate advocacy in California. Increased advocacy for increased energy efficiency standards, renewable energy use, and protection of communities hard-hit by sources of pollution led to the passage of Assembly Bill 32, The Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, authored by then Assemblymember Fran Pavley (now a state senator). The documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth”, shown in multiple U.S. congregations, brought a new level of scientific understanding of climate science as well as a sense of urgent action.
2007 saw increased energy and action among faith and social leaders for climate protection. The Catholic Coalition on Climate Change, launched in 2006, started to permeate national Catholic consciousness. More houses of worship of all faiths, partly with the leadership of IPL, ramped up efforts. In February 2008, a committed and concerned group of Catholics commenced monthly meetings to formulate an Archdiocesan “Green Team”, which would provide practical resources on the theology of the faith/climate nexus; energy efficiency measures; and education and advocacy options for both parishes and Catholic households.
2009 was a defining year in the climate crisis politically and socially, which increased the motivation and action coming from the American faith and environmental community. Now on staff with California Interfaith Power & Light, I watched in real-time via the Internet, along with many national colleagues, as the House of Representatives passed a bill focused on reducing pollution, growing the economy and investing in communities hard hit by regional climate change. Many environmental and faith advocates were overwhelmed with a sense of hope, especially since adoption of federal climate legislation would lend significant U.S. credence at the Copenhagen Climate Talks later that year. The glimmer that another world is possible was shining through.
Sadly, two other forces expressed themselves almost simultaneously. The environmental community had been split about which type of market mechanism would be used in the gathering of revenues by large polluters. And the rise of an extremely vocal movement, calling for an overall reduction of the federal government’s powers, helped to create further division in Congress, basically preventing climate action from being taken up in the Senate.
The UN Climate Talks in Copenhagen in late 2009 — the first year that this “Conference of Parties” permeated the American consciousness in a real way — was also disappointing. Rather than a binding international agreement, there was lukewarm progress — a general acceptance to limit global warming to a 2-degrees Celsius rise (3.6-degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100; a recognition that sustainable growth is to be the prevailing economic model going forward; and a commitment to review progress in ensuing annual meetings.
After the challenging and disappointing year of 2009, 2010 started off on a hopeful note for Catholics who viewed the climate crisis in the faith/environment/justice nexus. On January 1, Pope Benedict XVI, (dubbed “The Green Pope” by some) delivered his International Day of Peace address, entitled “If you want to cultivate peace, protect Creation.” California remained a leader in legislation, increasing its goal to acquire renewable energy to 33 percent by 2020. Locally, later that year, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles kicked off its sustainability efforts officially, with masses focused on Creation protection in all five of its regions.
Despite these positive signs, frustration grew alongside the growing politicization of the issue. The issue continued to divide, generally along liberal/conservative ideology. This polarization unfortunately put to the side any sane conversation of three realities of a changing climate: one, a changing climate affects all people regardless of personal, social or political beliefs; two, there is an intimate connection between climate, poverty, health, and educational issues; and, three, a changing climate affects the lives and livelihoods of those most vulnerable locally and globally.
On the federal level, 2011 witnessed encouraging steps to reign in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases linked to climate change, mainly from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Under its 2009 “Endangerment Finding”, which found that pollutants are a threat to current and future generations, the EPA began regulation plans for new power plants, mercury and other air toxics, and ozone. The unfortunate bipartisan pushback from primarily the House was swift and strong, further heightening the public’s awareness of the science of climate change and the perception of a legislative body that had become so divisive as to stall unified action on crucial legislation. This, despite the publishing of a growing mound of scientific reports linking carbon pollution to climate change.
It can safely be said that 2012 was the year that climate change as both real and present hit the American public. Amidst the continuing rancor and bitterness over the issue in still-inactive Congress, Hurricane Sandy hit, leaving a path of death and destruction from Jamaica to the East Coast of the U.S. This devastating event brought home one other, very obvious truth of a changing climate: the time to act on a global scale was long overdue. Ironically, amidst congressional inaction, a group of military leaders, declared climate change “a threat to national security” in June 2012.
