This November, the world gathered in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, for the 27th United Nations Conference of Parties to the UNFCCC (or COP27) to discuss and implement climate action. 198 countries have ratified the convention, which first took effect in 1994 and hopes to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations, limit the global temperature increase to 1.5C, and mitigate the dangerous effects of human-induced climate change. More than 100 heads of state and many thousands of delegates convened to review the most pressing climate issues of our time, including climate finance, matters relating to developing countries, gender, and capacity-building under the convention.
By the end of COP27, one issue on the agenda stood above the rest: loss and damage. According to Dr. Adelle Thomas, a lead author on the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Sixth Assessment Report and the Special Report on 1.5°C, defines loss and damage as the negative impacts of climate change that occur in the absence of mitigation and adaptation, such as infrastructure damage or climate disaster trauma. Vulnerable groups such as women and those of lower socioeconomic status are disproportionately affected by losses and damages, and the effects are felt more heavily in developing countries. If losses and damages are not mitigated, a severe lack of economic output, livelihood, biodiversity, and community will follow. By the time COP27 closed, an agreement had been reached to provide funding that aims to help countries respond to loss and damage, particularly countries in the Global South. A 2022 statement by the Inter-religious Climate and Ecology Network demanded exactly this in September, urging countries in the Global North to recognize their historical role in exacerbating climate change, and to acknowledge that the poorest 50% of the world’s population emit only 7% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
The understanding that climate change impacts are growing – and that they hit harder for disadvantaged groups and developing countries – is particularly relevant for people of faith. Climate is quickly becoming a focal point of faith discussions all around the world. In 2014, international faith leader and Thiền Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh wrote in a statement published by the UNFCCC: “Whatever nationality or culture we belong to, whatever religion we follow, whether we’re Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Jews, or atheists, we can all see that the Earth is not inert matter … cherishing our precious Earth … is not an obligation. It is a matter of personal and collective happiness and survival.” St. Francis of Assisi, declared the patron saint of ecology by Pope John Paul II, wrote in his Canticle of the Creatures, “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs.” His words were echoed by Pope Francis in a 2014 encyclical letter, in which he wrote that the “bond between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace” is inseparable. Similar sentiments regarding the environment are reflected in Hindu scripture, according to the Hindu American Foundation. This is an assertion that the Hindu Climate Declaration reflects: “We have a dharmic duty for each of us to do our part in ensuring that we have a functioning, abundant, and bountiful planet.” In Turkey in 2015, the Islamic Declaration on Climate Change asserted that “Islam’s teachings, which emphasize the duty of humans as stewards of the Earth and the teacher’s role as an appointed guide to correct behavior, provide guidance to take the right action on climate change.” The Union for Reform Judaism puts forward the concept of pikuach nefesh – the principle that preserving human life is of utmost importance – in regards to our environment. The growth of climate change as a topic of discussion amongst faith communities speaks to the common concerns of justice, stewardship and suffering.
We know that climate change and its deleterious effects should motivate people of faith to take action, but the path forward can be hard to envision on such a large scale. The average person doesn’t have the time, resources, or capability to consider the international perspective in everything that we do. Narrowing our focus to local climate-related concerns is just as helpful and rewarding. Pennsylvania endures its own unique climate challenges worth examining, and one of the most pervasive is fracking. Fracking is the more commonly-repeated name for hydraulic fracturing, the process by which pressurized fluid and other substances (usually sand and various chemicals) are injected via borehole into rock layers beneath the earth. This pressure opens fractures through which oil and natural gas underground can move with more ease, allowing for their extraction. Current guidelines allow for fracking wells to operate within 500 feet of a residence in Pennsylvania. Though some contend that fracking is safe for residents and that current guidelines are effective in protecting public health, research suggests otherwise. According to a new study from the Yale School of Public Health, children who grew up within a mile of a fracking well have an increased risk of developing leukemia – twice as high as children who did not grow up in such proximity. These results suggest that pollutants resulting from fracking are disproportionately affecting children – one of the most vulnerable groups identified by the UNFCCC.
Protect Penn-Trafford, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit that advocated for the rights of residents of Westmoreland and Allegheny counties, identifies leachate as a major public health and environmental concern. Leachate is liquid runoff from landfills. Waste materials from fracking are dumped in these landfills, and exposure to rain creates hazardous liquid. That liquid is then treated in sewage treatment plants and released into rivers and streams, despite the fact that fracking waste can contain radioactive materials which Pennsylvania’s water treatment plants are not equipped to filter out. This water becomes our drinking water. In addition, the Environmental Health Project asserts that fracking releases toxic chemicals into water when fluid from the drilling process contacts water sources, either during the process or during transportation of waste. Spilled water can introduce heavy metals and chemicals into soil, which humans ingest when eating affected food sources, such as livestock and their byproducts.
As we face the growing climate crisis both at home in Pennsylvania and internationally, it becomes imperative that people of faith who care cultivate a meaningful response. Climate change threatens to displace millions (as it did this year in Pakistan) and cause an enormous loss of health, community, and quality of life. No one faith community owns the concept of environmental justice. It follows, then, that no one faith community can lead the response; it must be a continuous interfaith effort to protect our most vulnerable and act as good stewards to the planet.
This blog was written by PA IPL 2022 Fellow, Renika Weimer.