Meagan Henry and I answered a call made by Indigenous People for faith leaders to stand alongside of them as they ventured to our nation’s capital to draw attention to the vast divide between our climate goals and our realities. Each day started early in the morning with singing and drumming what they called the American Indian Rebellion song, sung in the Lakota language, calling us to action. We marched from Freedom Plaza to the White House. The singing accompanied us down the street, passed the Treasury Department, through traffic and closed off streets. When we arrived, Indigenous People told their stories, and called us back to ourselves. They told us the storms were here to protect Mother Earth who is working with Father Thunder to keep the land safe. There was more singing and chanting and drumming, and then we danced, and the dancing was a prayer, using our bodies to express our longing. Our fortitude. Our connection with each other, strangers, and one body, one people, all children of the same Mother.
I’ve been to countless climate actions over the years. They’re filled with speeches about the danger we’re in with lots of terrifying facts, peppered with fear and anger. There’s always a villain, or a whole lot of villains with plenty of blame and “us vs them” language letting you know you’re on the side of good and someone else is on the side of bad. Our hosts this week didn’t do any of that. They weren’t there because of the numbers and never did they speak about any sort of “them”. Earth is our Mother. We are all relatives. We are siblings with the birds and the trees and the strawberries and the chipmunks and the monkfish. When one is hurt, all are hurt, and right now, all are hurting and in danger.
After dancing in the night, we woke early in the morning to start again. Singing. Chanting. Drumming. Marching. Back to the White House. On the first day 130 people were arrested for acts of civil disobedience. The Washington Post covered it, recognizing that Indigenous People were occupying land they’d been pushed off of, calling us to care for the land more responsibly, and getting arrested for it all on Indigenous People’s Day. The second day was Tuesday and this was our clergy call. 155 people were arrested during our sit-in, Meagan and me included. There were more on Wednesday and Thursday and the youth came out in force on Friday. Each day, people put their bodies on the line in service of a new world. 655 people arrested in total. Hundreds more witnessed, singing and cheering and providing support. Moral support. Jail support. Support of our siblings- Indigenous, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, UU, Sikh, Hindu- all there to raise the moral voice loud enough for those in the seats of power – our captains of government and media - to hear us. Which, they did.
As much as I travel to participate in these actions, I don’t like to do it. I like my family, my home, New York. I’ve done a lot of travelling and would generally prefer to avoid it. But, I’m compelled by that vision we heard in today’s reading. The new world, the one we have to create, won’t just be better for the planet, but for all of life. The decision to privilege the planet over profit, to prioritize the new world would, itself, be the transformative and liberating vision we need. Right now, those with the most money are the ones who determine our future. Releasing the hold money has on our political system and dismantling the effects of late-stage capitalism are themselves the radical but necessary steps to get us where we need to go.
And, right now, we’re not there. We’re not even close. In 2015, nearly every nation on the planet signed onto the Paris Agreement which declared that we are going to hold warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. That was hard fought. I mean, really, really hard fought. I was there. The ground had been laid for 2 years both formally and informally, but the weekend between the two week conference was depressing and so many of us thought it was over. There were too many countries not willing to make the immediate sacrifices for the long term gain. Then things changed and by Friday, we had a document with some ambitious goals.
One of the compromises made, at the request of the United States, was that this is not a treaty. Treaties in this country need to be ratified by Congress and President Obama was sure he couldn’t get that through as long as the fossil fuel industry funds our lawmakers. So, it’s an Agreement. The basic idea is that every nation will determine their own contribution to the shared goals and will return in 5 years to make their promises. Because of Covid, that meeting was postponed from last year and will begin in 2 weeks. I am honored to have been chosen to be an Observer Delegate representing the UUA. I will be in Glasgow for the second week of this meeting to hear what countries are bringing.
In advance of the conference, though, countries had to release some basic information. As of a few weeks ago, we had a pretty full picture of how much lower we can get emissions, and therefore how close to our goal of limiting warming we can get. We are looking for an overall reduction across the planet of 50% by 2030. Without that, we can’t get what we need. As of right now, with all the information submitted, we are heading for a 16% increase of global emissions. After 6 years, mind-boggling scientific warnings, world leaders talking about significant policy changes, a planetary climate movement, and the beginnings of climate change already being felt through uncontrolled wildfires, severe drought, massive flooding, and life-changing storms, we are set to make things worse, not better.
In their book The Future We Choose, United Nations Climate Leaders Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac describe two worlds. One is what we’re left with if we do nothing and one is what’s possible if we respond to the crisis appropriately. I find their vision, grounded in their decades of international relations and global leadership, captivating.
If we do nothing, by 2050, here is some of what we can expect: You walk outside and the air is thick, your eyes water, mask wearing is necessary at all times to protect yourself from air pollution. Outdoor activities have been reduced or eliminated. You check an app each morning to see if it’s safe to go outside. Acid rain wreaks havoc on the food supply. Forests used to absorb much of our carbon, but they’ve been destroyed by logging and wildfire, making it impossible to turn the crisis around. Environmental tipping points are being reached, casting doubt on the form of our future civilization. Some places like Northern Africa, Australia, and the Western United States have become uninhabitable.
