Global warming has been named as the most serious crisis of our time.
The highest levels of the Catholic Church have asked for our understanding - and action. As long ago as 1998, the bishops of Alberta wrote a pastoral letter entitled, Celebrate Life: Care for Creation.
In 2001, Canada's bishops publicly intervened on three occasions to encourage Ottawa to sign the Kyoto Accord. Pope Benedict addressed global warming in his encyclical Charity in Truth, as well as in his 2010 message for the World Day of Peace, If You Want to Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation.
Canada's glaciers are disappearing as global warming wrecks havoc with creation.
Yet Canada is seen as an international pariah in terms of its climate change policies. A recent study cited Canada as the world's ninth largest overall carbon emitter, eighth most polluting on a per capita basis, and tenth with respect to total cumulative emissions.
Ottawa is the only jurisdiction that ratified the Kyoto Protocol and then later announced that our responsibilities would not be honoured. As yet, the federal government has no workable plan to allow Canada to meet internationally-approved targets to reduce greenhouse gases. At the last several UN climate change conferences, Ottawa's stances have been internationally mocked.
If faith communities see this as a vital moral issue, and yet our country shows no leadership on the climate change question, how can faith communities bring our values to bear in this important debate?
From Nov. 29 to Dec. 9, the United Nations will host an international conference on climate change in Durban, South Africa, called the 17th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Leaving such a cumbersome name aside, this conference is important for two reasons: first, it marks the end of the "commitment period" for the Kyoto Protocol, and second, a new climate treaty must emerge if coordinated international action on climate change is to be achieved.
The Kyoto Accord was initially based on the vision of the successful 1987 Montreal Protocol to ban chlorofluorocarbons from creating holes in the atmosphere's ozone layer. Success with climate change negotiations, although based on the same model, has been elusive at both the Copenhagen (2009) and Cancun (2010) conferences.
Critics like South Africa's Patrick Bond fear the binding emissions reductions requirements established at Kyoto will become "the first casualty of Durban." Environmentalists are already disappointed in the Kyoto Protocol's inadequate target levels, which science now suggests may be too low to prevent the catastrophic effects of global warming.
No sanctions are currently applied to any country which fails to meet its reductions targets. Kyoto also failed to penalize large coal operations, and has relied on carbon markets to make emission cuts.
Some international development agencies of the Canadian churches are responding to the cries of their partners in the Global South who insist that the Durban meeting not be allowed to fail.
The Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace released a document last year which noted climate change is threatening its development efforts around the globe. A meeting of 130 faith leaders in June in Kenya produced a moving declaration, Climate Justice for Sustainable Peace in Africa. People of the Global South who have done the least to create global warming must not be forced to suffer the most negative impacts.
In Canada, leaders of the largest faith communities (including the Catholic bishops) have been considering drafts of a declaration that would call on Ottawa for renewed action on climate change.
Such a declaration should include two major areas for action:
If Christians want to address this crisis, we need to realize that our previous ways of looking at the world, of deciding priorities and of living our lives all have to change. Our ethics, our theologies and our politics will all have to be different.
Will your faith community rise to the challenge to speak up and care for God's gift of creation, now so thoroughly placed in jeopardy by global warming?
(Joe Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, www.cpj.ca, an ecumenical social advocacy organization.)