Renewing the Covenant

At our Annual Conference on October 26th, Climate Justice: Faith in Action, one of our presenters will be Victoria Furio, who is on the staff at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and convenes the Climate Justice initiative there.  Union made the news recently as the first seminary to divest from fossil fuels.  With Victoria’s permission, we’re reposting this lovely piece she wrote for the Union Forum.  Join us on October 26th, from 2-6 p.m. at Summit Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia to hear more. 

"Storm" by Fanny Schertzer - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

by Victoria Furio

When we see the water ─that most sacred of elements─ disappear from rivers and streams
When we hear the wind howl in yet another massive storm
We will know the future is here.

For many, that future is now, whether it be India, Australia, the Philippines, or the Mid-West, repeatedly ravaged by floods of biblical proportions; or relentless drought creating deserts in Africa, famine in Somalia, and fears of a new Dust Bowl in California and the Southwest. As a warming earth melts Himalayan glaciers, the water of life will cease to trickle into the great Asian rivers from the Ganges to the Yangtze. Where will 1.5 billion people flee to in their desperation?

Not only are humans at risk, but every animal and plant, bird and fish, will soon face the struggle to survive. With predictions of global temperature rises approaching 3ºC as early as 2030 , erratic, extreme weather events will become the norm, coupled by water scarcity and the collapse of food
and eco-systems. Deforestation and the continued burning of fossil fuels have already produced an extinction rate 1,000 times higher than normal, and scientists are warning that half or more of all plant and animal species on Earth will be gone in 30 to 40 years. The Sixth Great Extinction looms on the horizon.

We may not be connecting the dots, but at every turn we now see reports of cities under water, tornadoes wiping out towns, wildfires out of control, and persistent drought, here and around the world. To cite just one example: because of climate disruptions, California has been in the grip of an historic three-year drought, the driest conditions in 500 years . Some 30% of US produce comes from the Central Valley, but farmlands lie fallow, and ranchers have been forced to slaughter or sell their cattle due to parched pasturelands. In January, 17 municipalities were on the verge of running out of drinking water . Seven western and central states are affected, and entire industries are threatened. From Oklahoma to Oregon, cotton, wheat, rice, and dairy yields have dropped by as much as half; Texas has seen meat-packing plants close. The livelihoods of hundreds of thousands may be vanishing.

In May, the White House released its National Climate Assessment , providing detailed projections for each region of the country. For the Mid-Atlantic States, the forecast is for 60 days a year over 90º. Given the triple digit temperatures and suffocating heat in recent summers, this will likely mean weeks on end of oppressive heat and humidity. The trend is global. This summer, Australia registered a scorching 129ºF, shattering its previous record . A hotter world places agriculture and all living creatures into question.

We also may not be conscious of the gradual sea-level rise, but conservative estimates predict an increase of 1-4 feet by the end of this century . With snowcaps melting faster than expected, coastal areas around the world are threatened, and in the U.S., the effects can already be seen from Delaware to Louisiana. Ocean acidification from CO2 absorption is causing a die-off of marine life that can start with the smallest of links in the chain, such as plankton and coral reefs, crucial sources of food and shelter for large fish populations. In May, shock waves were felt around the world when a massive Antarctic glacier broke off, set to double or triple sea-level rises. A collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is now irreversible. NASA scientists declared the melting to be “past the point of no return.”


Never before in human history has the very existence of life on the planet been threatened as it is in our current climate crisis.

And yet, powerful interests have successfully kept the public from learning the facts, muzzling the media and even weather reporters, placing their investments above planetary well-being. For decades, the fossil fuel industry has stood in the way of alternative energy development, squandering the time that should have been used to create solutions, all the while amassing astronomical profits. To persist in hiding the truth is nothing short of criminal ─and deeply sinful.

The cry from the world’s top scientists in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is for urgent and dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions ─just as people from some 190 nations, gathered in global climate conferences, have been clamoring for every year since the historic Rio Earth Summit in 1992. The remedy has long been clear: we must phase out our use of fossil fuels. A small window of time remains ─perhaps 10 years at most─ in which bold action could hold back irreversible climate chaos.

