Canada's Faith Communities and the Dilemma in Durban

By Joe Gunn

The December 2011 Conference on climate change in Durban, South Africa ended in a most Canadian fashion – sudden death overtime. Unfortunately for us all, the environment lost in the shootout.

After extending discussions for two days, the UN conference known as COP17 managed to keep slim hope alive for the continuation of some semblance of the Kyoto Protocol (an international environmental treaty introduced in 1997 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions). Nonetheless, the Pembina Institute concluded that, "Current pledges still leave the world on a course for more than 3°C of warming,” even though the agreed-upon target is to limit warming to under 2°C.

But only hours after arriving home, Canada’s Minister for the Environment, Mr. Peter Kent, pulled Canada out of the Kyoto deal altogether.

No Dialogue

There is a massive rift between the federal government and environmental groups. Unhelpful name-calling and harsh criticism does little to advance the environmental protections Canadians desperately need.

Environmental groups were deeply ashamed of Canada for earning the “Colossal Fossil” award in Durban. A report called the “Climate Change Performance Index,” placed Canada at #54 of the 58 highest-emitting countries based on both CO2 emissions and climate policies. Summarizing the Durban conference, a World Council of Churches official was especially critical of Canada, saying, "Some of the industrialized countries have prevented a more ambitious and effective regime. The decision of Canada of withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol is an example of the failure of the negotiations."

Ottawa’s reticence to take meaningful action to lower greenhouse gas emissions at home was evidenced, critics attest, by continuing subsidies of over a billion dollars to the oil and gas industry, and for endless promotion and expansion of the Athabasca oil sands. In January, the Minister of Natural Resources lambasted environmental groups as being “radical” and “ideological” for receiving some funds from U.S. foundations and using them to attempt to stop the construction of pipelines to export oil sands production.

Environmental Hope?

Canadian faith communities concerned about the crying need to care for creation find themselves facing these dismal appraisals of the success of COP17, and the lack of dialogue between government and environmental groups. How have they responded?

Canadian faith communities got involved with climate change issues as never before. Just two years ago at COP15 in Copenhagen, United Church Moderator Mardi Tindal found that she was the only North American church leader present. This was not the case in Durban, where Tindal and Willard Metzger (General Secretary of the Mennonite Church Canada) were also joined by Christian Reformed Church representatives. Prayers were offered across Canada for the success of the Durban negotiations, and a former United Church Moderator fasted during the conference.

Citizens for Public Justice helped these Canadian leaders go to Durban with a statement on climate change signed by over 60 faith community leaders. This very respectful and non-judgmental Interfaith Declaration encouraged Canadian action to advance climate justice. An event on Parliament Hill drew some 70 faith leaders to discuss climate issues and faith-filled responses with MPs from the NDP, Liberal and Green parties — but no Conservative MP attended.

Thousands of signatures from faith community members were then collected on a petition in support of the Interfaith Call, sent to MPs and tabled in the House of Commons. CRC congregations in the Lower Mainland, Toronto and Edmonton collected signatures. These names were added to an international petition gathered by Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu during the Durban Conference. The Nobel Peace laureate also signed a full-page ad in the Globe and Mail, praising Canada for its role to end apartheid in South Africa but also questioning Ottawa’s current commitment to prevention of climate change, which was called “a life- and-death issue” for Africans.

After meeting Minister Kent in Durban, Moderator Tindal reported what faith communities must do next: “Our challenge is clear. The Minister has read our Canadian Interfaith Call for Leadership and Action and has indicated that our recommendations are reasonable. Now is the time to take him up on his openness to more conversation.”

Joe Gunn serves as Executive Director at CPJ,

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