Eastern Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew says young people can ‘save democracy and our planet’ 

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew received an honorary degree from the University of Notre Dame Oct. 28. During an academic convocation in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart the Eastern Orthodox Church leader said climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic are interrelated crises. Notre Dame’s president, Holy Cross Fr. John Jenkins, is at left. (University of Notre Dame/Matt Cashore)

Climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic are interrelated crises that challenge churches to respond with both faith and science, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew said Oct. 28 at the University of Notre Dame, where he received an honorary doctorate.

“It is our obligation before God, neighbor and creation to assume responsibility for addressing climate change and suppressing the pandemic,” the Eastern Orthodox Church leader told his audience.

Speaking directly to students in the basilica where the ceremony took place after vespers, Bartholomew said young people offer “the optimism that we so yearn for, the readiness to accept change and sacrifice, the capacity to overcome polarization and partisanship, the conviction to be catalysts of social and ecological justice as well as, quite frankly, the opportunity to save democracy and our planet.”

He added, “May God grant your generation the necessary wisdom and courage to continue leading this charge and mandate.”

Bartholomew, who was an early leader in the Christian ecology movement and has bonded with Pope Francis over environmental issues, is on a weeklong visit to the United States that began Oct. 23.

In September, he joined Pope Francis and Anglican Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury in calling for strong measures on climate change so that future generations can live on a healthy planet. And on Oct. 4, he was among nearly 40 faith leaders who joined Francis at the Vatican to present an appeal for urgent action to world leaders who will meet in Glasgow, Scotland, Nov. 1-2 at the opening of the United Nations climate conference, COP26.

In his remarks at Notre Dame, Bartholomew stressed the importance of making political decisions based on scientific evidence and the need for people of faith to work together toward solutions.

“We faith leaders are called humbly and patiently to cooperate with leaders in the scientific and academic worlds, as well as the corporate and political domains,” he said, adding that “creation care brings us divided, insulated believers before a common task that we must face together.”

The patriarch also called for ecocide — the mass damage to or destruction of ecosystems — to be declared an international crime.

“As human beings, we surely understand that we cannot hurt our brothers and sisters, that there are moral, social and legal consequences” to actions, he said. “Why, then, do we not grasp the fact that there should be moral, social and legal repercussions when we harm God’s creation?”

Both climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic raise “ultimate questions about life and death, sickness and suffering, as well as health care and justice,” the patriarch said. In addressing the dual crises, he added, churches play a crucial role with their interrelated messages of faith in God and love of neighbor, symbolized by the vertical and horizontal dimensions of the cross.

During the pandemic, the church has learned the “important but a humbling lesson” that “religion must function and serve in connection with, and never in isolation from, science,” he added. “Faith alone will not overcome the problems of our time, but the challenges of our time will certainly not be overcome without faith.”

Protecting the environment, he said, “involves constant pain and forgiveness, unrelenting preference and priority for what we truly value, for what truly matters.” It is through “a spiritual and moral response,” he added, that people of faith “become a healing and transformative presence among our neighbors and on our planet.”


As COP26 gathers, faith-based environmentalists fight ‘eco-grief’ 

Flames lick above vehicles on Highway 162 as the Bear Fire burns in Oroville, California, on Sept. 9, 2020. The blaze, part of the lightning-sparked North Complex, expanded rapidly as winds buffeted the region. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

There’s a word for climate disaster fatigue: It’s called “eco-grief.”

As the United Nations Climate Conference (known as COP26) gathers world leaders in Glasgow, Scotland, over the next two weeks to discuss climate change, and even Democrats in the United States try to cobble together a reed-slim coalition to pass significant climate change mitigation measures, people of faith long active in environmental advocacy haven’t succumbed to pessimism.

“I adamantly refuse to surrender to hopelessness,” wrote Katharine Hayhoe, chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy, in an email interview. Hayhoe, with author Bill McKibben, is participating in COP26, where President Joe Biden and other world leaders spoke Nov. 1 and a message from Pope Francis was presented Nov. 2.

For some climate change veterans, a positive perspective is central to their faith.

