Praise and plaudits from the best of COP21

This story appears in the COP 21 Paris feature series. View the full series.

by Donna Schaper

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After Paris and its enormous invigoration of the environmental, scientific and religious communities, it is time to figure out who is who and what is what. My big takeaways involve all three of these communities at their environmental -- and strategic -- best.

First, the scientists. Veerabhadran Ramanathan, a scientist with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California-San Diego and member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, told the Associated Press during COP21 (the United Nations climate summit) he thinks the alliance of science and religion -- as exemplified in Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home” -- would play a major role in the eventual agreement.  

Thank you for this handshake between science and religion. It is as rare as it is necessary.

Physicist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, founder of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, added in the same piece he has attended the international talks for 11 years and essentially been disappointed. But now with the watchful gaze from faith communities, he suspected leaders might be held more accountable: "They know they will be measured against the encyclical," Schellnhuber, also a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, told AP.

Thank you for another rare and essential handshake, and thank you, Vatican, for hosting such an illustrious academy of science!

The ecumenical religious climate movement also arrived in Paris with great vigor. Most impressive was the Lutheran World Federation’s decision to bring only delegates to COP21 who were under age 30. That was daring and smart. If they have to go to more COPs, at least they will be prepared.

At the conference’s midweek point, the many faith groups gathered at the American Cathedral in Paris to build ourselves up. GreenFaith, the OurVoices campaign, the World Council of Churches, Islamic Relief Worldwide, the Bhumi Project (Hindu), Plum Village (Buddhist), the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, ACT Alliance, the Lutheran World Federation, the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Global Catholic Climate Movement, the Franciscan Action Network, and others all were represented.

The liturgy for the night was appropriate to our stage of development as a global religious movement. The liturgy was quiet, humble and had pilgrimage as its central motif. We were helping each other to “keep on keeping on.”

Thank you, American Cathedral in Paris, for hosting us and our simple, yet deep, liturgy.

And then there is the climate movement, which involved itself in great ethical spectacle all across Paris. The best for me was the trial of Exxon Mobil, arranged by and its inimitable leader Bill McKibben. Since the Paris Agreement’s adoption, he has basically argued that the deal is great, especially if it had happened in 1995. “This didn’t save the planet but it may have saved the chance of saving the planet,” McKibben also said. He won’t let us forget the power of evil and how much Exxon Mobil destroyed.

Thank you, Bill McKibben, for keeping naiveté from our door.

I won’t forget going to a planning meeting for a proposed next-day morning action at the Louvre.  The group spent 45 minutes imitating the Occupy movement’s open style of meeting, with once again the white men doing more talking than the white women. Of the 50 people gathered in the cold dark room, near the Bastille, appropriately uncomfortable, three were people of color.

The question was whether the gorgeous black umbrellas with messages on them should be delivered en masse or individually, given it was believed that neither cops nor the press would let anyone anywhere near the Louvre. The concerning issue was that the Louvre takes donations from fossil fuel industries. “What if we can’t get in?” “Well, let’s find out where another museum is that takes fossil fuel contributions and put up our umbrellas there.”

The action was actually -- even with this modest preparation -- incredibly successful and got the kind of international notoriety it deserved. Even with Paris on lockdown for security reasons following the mid-November terrorist attacks, two women got into the Louvre and were able to pour oil on the floor. As is typical these days with ethical spectacle, the tweets mattered more than the action.

Thank you, environmental movement for ethical spectacles abundant.

I will give Ramanathan a final word here: “Until we get our message into every church, every mosque, every temple, every movement, the environment will not change,” he told AP. “When we do, it will.” 

For everything to change, as Naomi Klein puts it so well, everybody will have to change. More religious and scientific cooperation and getting over the old divides will matter. More ethical spectacle, even when it is immature, will help us. And surely getting to the grassroots -- as the pope has argued in his field hospital approach to the congregations -- will be necessary. No root can be left behind, as everything changes. 

And people under 30 should get the tickets and the support going forward -- and those of us over 30 need to be sure to fund them.

[Donna Schaper is senior minister of Judson Memorial Church in New York City. She was in Paris for a portion of the COP21 United Nations climate summit.]​

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