Religious sisters 'lament the reality' of fracking in demonstration outside COP21

This story appears in the COP 21 Paris feature series. View the full series.
Nuns protest at an anti-fracking rally outside the main venue of COP21 Dec. 9 in Le Bourget, France. (NCR photo/Brian Roewe)
Nuns protest at an anti-fracking rally outside the main venue of COP21 Dec. 9 in Le Bourget, France. (NCR photo/Brian Roewe)

by Brian Roewe

NCR environment correspondent

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Outside the main venue here at COP21, as diplomats inside waited to receive the latest draft of a potential global climate deal, Mercy Sr. Aine O’Connor stood surrounded by a throng of environmental activists eager to hear what she had to say.

“We are hearing and heeding the cry of persons and earth impacted by fracking,” she said of peoples in Argentina, Australia and the U.S. who have reached out to the Sisters of Mercy.

“What do we say to the seven-year-old child whose ears now bleed, who has difficulty breathing as a result of living near a gas field; to the mother who must travel miles to the town in order to have her doctor review and treat her child objectively for gas-related medical conditions; to the farmer who has no voice with his government when his bore hole has run dry and he can no longer farm; and to his family, who cries out in desperation after he takes his own life?

“These cries of people and earth are our shared concern today, because we believe and insist on the dignity and the promise of abundant life for all,” she said during a public rally against fracking.

O’Connor said the Mercy sisters “lament the reality” of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking -- a drilling technique that pumps a mixture of water and chemicals into underground shale formations to release natural gas, a fuel source that has boomed in recent years and is touted by some here as a “bridge fuel” to clean energy. Those living near fracking fields, though, have reported issues of water contamination and illness, and while rare, the technique has also been connected to several earthquakes.

O’Connor categorized fracking among “false, toxic, tragic solutions to climate change," and insisted that true leaders concerned about climate change don’t frack.

“World climate leaders, deliver this day just climate action that serves the dignity of peoples and the flourishing of life for people and planet,” O’Connor said.

The Mercy sister’s passionate speech was part of a demonstration that drew roughly 100 people, including several women religious, opposed to fracking to gather between the main negotiating hall and the edge of the forest of flag pillars arranged at the United Nations climate summit. A police presence cautiously watched nearby as one by one speakers offered their testimonials. A young Native American woman denounced not only the environmental impact fracking has had on her community in the Dakotas, but the social repercussion the mining camps have had, with rates of sexual assault escalating drastically.

An element of the protest specifically targeted California Gov. Jerry Brown, viewed by many at the conference as a leader on the climate issue, but among those at the rally as inconsistent on the issue due to his opposition to a statewide ban on fracking.

Organizing the protest were the Center of Biological Diversity, Food & Water Watch, Californians Against Fracking and several other organizations.

Before the rally began, many of its participants attended a presentation inside the Climate Generations Area on international anti-fracking movements hosted by the several of the same groups. Among the panelists was Bill McKibben, co-founder of the grassroots climate group who has worked with others in mobilizing communities in campaigns against fracking and the Keystone XL transnational pipeline, and has led a push toward fossil fuel divestment.

McKibben viewed the fracking fight as one of the best examples of resistance beginning at the local level. He said that to stop fracking, which in the process requires going up against energy giants like Exxon Mobil, it will require an organized movement of people willing to sign petitions, to march, and when necessary, to risk arrest.

“We’re going to come out of this COP with a piece of paper that’s a little better than the last piece of paper we had, but if we’re going to move forward in a serious way, our job is to keep building the activism that makes progress possible. When we organize we win, so we better organize some more,” he said.

Like McKibben, other grassroots leaders and members appeared to voice great skepticism that the leaders at the U.N. climate conference would take steps that would amount to substantial change. While France has barred all mass demonstrations in Paris following the mid-November terror attacks, activists have proceeded with plans to peacefully demonstrate Saturday around noon. According to a message from the U.S. embassy in Paris, demonstrators plan to gather at five locations around the city, then encircle the COP venue in Le Bourget before converging on the Place de la Republique.

Joining and Food & Water Watch in sponsoring the anti-fracking panel were three Catholic religious orders: Franciscans International, Mercy Sisters, and the Medical Mission Sisters. While several of their members attended, none served as panelists at the event.

“We think that today, of all times, the climate leaders need to actually look at what is being promoted as myths to certain climate solutions,” said O’Connor, speaking of the Mercy sisters.

“Such as in the case of fracking, they’re pushing the myth that it will give jobs, that it’s a clean energy, and when you see today the facts, the science, the health data that’s there, it absolutely needs to be stopped in the names of the people and for future generations,” she told NCR.  

The perspective draws from the sisters’ experiences with people they work with worldwide who have seen the impacts of fracking on their land and on their lives.

Mercy Sr. Bridget Crisp of New Zealand said her community’s concern with fracking and the whole extractive industry ties to concern for island people in the South Pacific.

“You’ve got Tuvalu, you’ve got Kiribati, you’ve got a number of islands who, in 50 years, their whole culture could be underwater,” she said.

Crisp expressed frustration during the first week of negotiations that aspects concerning indigenous people and human rights appeared in danger of omission from the final text. While the island nations have pushed for an agreement that will save their lands, she said governments instead have thought in shorter spans than what’s required.

“They’re not looking that long distance, 50 years, 100 years, 150 years down the track,” Crisp said.

O’Connor said there is a growing concern a gap exists between the experiences of people in areas considered for fossil-fuel extraction and the policies recommended as solutions to government leaders.

“Those who may be advising the governments and offering solutions may have more of a motivation that wants to serve profit,” she said. “But when you hear the solutions being offered by the people -- who have the wisdom, and they’ve seen their lands being destroyed and they’ve seen their air being polluted -- we go to what are the people asking, what are the people experiencing and how can that influence?”

Already, religious communities at the U.N. and activist groups have begun to turn their attention to what happens post-Paris, with a particular focus, O’Connor said, on keeping fossil fuels in the ground and holding government officials to the human rights framework that espouses a “do no harm” approach and highlights the effects of policy decisions on health, water and other life-central issues.

“There is the gravest need to connect the dots between land, food, water, air. And I think as religious and people following this, that is a voice that we can bring,” O’Connor said.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

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