You may have noticed this summer was a bit toastier than normal and lingered well past its expiration date of Sept. 22. It wasn’t just your imagination: This past summer was the hottest Asheville has experienced since record-keeping began, according to a September article in the Asheville Citizen-Times. What’s more, 15 of the Earth’s hottest 16 years on record have occurred since 2001, per NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.
And unless you are a true hermit, you surely noticed that both the national and global politico-cultural landscapes have become red hot, as demonstrated over the past few months by a particularly contentious presidential campaign, police violence begetting violent protests, a mass shooting in an Orlando nightclub and ongoing reports of atrocities committed in Syria.
But what do rising temperatures have to do with scorching political and cultural unrest?
As climate change scientists busily crunch numbers and sift data, local clergy and people of faith will be gathering Nov. 10–13 at the Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center to conduct a different sort of exploration: to investigate the possible effects that climate change could have on our ability to maintain a peaceful and stable world.
A passion for peace
“To become better custodians of creation”: That simple statement about an anything-but-simple task, found on the Lake Junaluska Peace Conference Facebook page, is the goal of this year’s conference, titled “The Climate Crisis and Peace.”
“We have representatives from different faith groups on our conference design committee who are passionate people, passionate about peace,” says Tammy McDowell, the assistant director of program ministries for the center. This team chooses which aspect of peace is to be explored at each conference, including such topics as peace and the world’s children, economic justice and the transformative power of nonviolence. This year’s focus on the climate crisis was inspired by a statement from United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon calling the climate crisis the biggest threat to world peace.
“We’ve asked each of the [conference] speakers to talk about climate change from their own faith perspectives and educate others on what their religion says about stewardship of the Earth,” says Frank Stith, a resident of Lake Junaluska. He believes that bringing together these representatives of different faith traditions can have an impact on the discussion.
“The Climate Crisis and Peace Conference at Lake Junaluska comes at a perfect time in our national and global history, to deepen spiritual roots and offer broad connections with like-minded and big-hearted people who are seeking to transform our broken world,” says Scott Hardin-Nieri, the director of Creation Care Alliance of WNC, the interfaith arm of the Asheville-based environmental advocacy organization MountainTrue.
Hardin-Nieri is one of several WNC faith leaders and laity across religious traditions who will be offering workshops at the conference. Citing the devastation left in the wake of Hurricane Matthew, North Carolina’s record-breaking September temperatures and the severe drought in WNC, he adds, “We can see more clearly that an unstable climate and environment disrupts peace for not only God’s creatures, but for all people. … Whether in our own minds, our families, communities, nation or globe, we can see that climate change and ecological collapse challenge peace in unimaginable ways.”
Susannah Tuttle, director of the N.C. Council of Churches’ environmentally focused Interfaith Power & Light program, will be co-presenting with Hardin-Nieri. Tuttle brings the theme of peace and climate change to a personal level. “This is about a practice,” she says. “Moment by moment, there is an opportunity to practice acts of worship.”
For Tuttle, that practice includes mindful attention to even the smallest, most overlooked aspects of energy usage. “In the morning, when I unplug the power strip beside my bed and unplug my coffeemaker after I have my cup of coffee, that is an act of worship. And when I get into my car to make the hour commute to work,” she adds, “I pray as an act of atonement for the fossil fuel that I’m going to be using to do so. And this practice creates peace.”
Perspectives from the Jewish and Catholic traditions
“Global climate change is the largest compromise to security in the world,” says Rabbi Justin Goldstein of Congregation Beth Israel in Asheville. For Goldstein, the link between a shifting climate and global unrest is self-evident.
Goldstein will be presenting a workshop at the peace conference titled “A Jewish View of Urban Planning: Ancient Wisdom for a Sustainable Future,” in which he will explore the Torah’s focus on creating balance between urban landscapes and green spaces. “We need to realize that balance and sustainability are ancient wisdom,” Goldstein says.
Further, Goldstein believes that people of faith no longer have the luxury of choosing not to advocate in the face of a changing climate. “My motivation is to be a model to compel others in this work. Our faith traditions have, built into them, the idea of communal responsibility and stewardship, which is a binding obligation. We must craft community and care for each other.”