Meanwhile, frustration and disbelief with lack of congressional action reached a high point, resulting in the time-honored tradition of ultimate civil action: non-violent rallies and arrests, including those from the faith community. One such example, which a group of faith leaders and I helped to coordinate, was the first-ever rally and civil disobedience from the faith community demanding climate action in Los Angeles in February 2012.
Two false assertions continued to dominate cable news and Congress: that climate change science was still “under debate”, and that the U.S. could address climate change only at the expense of a healthy economy. The first assertion has been proven false by multiple scientific reports. One of these, from the International Energy Agency in 2011, stated that, unless dramatic action is taken by 2017 to reduce pollution emissions, a 2-degrees Celsius rise would be inevitable by 2100. The second assertion has also proven false by both economic studies and reality. For example, in California, Next 10, in 2012, reported that California’s “green economy” (including jobs in the renewable energy sector) grew by 53 percent from 1995-2010, compared to a 12 percent increase in jobs in the wider economy.
As 2013 came and went, many who worked on climate change issues came to the realization that we were coming closer to the “point of no return” where, no matter our actions to reduce pollution on a massive scale, it would be too late to turn the tide. Indeed, it had been known for years that humanity will not be able to stop climate change; it is just a matter of how bad it will get. For those of us working on this issue, we were challenged with a growing sense of despair, which, ironically, flies in the face of loving action from those of faith and goodwill who work to continually bring life to the world. So, we forged ahead, knowing that the only response was positive action for increased renewable energy sources, less reliance of polluting energy, and empowerment of individuals and communities. Anxiety about our situation is still present and has become a companion in our actions.
The end of 2014 brought with it no lack of significant worrying signs: 2014 was the hottest year globally on record with 13 of the 15 hottest years on record occurring since 2000; carbon dioxide concentration surpassed 400 parts per million (ppm), in contrast to an average of 280 ppm for the past 800,000 years at least; the presence of congressional leaders who continue to reject the science of a changing climate and thus, block legitimate attempts aimed at reducing the problem; and the massive amounts of coal, oil and gas used in the U.S. and by large, developing nations indicate that climate change effects will continue. At the same time, there were a plethora of hopeful signs: many U.S. cities, states and other countries formulated pollution-reduction plans; and unmistakable demand by the American public for action was embodied in federal action like progress on the EPA Clean Power Plan and the 400,000 strong Peoples Climate March in New York.
2015 has seen a growing chasm in the divide between great hope and anxiety. Recognizing that the word “hope” must be based on practical positive action, many countries, including the U.S., have committed to major emissions cut by 2030. Pope Francis’ very influential encyclical on ecology, Laudato Si’, is continuing to permeate the international consciousness, and events such as the Peoples Climate March remain a beacon of light signaling a shift to a healthier paradigm. Yet, persistent signs are discouraging: recent votes in Congress to stall the EPA Clean Power Plan, while not a serious threat, signal an almost willful denial of needed action; the use of coal and natural gas is still rampant; 2015 is predicted to be yet the hottest on record globally; and renewable energy investment and building of infrastructure is not in keeping with the rapid timeline of devastating climate change impacts.
On the eve of the UN Climate Talks, many know that our climate crisis has definite external solutions: the formulation of national and international agreements that will reduce carbon pollution by roughly 80-90 percent of 1990 levels; the adoption of and quicker implementation of proven renewable energy methods; and personal commitments to live within our carbon means. At the same time, COP21 is seen as a global “good start but not enough.” It is up to all sectors of society to continue even more strengthened action in the years ahead. And the international faith sector again is in the lead, encouraging a global paradigm shift of heart and mind that will reflect authentic inner and outer transformation, necessary for a sustainable future.
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Allis Druffel has been involved in climate change issues for twelve years. She is currently the Southern California Outreach Director for California Interfaith Power and Light working with congregations on energy efficiency, renewable energy, education, and policy advocacy. She previously served as Community Services Director for Holy Family Church in South Pasadena, where she was involved in the issues of hunger and food insecurity, immigration, fair trade and environmental protection. Allis is a founding member of the Los Angeles Catholic Archdiocesan Creation Sustainability Committee. Ms. Druffel integrates her first career as a classical singer with environmental events, and serves as Music Director at Pasadena Christian Church.