Last week, the religious leaders of a quarter of the world’s population confronted the climate crisis – and I was honored to be part of the conversation.
At the invitation of the head of the Orthodox Church, His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, 200 leaders from the fields of science, government, public policy, business and religion came together for three days in Greece to examine the most up to date climate science, the threats already posed by climate change, and the most promising strategic responses. Every one of us had committed at least a significant part of our life to address the greatest moral challenge humanity has ever faced, and we were hoping for inspiration. We were not disappointed. (click here for details on the Symposium and participants)
Among the religious leaders who addressed the group was His Eminence Peter Cardinal Turkson, a Ghanaian Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church. It was Cardinal Turkson who worked very closely with Pope Francis in the development of Laudato Si.
Jeffrey Sachs, the world-renowned professor of economics, senior UN advisor, bestselling author and former Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia, used his keynote to identify the core components of a moral economy. He noted that for Jesus, justice is the core of a moral economy, and the essence of justice is a preferential option for the poor.
Sachs then stirred the gathering with a blistering critique of corporate capitalism, pointing out that in America, we have no government of the people. We have a government of business within which our Congress walks around acting like it has nothing to do because it’s been paid to do nothing. By making the corporation the essence of the modern economy, we have unleashed the most powerful instinctual human drive: greed. By unleashing greed, we have also freed from moral constraint violence, plunder and a total disregard for the plight of future generations.
In the presence of His Eminence John Cardinal Olorunfemi Onaiyekan, Archbishop of Nigeria, Sachs offered the Nigerian delta as “exhibit one” of how corporations act with impunity and how national governments are now subordinate to corporations. The natural beauty and resources of Nigeria have been sacrificed on the altar of profit. Deforestation in service of the fast food industry is another notable illustration.
Sachs concluded by noting the obvious: humanity wants to survive, to be happy and to flourish. But the 500 year “trial run” of corporate capitalism has failed all three desires. He then called upon religion to show a way forward, to bring humanity together in order to confront the challenge of climate change, to offer humanity authentic meaning as we face the Anthropocene, and in God’s name to demand accountability and accept the struggle.
Just as our gathering concluded, Pope Francis took the unprecedented step of summoning both the CEOs of the largest oil and gas companies in the world as well as the money managers of major financial institutions for a meeting. Both Cardinal Turkson and Jeffrey Sachs left our symposium early so that they could join Pope Francis and bring their perspectives to the chairman of Exxon Mobil, the chief executive of BP and others. While the pope acknowledged that we are facing a challenge “of epochal proportions,” he urged the oil executives to embrace this immense opportunity for a rapid transition to renewable forms of energy. He told them that we have a duty “towards millions of our brothers and sisters around the world, poorer countries and generations yet to come.”
The unambiguous message to the world in a week in which the leaders of the Eastern Church and the Western Church confronted the challenges of climate change was this: climate change is the greatest moral challenge the world has ever faced. And not only that: climate change is a religious issue. It now falls to the adherents of those faith traditions – together with all people of faith along with all people of good will – to accelerate the world’s transition to clean, renewable energy as we restore God’s great gift of creation.