In the Sikh tradition, “we approach the challenges of the world in a spirit of optimism,” said environmental scientist Bandana Kaur Malik.

Collective efforts, she said, can have an enormous impact. “We’re actually here to give people hope, and to find that help. Even when things are darkest, if we are brave and see light within the situation, there will be more light.”

A Sikh’s attitude toward the environment, Kaur Malik said, is influenced by the words of founder Guru Nanak, who wrote, “Air is the Guru, Water the Father, And the Earth the Eminent Mother of all.”

Activists don’t understate the magnitude of the challenges of a global climate crisis. But responding to it is, they say, much more than a matter of self-preservation. It’s rooted in the central tenets of their faith traditions.

“It really is terrifying,” Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, a Modern Orthodox rabbi, said of the spate of recent climate news. “I think we have to start by embracing how terrifying this is, and how disappointing it is that this is all human-caused. Yet I remain very hopeful.”

That hope, said Yanklowitz, creator and president of Uri L’Tzedek (the Orthodox Social Justice movement) and the animal advocacy organization Shamayim, is based on the activism the climate movement has generated. “I see a revolution started, a spiritual revolution of people who are changing their lives and are working to change their communities,” he said.

Tori Goebel, a 27-year-old spokesperson for Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, said the people trying to have an impact start locally and are crucial in confronting climate change. “Having a trusted messenger, someone who is like you and shares similar interests and values, can go a long way. It’s important to connect climate change to people’s values.”

For Christians, said Goebel, the value is as simple as “biblical justice,” especially given that low-income, tribal, Indigenous and communities of color are facing the worst impacts of climate change right now. 

When talking about how to keep others from descending into pessimism about the planet, Goebel advised staying as positive as possible. “I think it’s important that we focus on that hopeful future we can create, instead of on scarcity and all the things you have to give up.”

Thirteen years ago, McKibben and others founded 350.org, an organization dedicated to building a global activist movement to promote a future without fossil fuels. But his faith, which has roots in mainline Protestantism, has been tested, said McKibben by email.

“I think we took a dark turn with Reagan, away from the idea that loving one’s neighbor is at the heart of our lives. That helps explain why we’ve done such a bad job of dealing with the existential threat climate change poses,” he said. 

Since then he has watched America “move towards this ugly libertarian idea that we should each look out for our own selves.”

Nonetheless, he finds solace, he said, in the Hebrew Scriptures’ Book of Job “and the idea that there was a time when humans were small compared to God/the natural world.”

James Rattling Leaf, a member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe who lives in western South Dakota, said Native Americans have been facing multiple challenges, including high infant mortality rates, the outsized impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and lack of access to basics like clean drinking water as the result of a persistent drought.

 “Ultimately, we’re the ones on the front lines, when it comes to these issues in our backyard or region,” said Rattling Leaf, who runs a consulting firm while coordinating climate partnerships for the Great Plains Tribal Water Alliance.

Rattling Leaf, who describes himself as a nondenominational “follower of Jesus,” said that while churches can play a part in promoting care for the planet, there is also a place for a theology of creation that honors the heritage and cultures of Indigenous peoples.

Members of the Lakota community, he said, don’t see themselves at the top of a hierarchy in the natural world. “We believe that we’re all part of it, and we have a responsibility to each other. We all learn from each other, take care of each other. When one is affected, that affects all of us.”

His faith gives him hope, said Rattling Leaf. But so does the increasing collaboration between tribal leaders, and of those leaders with scientists, educational institutions and other partners. 

“I’m just part of the group that wants to move us forward to some direction that helps our young people and our elders deal with the practical aspects (of climate change), not just planning, strategy or policy: How do you take care of Grandma when it’s 110 degrees outside,” he asked by way of example, “and she’s got no air conditioning or running water?”

Hayhoe, well known in Christian circles for explaining global warming in faith-friendly ways to those she terms “solution skeptics,” also has faith in the possibility of collective action on behalf of the planet. In her new book, Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World, she writes about the “six Americas of global warming.” It is a primer for those still holding hope for change.