How is that ideal being expressed in his own congregation? Goldstein says that while individual members are “very serious” about their commitment to climate advocacy, “[Right now] we’re building relationships and trust to find ways to contribute [as a whole.]” One step Beth Israel has taken is to shift away from the use of disposable goods.
Bill Maloney also wants his congregation to serve as a model to others. A member of Asheville’s St. Eugene’s Catholic Church, Maloney will be presenting on “Greening Your Congregation.” He says, “We have a very vibrant creation care and justice committee [at St. Eugene’s], and we asked ourselves, ‘How can the Catholic Church be a witness and make a difference?’ Because global climate change is the most important thing. If we don’t solve this, we won’t have to worry about anything else.”
St. Eugene’s has done more than just talk. After the church underwent an energy audit in 2014, Maloney says, “We decided, ‘Let’s do solar!’” Since then, the church became the first Catholic parish in the United States to implement a solar energy program, installing 146 solar panels on the parish building’s roof. The goal of being a witness to other Catholic congregations was served as well: “We’ve had three of our families install solar, and have had three other churches call to talk to us about installing solar,” he notes.
But what do solar panels have to do with promoting peace? “If you want peace,” Maloney urges, “work for justice. And if you want justice, work to fight climate change.”
A battle against war
Norman Wirzba sees a direct link between global climate change and global peace. “We know that climate change is going to create destabilizing effects in our world,” says Wirzba, professor of theology, ecology and agrarian studies at Duke University’s School of Divinity, who will be one of five keynote speakers at the Lake Junaluska Peace Conference. “When we see how Syrian refugees are destabilizing Europe, in countries and between countries, this is just a small introduction to what lies ahead for us with the coming of climate refugees.”
Wirzba points out that a great number of the world’s population live in coastal cities, which are vulnerable to climate change-induced sea level rise. “[This] could create millions of climate refugees,” he says, resulting in countries having to confront border crises, the re-formation of their national identities and food insecurity.
“We are at war with our geography and our habitats,” Wirzba continues. “And the pain and suffering from our war against the Earth, the destructive effects for our land, for creatures, for humans, will manifest in our food production, our water supplies, in [the incidence] of disease. We must make peace with our land.”
Wirzba stresses a sense of urgency in confronting climate change. “It’s already being felt,” he says. “We are, right now, experiencing intense storms, drought, heat, torrential rains, changing weather patterns. Farmers are concerned about their ability to grow crops. … We need to stop thinking about climate change as an abstraction. It’s no longer about prevention, but adaptation.”
The difficulty of climate change advocacy
Tuttle echoes Wirzba’s thoughts nearly verbatim: “We’re in the adaptation stage now with climate change. So we need to put our faith into action to confront the issue, but people tend to think that means going without. It’s not about going without, but defining what is enough.”
Another issue that faith-based leaders must confront is fear. “The problems of climate change and creation care can be paralyzing in their scope and implications,” Hardin-Nieri says. “[That’s why] our spiritual communities and teachers [can] offer a vital active hope.”
Goldstein agrees. “[Global climate change] is just so huge … and there’s so little that is actually tangible,” he says. “We don’t see results like we may in other avenues and pursuits. We can build a Habitat for Humanity house, see the progress, see the smiling grateful family and feel like we accomplished something. But confronting climate change feels insurmountable and almost ethereal.”
And sometimes the problem lies in theology and doctrine. “For lots of people,” Wirzba notes, “climate change doesn’t register as a religious issue, let alone a peace issue. [Yet creating] a peaceful life together is central to the Christian framework.”
So what can people of faith, and of no faith, do to confront this issue head-on?
“Climate change is real, and it’s human-caused,” Maloney says. “That means we can do something about it. Take care of the Earth. Pick something, one thing, you can do about it. The important thing is to act.”
For more information on the Lake Junaluska Peace Conference, contact Tammy McDowell at 828-454-6681, or firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the link here. The conference will host five keynote speakers, as well as four-time Grammy Award winner David Holt, along with multiple local WNC faith leaders and laity workshop presenters.
Karen Richardson Dunn is an ordained minister with the United Church of Christ and minister for the UCC’s newly created Environmental Justice Network, Southern Conference.