By Randolph Haluza-DeLay, PhD
One wouldn’t think helping the poor would be controversial. After all, that’s what Jesus called us to do. Christians have mostly tried to help the poor with charitable works, but at times have focused on justice. It’s the difference between feeding the poor and asking why they have no food.
Demanding action on both climate change and poverty, the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC) has released On Promoting Climate Justice and Ending Poverty in Canada: Faith Communities in Canada Speak Out. Citizens for Public Justice helped to draft this inter-faith statement, which also adds a call for reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.
The statement calls churches to stand up on several of Canada’s most pressing issues. Climate change is a global threat. We’ve not made much progress and the consequences could be severe. Ending extreme poverty is one of the new Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations. We have made progress globally, but inequality is steeply rising in Canada. The end of the statement acknowledged the poor conditions for Indigenous peoples in Canada. It strongly supported implementation of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – but much more needs to be done.
So what do these three issues have in common?
Climate justice is linked to poverty for two main reasons. First, the effects of the changing climate vary by locale but are already being felt and will worsen. Adapting to the consequences will require money, new energy technologies, climate-resistant food production, strong and resilient civil organizations, and other resources that are not abundant in poorer communities.
Second, richer, not poorer, countries are largely the cause of the changing global climate. Canadian data show that per capita carbon emissions increase by income level. The richest emit much more because of factors like bigger houses and more travel. Meanwhile, as the CCC statement declares, the poor and marginalized are already facing the worst consequences of global environmental degradation.
And who is more marginalized in Canada (and much of the world) than Indigenous peoples? Many Indigenous people are poorer than most Canadians. What’s more, colonization has damaged cultures that explicitly frame human beings in ecological relationships.
And so the CCC is right: Jesus’ call to take care of the poor does mean addressing climate justice. It means facing overly consumptive lifestyles and ecologically-expensive population levels. It means dramatically scaling back fossil fuel use, which Europe has shown can be done. It means rethinking our cultural frameworks to be more faithful in discipleship to Jesus. Our reconciliation with Indigenous cultures should involve learning from them. This can help us to conceive of ourselves as part of the community of all creation.
On Promoting Climate Justice and Ending Poverty in Canada grew out what Canadian church leaders heard during the 2015 Justice Tour. CPJ co-organized this tour with the CCC in eight Canadian cities this past spring. There are more than 65 signatories on the statement. They run the gamut of Christian denominations, albeit with the near-absence of evangelical Christians. The statement is also signed by representatives of Buddhist and Sikh organizations. This demonstrates a growing inter-faith movement on these issues.
Notably, the head of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops also signed the statement. This is a change from the Canadian Inter-faith Call for Leadership and Action on Climate Change in 2011. At that time, leaders of many churches and diverse faiths signed, including some Catholic representatives, but conspicuously not the bishops’ conference.
There are other signs of momentum on these issues. Many congregations, temples, mosques, and synagogues are working to increase energy efficiency. Several Canadian denominations have divested from fossil fuel companies. The Christian Reformed Church has hired five people (including two in Canada) to increase climate justice awareness. A delegation from the CCC is participating in events surrounding the important UN climate talks in Paris this December. Christian groups have been essential to highlighting the global justice implications of climate change.
But high-level statements like this will mean very little if they are not taken up by people in the pews. A first step is to become familiar with the content of the statement. The next step is to encourage the leaders of your religious communities to endorse it. Then, Christians and like-minded people of other faiths should examine what they can do. How can our households and congregations (both the buildings and communities) reduce our fossil fuel use? Finally, advocate with municipal, provincial, and federal governments to address these issues. Politicians must know what we believe, that climate justice, Indigenous rights, and ending poverty are important to people of faith in Canada.
Read the full inter-faith statement, On Promoting Climate Justice and Ending Poverty in Canada.
Randolph Haluza-DeLay is a sociologist at The King’s University in Edmonton and coeditor of the book How the World’s Religions Are Responding to Climate Change.