”This book is written for all of the rest of us, for every person over the past five years, and this numbers in the thousands, who has ever asked me, what gives you hope?” she said in a phone interview. “How do I talk to my family member, neighbor, colleague, elected official, boss about climate change in a way that makes a difference?”

Her Christian beliefs tell her, she said, that humans have a responsibility for all living things, and to love and care for those less fortunate.

“Climate change disproportionally affects the most marginalized and vulnerable people in the world,” she said. All major world religions share that ethic, she added. “I’m absolutely convinced that just about everybody already has a reason they need to care about climate change. “

But even the indefatigably hopeful Hayhoe has a warning for those who procrastinate on engaging with the realities of a warming world, comparing them to smokers advised by their doctors that they are risking dire consequences if they don’t quit.

“You have to, you have to do something now,” she said. “Because if you wait until you actually feel anything more than you are feeling now, it will be too late. So that’s kind of where we’re at.”


Scotland’s Catholic Church leads faith-based fossil fuel divestment ahead of COP26

Glasgow Green at the Kings Bridge entrance to the park in Glasgow, Scotland. The city is hosting the United Nations climate conference known as COP26 on Oct. 31-Nov. 12. (Unsplash/Phil Reid)
Glasgow Green at the Kings Bridge entrance to the park in Glasgow, Scotland. The city is hosting the United Nations climate conference known as COP26 on Oct. 31-Nov. 12. (Unsplash/Phil Reid)

As Scotland prepares to host a critical global summit on climate change, the country’s Catholic Church has divested its financial holdings from fossil fuels, which have powered decades of industrial growth but are also driving Earth’s temperatures to dangerous levels.

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Scotland, along with all eight Scottish archdioceses and dioceses, announced their fossil-free commitment Oct. 26, just days before the United Nations climate conference known as COP26 will begin in Glasgow. That city’s mayor also announced divestment plans the same day.

The Scottish Catholic Church was among 72 faith institutions on six continents that announced their divestment plans as part of a joint effort organized by several environmentally focused religious coalitions. Thirty-seven of them — representing Anglican, Buddhist, Catholic and Protestant traditions — are in the United Kingdom, which is leading COP26 jointly with Italy.

Together, the divesting faith communities manage more than $4.2 billion in assets, according to organizers, who said the Oct. 26 announcement was the largest religious-based divestment to date.

Galloway Bishop William Nolan, head of the Scottish bishops’ commission for justice and peace, which leads environmental initiatives, said in a statement, “The world is full of voices decrying the environmental crisis that we face.”

He said the bishops decided to join the multitrillion-dollar worldwide divestment movement because “speaking out is not enough, action is required.” Although some people argue that fossil fuel companies are necessary in the transition to renewable energy, he said, the act of divesting sends a signal “that the status quo is not acceptable.”

“Given the harm that the production and consumption of fossil fuels is causing to the environment and to populations in low-income countries, it was not right to profit from investment in these companies. Disinvestment is a sign that justice demands that we must move away from fossil fuels,” the Galloway bishop said.

Negotiations at COP26 are expected to center on meeting the Paris Agreement goal of limiting average global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius and push countries toward sizable actions to shift rapidly from fossil fuels to renewable energy during this decade.

Before the U.N. climate summit begins, leaders of the G-20 nations, which produce 80% of global greenhouse gas emissions, will try again to reach agreement on end dates for fossil fuel subsidies and a full phaseout of coal.

A May report from the International Energy Association, originally founded to protect oil supplies, stated that countries must immediately halt new oil, coal and gas development in order to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 and ultimately limit global warming to 1.5 by the end of the century.

COP26 must send “an unmistakable signal” to the financial world that the era of fossil fuels is ending, International Energy Association executive director Fatih Birol told a Catholic webinar in July.

An analysis this week by Bloomberg found that banks have facilitated nearly $4 trillion in financing for coal, oil and gas since the Paris Agreement was adopted in December 2015. So far in 2021, banks have provided $459 billion in fossil fuel financing, though perhaps in a sign of a shift, that’s been slightly surpassed by $463 billion in green investments.

