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Church bells, members to clamor for climate change

Supporters of the 350 campaign gather at the pyramids in Giza, Egypt, during
the Oct. 24 International Day of Action. Churches will ring bells 350 times on
Dec. 13 as a call to action to the United Nations Climate Change Conference.
A UMNS Photo courtesy of 350.org.

A UMNS Report
By Linda Bloom*
Nov. 24, 2009

As world leaders grapple with the issue of global warming in December, churches will be ringing their bells to remind them of the need for action.

At 3 p.m. local time on Dec. 13—about halfway through the Dec. 7-18 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen—churches and other religious groups will sound bells, drums, gongs or other instruments 350 times to symbolize the 350 parts per million that mark what many scientists say is the safe upper limit for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

“We envisage a chain of chimes and prayers stretching in a time-line from the Fiji Islands in the South Pacific—where the day first begins and where the effects of climate change are already felt today—to northern Europe and across the globe,” says the World Council of Church Web site promoting the event.

In Denmark, the ringing bells will signal the end of a high profile ecumenical celebration at the Lutheran Cathedral in Copenhagen, the Church of Our Lady, which will be attended by United Methodists and members of other faith groups.

In recent weeks, it has become clear that the original expectation for the Copenhagen Summit—that 192 nations will agree to a new treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocols—will not be met. One of the barriers, according to The New York Times, was the inability of Congress to set binding targets for the reduction of greenhouse gases in the United States.

‘Guarded optimism’

But John Hill, who works on public advocacy issues for the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, believes there might be an even better opportunity for the religious community to help shape the debate on global warming. “I think there is some guarded optimism that a fairly strong framework can be established at Copenhagen,” he said.

Hill will be representing Church and Society in Copenhagen, along with Liberato Bautista, who is in charge of the board’s United Nations office, and Meghan Roth, a young adult board member from Richmond, Va.

Harriett Olson, chief executive
of the Women’s Division,
United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, addresses the Nov. 5 Climate Witness
near the U.S. Capitol in Washington. A UMNS photo
by Lesley Crosson, Church World Service.

“The disappointment is that there will not be a treaty,” said Bautista. Still, he added, “I think governments are quite aware of how important a climate change agreement is.”

Tyler Edgar, who is going to Copenhagen on behalf of the National Council of Churches’ Eco-Justice Program, said the faith community is “working hard” to promote a strong U.S. position there.

“Our hope is to send a clear message that climate change is a moral issue that demands a strong and effective response—a response that ensures justice for all of God’s children and will protect God’s Creation for future generations,” she declared.

Among the other United Methodists headed to the summit are the Rev. John McCullough, executive director of Church World Service, and the Rev. Pat Watkins, a church and community worker who leads the “Green Church Initiative” of the denomination’s Virginia Annual (regional) Conference. He will be representing United Methodist Women and the Women’s Division, United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.

When God created the earth, Watkins pointed out, there were no greenhouse gas emissions, and as a Christian he wants to advocate for better care of God’s planet.

“We’ll push for the developed countries to be financially responsible for some of the problems that climate change is causing in some of the developing countries, particularly the African countries,” he said.

Others on the Women’s Division delegation are Tupou S. Kelemeni, a director from Honolulu; Pamela Sparr, consultant on its Countdown to Copenhagen campaign, and Esmeralda Brown, staff executive.

Making a witness

Faith leaders have been calling attention to climate change as a justice issue. During an ecumenical “climate witness” Nov. 5 near the U.S. Capitol, church leaders spoke on the lawn, visited senators and delivered postcards urging support of climate change legislation. Harriett Olson, top executive of the Women’s Division, noted that climate change has a huge impact on women and children. “Women are the highest percentage of the poor and women and children are among the most vulnerable in any vulnerable population,” she said.

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Church leaders outside the United States are just as concerned about climate change. In an Oct. 17 letter, “A Call for the Care of Creation,” the All Africa Conference of Churches pointed to the famine, flooding, shrinking of rivers and lakes, and depletion of tropical rain forests and declared that Africa, “like no other continent, bears the brunt of these negative effects of climate change.”

In response, the organization, which is participating in the Copenhagen Summit, has sponsored several consultations on climate change in Africa and named a program coordinator for climate change and care for creation last January.

Its representatives were among the nearly 200 faith and secular leaders attending a Nov. 2-4 conference at Windsor Castle in England, organized by the Alliance of Religions and Conservation and the United Nations Development Program.

Ecumenical News International reported that U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told conference participants “the world’s great faith communities occupy a unique position in the discussion on the fate of our planet and the accelerating impacts of climate change.”

Advocating for change

Whether faith communities can capitalize on that position remains a question.

A report from the Nov. 15-20 World Council of Churches U.N. Advocacy Week quoted United Methodist Lois Dauway as saying that churches and the ecumenical community have the theological wherewithal to dismantle global injustice but not the will.

Lois Dauway gives the
keynote address during the World Council of Churches
U.N. Advocacy Week in
New York. A UMNS photo
by Mark Beach, WCC.

Dauway, a member of the council’s Central Committee and executive with the Board of Global Ministries, challenged participants during her keynote address to pool resources and “turn the world upside down in the name of Jesus.”

At the very least, they can ring those church bells 350 times on Dec. 13. It’s already happened once, on Oct. 24, the International Day of Climate Action.

United Methodist Bill McKibben is the co-founder of 350.org, the group behind the bellringing campaign. A scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College in Vermont, he is the author of “The End of Nature,” the first book for a general audience on climate change, which was published 20 years ago.

In a video message this fall to United Methodist Women, McKibben stressed the need to make the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. He said that Copenhagen represents the best chance to move quickly.

“It’s time to take seriously this greatest challenge, not only to the integrity of creation but to the thread of social justice around the world,” he said.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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