On climate change, faith communities must practice what they preach

On climate change, faith communities must practice what they preach

By Ray Hammond and Mariama White-Hammond

Pope Francis’ ecological encyclical, Laudato Si, speaks to all of us. Even if you don’t share the Pope’s Roman Catholic faith, you can still say a hearty “Amen’’ to his description of climate change as a moral and existential crisis that challenges all of us to act.

Pope Francis reminds us that our response to climate change is more than a scientific, economic, or political issue. It is a moral issue. As humans, we don’t have the right to live in a way that puts all other life on this planet at severe risk of dislocation, drought, disaster, or even extinction. As inhabitants of the earth’s richest nations, we don’t have a right to an economy and lifestyle that will cause great and disproportionate suffering for impoverished communities. Climate change is an issue of environmental and social justice.

It’s not surprising that the pope’s action has inspired more than 340 rabbis from across the United States to issue “A Rabbinic Letter on the Climate Crisis.” Many faith communities — Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, et al. — share a deep appreciation for the earth as a wondrous and beautiful manifestation of creation. They would heartily endorse the words of their rabbinic colleagues who write: “[W]e have disturbed the sacred balance in which we breathe in what the trees breathe out, and the trees breathe in what we breathe out. The upshot: global scorching, climate crisis.”

We do indeed face a crisis, and during crises faith communities, at their best, can come together across faith, race, and class lines to work for social change. As always, those faith communities will have to practice what they preach. A Vatican with solar panels, carbon credits, and a hybrid popemobile is setting an example. And locally, we are pitching in. In the renovation of our almost 100-year-old campus, our congregation chose to install compact fluorescent lighting, waterless urinals, and energy efficient appliances; use locally sourced materials; and replace old heating and cooling systems with more efficient technologies. The Boston Synagogue (with the help of Massachusetts Interfaith Power & Light) changed its heating system and reduced its carbon emissions by 70 percent. The Islamic Society of Boston was the first US mosque to receive an Energy Star designation for its energy efficiency. Bishop Bud Cederholm climbed into a cherrypicker to bless the new solar array on the roof of the 150-year-old Grace Episcopal Church in Medford. From adjusting thermostats to composting leftovers to building LEED-certified facilities, communities of faith must practice what they preach when it comes to climate change.

It’s worth noting that the pope’s encyclical is particularly important for residents of coastal cities like Boston. After all, Boston is one of the four US cities most vulnerable to the forces of climate change and sea level rise. We are a densely populated peninsula, a city substantially enlarged by landfill, and a coastal area frequently battered by storms and high tides.

The Boston Green Ribbon Commission is a group of business, civic, and institutional leaders who help the city pursue its climate action goals of mitigating carbon emissions and preparing for climate change. The good news is that the city, the state, and our business and institutional sectors have made progress toward dramatically cutting greenhouse gas emissions and allowing the planet to heal from the past 200 years of industrial development. The challenging news is that Boston’s carbon reduction goals of 25 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050 will be difficult to achieve. That said, we must meet those goals if we want to avoid the worst effects of rising seas, storm surges, and coastal flooding.

“Laudato Si” urges people of any faith or no faith to honor the earth and its resources through immediate action. We applaud Pope Francis for shining a bright light on the moral imperatives presented by climate change and reminding us of this inescapable reality: In Boston and around the world, our gratitude for the gift of creation must be more than a feeling. It must be a fact that is demonstrated in our individual choices and actions, our institutional policies, our laws, our regulations, and our local and global commitment to living more sustainably.

Ray Hammond is the founding and senior pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and a member of the Boston Green Ribbon Commission. Mariama White-Hammond is a master of divinity student at Boston University School of Theology.