Meanwhile, the divestment movement has mobilized more than 1,485 institutions with combined assets of $39 trillion away from investments in the fossil fuel industry. Recent additions include Harvard University — whose $42 billion endowment has long been a target of divestment advocates — and philanthropic giants MacArthur Foundation and Ford Foundation, the latter founded by the son of American auto pioneer Henry Ford.

During a webinar Oct. 26, leaders on divestment described the rapid growth of the campaign, which as of 2014 included just 181 institutions representing $50 billion in combined assets, as one of the biggest success stories of the climate movement. Looking forward, they called on investors not only to divest but to direct at least 5% of assets toward climate solutions and press companies in their portfolio to reduce total emissions to net zero by 2050.

“What we all know was once a movement led by small churches and liberal arts colleges is now a movement that’s been embraced by the biggest and most influential investors in the whole world,” said Richard Brooks, climate finance director for Stand.earth, listing the Vatican among them.

Overall, faith-based organizations represent more than 35% of all publicly divesting institutions.

Salesian Fr. Joshtrom Kureethadam, coordinator of the ecology and creation sector of the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, said in the webinar “we are delighted that the faith communities are leading this transformative journey.”

The Vatican has become increasingly vocal about the need to shift the world, and its investments, away from fossil fuels and toward renewable and sustainable sources of energy. Kureethadam said it has supported divestment through several initiatives, including recommending the step in its implementation guidelines for Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home.” Its forthcomng Laudato Si’ Action Platform also encourages Catholic institutions to end financing for coal, oil and gas, of which the vast majority of those reserves, the priest added, need to remain in the ground in order to achieve the Paris climate goals.

“The challenge is huge, but people are coming together, and we faith communities are willing to play our part on this journey,” Kureethadam said.

Thirty-six Catholic institutions were part of the latest in a series of joint divestment announcements, which have been coordinated since 2016 by a campaign of the Laudato Si’ Movement (formerly the Global Catholic Climate Movement).

The new divesting Catholic groups include 10 religious orders, five of them in the U.K.; Caritas Nepal; the justice and peace office of the Sydney Archdiocese; the Archdiocese of Cashel and Emily, Ireland; and the IDEPAS Peru health institute.

In addition, 18 local churches and one religious order of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine pledged that their investments will be fossil free.

Five Catholic organizations in the U.S. were part of the announcement, including the Midwest Province of the Jesuits; the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pennsylvania; and the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Two other U.S. Catholic universities — the University of San Diego and Loyola University Chicago — committed to divesting in the weeks before the joint faith announcement.

The University of San Diego’s new investment policy outlines plans to shed fossil fuel holdings from its $818 million long-term investment pool, which includes its $693 million endowment, by 2035 — the year the university has committed to become carbon neutral.

Since 2016, the university has reduced its exposure to fossil fuels from over 9% to 3% and directed $60 million toward investments that take environmental, social and governance, or ESG, considerations into account, chief financial officer Katy Roig said.

She told EarthBeat that the university revised its investment policy to align it with Laudato Si’, and the document now includes passages from the encyclical, including that climate change is happening and disproportionately affects already disadvantaged communities.

At Loyola University Chicago, students and faculty have pressed for divestment for years, with the student government passing a resolution in February 2020 that called for the Jesuit school to rid its $1.6 billion endowment of fossil fuels. That move finally came in October, with the university’s new sustainable investment policy that also directed its financial managers to integrate environmental, social and governance considerations into its decisions.

Poorvi Modi, a senior who served as the student representative on the investment policy committee of the board of trustees, said she was “really satisfied” with the university’s decision.

“The student demand was just for divestment from fossil fuels, and we took that a step forward by making it a whole ESG consideration,” she said. Modi added that having a student on the committee improved communication with students and ensured that their perspective was represented in the deliberations.

Katie Wyatt, Loyola chief investment officer, told EarthBeat that the policy “has been a work in progress for a long time.”

It was accelerated, she added, by a request for the board’s committees to review a document from the Jesuits’ Midwest Province, called “Go Forth!“, that focused on applying the order’s apostolic preferences, including caring for our common home, to all dimensions of higher education.

“What we’re really trying to achieve here is an investment policy consistent with the whole of Jesuit mission and values,” she said.