Melting of the ice sheets in the arctic is an accelerant. Dark sea water created by this great melting absorbs more heat, causing a surge in tropical storms creating brutal infrastructure destruction, killing thousands, displacing millions. These storms happen with frequency; every day we see images of mothers with babies strapped to their backs wading through flood waters and with homes ripped apart. Insurance companies have gone bankrupt. With so many disasters, it takes weeks or months for help or even fresh water and food to arrive. Major cities like Miami, and New York are evacuating, becoming ghost towns under water. The oceans has become so acidic, fishing is no longer a viable option for food or work, having been abandoned around the world.
Droughts have also forced people to move, with aquifers dried up, human life can no longer be supported in cities like Marakesh. Paris is regularly seeing temps of 111 degrees. People stay inside, and try to rest. 45 days of the year, 2 billion people experience temperatures as hot as 140 degrees, a point at which the human body can no longer tolerate heat because it loses its ability to cool down. Mass migrations are common along with wars over water access. Taps in most cities are locked or coin operated in public rest rooms. Food supply is unpredictable. Global trade has slowed as countries hold on to their own resources. Increasing scarcity has made food unbearably expensive. Infant mortality has skyrocketed and international aid is impossible to defend in light of mass poverty. Civil unrest is seen in every nation. Food riots, coups, and civil wars are becoming more common.
That’s where we’re heading if things don’t change. We have been told that the window for being able to affect change is closing. Emissions need to be cut dramatically by 2030. In 2020, the warnings were dire, but we hoped they were also inspirational. They were not. It’s the end of 2021. We have 8 years. Once we turn the corner, there isn’t any going back. We can’t create new glaciers. We can’t take the acid out of the water. There are 9 tipping points and once they’ve happened, there is nowhere else to go. We have so far reached 3. I hate to tell people this because I know it’s frightening. I really do. If it was up to me, we’d stop talking about all the painful and difficult things and I’d read poetry from this pulpit and we’d all leave here feeling great. But, we’re in crisis and this is my call. I promised you I’d speak difficult truths, so here we are. Again.
The good news is that there’s an alternative vision. As frightened as I am about what’s happening when we do nothing, what actually moves me out of the comfort of my home to the front lines of climate activism is what’s possible if we do something.
Imagine with me this new world. Most people live in cities where mass transportation has been upgraded and is readily available. With stronger batteries, electric vehicles are the norm with gas powered vehicles gone. Energy is located entirely in renewables so that solar panels are ubiquitous, wind turbines are visible, and geothermal is a household word.
Instead of going to big grocery stories with food flowing in from hundreds or thousands of miles away, most food comes from local farmers. Food is provided through cooperatives and everyone participates in its distribution. You might be partnered with a downstairs neighbor one week and an upstairs neighbor the next. Food is expensive, so everyone supplements by growing their own. Rooftop gardens, community gardens, even vertical gardens hanging from balconies- food grows everywhere. In this new world, we are all aware of how costly growing food is, and it should be. It requires our most valuable resources- sun, soil, water, human labor, time. Animal products aren’t gone, but we’ve greatly reduced their consumption because of the cost. Fish is farmed and managed. Reduction of sugar and processed food helped bring down carbon emissions and improved our collective health. Health services cost less as we need them less often because of our improved diets.
3D printers are readily available, cutting down on the need to make purchases away from home. Drones deliver packages, reducing the need for vehicles. Parking garages are generally used for ridesharing. The empty concrete buildings are now used to grow food. Air travel exists, but it’s used sparingly and is costly. Communication has improved enough for everyone to work from home or from shared local workspaces. People save and plan for slow-cations where you go away for months rather than days, travelling on high speed trains or boats, taking work with them if necessary.
Automation and 3D printing have made it possible to construct high quality housing quickly and affordably, used for both citizens and to address the climate refugee crisis. Nations recognize that we are not separate entities, but a single group and we move and help each other accordingly. The zeitgeist around the world has changed. We are no longer driven by profit and status, but a desire for balance. We have a new question driving our policy making. Is it good for all beings on the planet? Not does it make money. Not does it give us power. Not is it good for me and mine. Is it good for all beings?
And that’s the message of the indigenous leaders who called us to the White House. They were calling us back to ourselves, those selves that know we are connected, we are related, we are part of a single body and that body is Earth. Whether we’re listening to global climate leaders at the top of the international pyramid or to humble Lakota elders, the message is the same. We are on the wrong path, sleepwalking into our own destruction, but a new world is possible. A beautiful world sparked by our liberation, our freedom from this system that’s killing us. If we allow ourselves, we might all be compelled to sacrifice for that vision of cooperation and balance. It’s far from guaranteed, but if we’re quiet, I think we can hear the new world whispering to us, coaxing us forward, enticing us with music and the promise of joy.