As the destruction of Creation inexorably advances, what will we say to the Lord? To render God’s wondrous web of life a dysfunctional spiral of death is a great sacrilege. It is time to stop and reflect. What have we done? The world belongs to God. How can we have wandered so far from the most basic tenets, from our purpose on this earth?

We cannot profess to love God while we trash the Garden. No one can serve two masters, Scripture tells us. We have fallen into the grip of Mammon (Mt. 6:24), dazzled and tantalized by the seemingly limitless comforts and delights. And in our blindness, we do not see the harm done around us. We live in a system that turns us away from our most basic instincts ─to conserve and to care─ teaching us to ignore the consequences of our actions, even to be closed to the neighbor whom we have been commanded to love. We extract and discard. And extract again. But alas, these comforts are not limitless! And serve only a few at the expense of many!

Each and every one of us is placed on this earth to be an instrument of God’s will, to participate in the Divine Plan for life in abundance for all. And to be stewards of Creation. If we measure the current state of the world against this bedrock of faith, where do we stand? We are living a profound contradiction between the values that give life and those that take life away. Like the foolish man, we have built our house upon sand, sure to be washed away. (Mt. 7: 24-27).

When we are called to account for our acts, where will we hide in our shame? Our consumer lifestyle leaves poison in all that surrounds us. To be at one with God’s plan, our consumption must be a continuous circle, giving back to the life-cycle, conscious of its sacredness. The traditions of our First Nations people espouse these principles. We could learn a great deal from them. Just seven developed nations bear responsibility for the majority of the deadly greenhouse gases (GHG) loaded into the atmosphere, with the United States being historically the largest emitter. Those who contributed least to global warming have been the first to be devastated by it ─many who live without electricity or even running water! Feeling the world’s pain opens the door to helping stem the nightmare.

The Future

Should we allow this perilous situation to proceed unchecked, our lives will be reduced to a struggle to survive the elements and secure sustenance. All human pretentions will be moot in the face of catastrophic climate change. Gone will be notions of career paths, study options, lucrative positions and “enjoying the outdoors.” Imagine the immense suffering that may lie ahead for all those born today, compounded by human displacement and conflicts over shrinking resources!

The same science that paints such a dire picture also tells us that it is not too late to act. There is still time to prevent the worst-case scenario. But act we must! We need personal, societal, and policy changes. If we are to avoid climate chaos ─constant lashing from out-of-control weather─ we must reduce our carbon emissions some 30- 40% by 2020. Concretely, it means power plants must stop burning coal, our vehicles must shift to electric or alternative fuels, subsidies must end for the oil industry, and a fee must be levied on carbon to force the transition from petroleum to renewables. We have a moral obligation to divest any holdings. And there must be a binding, international agreement committing all nations to the necessary reductions, which was thwarted by the U.S. at the UN Copenhagen Conference in 2009. To achieve rapid cuts, we could easily eliminate wasteful energy use in our homes, schools, offices, and businesses ─just look around! In broader terms, we need to overhaul our economic mentality.

Renewing the Covenant

Our salvation lies in rediscovering the core values of cooperation, moderation, and concern for all. It would mean knocking Mammon off the pedestal ─dethroning the creed that profits take priority over people. The place of honor belongs to God, whose Creation provides bountifully for all, but only if justice is the centerpiece. The ultimate human arrogance would be to disavow God’s Wisdom, to act as if we know better. This sacrilegious belief has brought us to the brink of disaster, and now we must determine our loyalties.

The impending ecocide presents the greatest moral and theological issue of our time, trumping all others. This supreme injustice to the Earth and offense against God is proof that neither riches nor material wealth can satisfy our souls, nor will those who possess billions be saved from imminent destruction. The paths are clear. Life is found in God’s vision, which we are constantly called to embrace. It is time to renew the ancient covenant to cherish and preserve the Gift of Creation, to join in the Sacred Trust. To be bearers of Life in the world. Therein lies our Treasure, a true motive for hymns of glory! God is still calling…

Victoria Furio may be reached at