Yemen’s humanitarian crisis growing as economy collapses: UN

A woman cooks inside a tent at a temporary camp for people displaced by the conflict, which has been inundated after heavy rains, in Yemen’s southwestern province of Taiz [File: Ahmad Al-Bash/AFP]

Yemen’s economy is collapsing, its humanitarian crisis is worsening, and the conflict in the Arab world’s poorest nation is growing more violent, the United Nations’ deputy humanitarian chief has said.

The grim remarks by Assistant Secretary-General Ramesh Rajasingham came during a briefing to the UN Security Council on Thursday. More than 20 million Yemenis – two-thirds of the population – need humanitarian assistance, but aid agencies, he said, “are, once again, starting to run out of money”.

Aid agencies are now helping nearly 13 million people across the country, about 3 million more than just a few months ago, Rajasingham added. “Our best assessment is that this expansion has considerably pushed back the immediate risk of large-scale famine.”

But he warned that aid agencies don’t have enough money to keep going at this scale and “in the coming weeks and months, up to 4 million people could see their food aid reduced” and “by the end of the year, that number could rise to 5 million people”.

“We are calling on everyone to do everything possible to sustain the momentum we’ve built over the last several months and keep famine at bay,” Rajasingham said.

Yemen has been convulsed by civil war since 2014 when Iran-backed Houthi rebels took control of the capital of Sanaa and much of the northern part of the country, forcing the internationally recognised government to flee to the south, then to Saudi Arabia.

A Saudi-led coalition entered the war in March 2015, backed by the United States, in an effort to restore President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to power and threw its support behind his government.

Despite a relentless air campaign and ground fighting, the war has deteriorated largely into a deadlock and spawned the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The US has since suspended its direct involvement in the conflict.

In early 2020, the Houthis launched an offensive in the mostly government-held Marib province that has cost the lives of thousands of young people and left thousands of displaced civilians living in constant fear of violence and having to move again.

On Thursday, tribal leaders and Yemeni officials said that fighting over Marib in the last 24 hours killed at least 140 fighters on both sides. The clashes were taking place in the districts of Abdiya and al-Jubah, they said.

At the briefing to the Security Council, Rajasingham said the Houthis “intensified their brutal offensive in Marib, taking more territory there and in neighbouring parts of the southern province of Shabwa”.

Ongoing fighting

He also pointed to clashes between rival armed groups earlier this month in the southern city of Aden – where Hadi’s government set up headquarters after the Houthis pushed them out of Sanaa and the north – and continued fighting, shelling and airstrikes in northwest Saada and western Hajjah and Hodeida provinces.

In September, 235 civilians were killed or injured, the second-highest figure in two years, and fighting in Marib is taking “a particularly heavy civilian toll”, with almost 10,000 people displaced in September, the second-highest figure in two years, Rajasingham said.

The new UN special envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg, who took up the post last month, told the council that he has held meetings with government and Houthi officials, as well as key regional and international officials focused on how to move towards a political solution to restore peace in Yemen.

“The gap in trust between warring parties is wide and growing,” he said in a virtual briefing. Grundberg said he made clear that while progress should be made on urgent humanitarian and economic issues, urgent political talks without preconditions are essential to negotiate a settlement of the conflict.

“Let us not fool ourselves, this will be a laborious and complicated task that will take time but it must take place,” Grundberg said. “The past weeks have illustrated the tension between the pace of the war and the economic collapse on one hand, and the time needed to devise and consult on a feasible way forward, on the other.”

Rajasingham reiterated that Yemen’s economic collapse “is driving most needs in the country – including the risk of famine”.

Yemen imports almost everything, he said, and the Yemeni rial is trading around 1,270 rials to the dollar in Aden, nearly six times higher than before the war, and fewer goods are reaching the country’s ports. Commercial food imports to the key ports of Hodeida and Saleef were eight percent less than last year’s average in September, and “fuel imports were an alarming 64 percent lower,” he said.

He urged immediate steps to stem the country’s economic collapse, including injections of foreign exchange through the Central Bank which would quickly bring down prices, as they have done in the past, as well as fully opening all ports, lifting import restrictions at Hodeida and Saleef, and paying civil servant salaries.