Was the pope’s visit a turning point for climate justice?

Was the pope’s visit a turning point for climate justice?

Many Unitarian Universalists hope Pope Francis’s leadership will spur action on climate justice.

Elaine McArdle
Climate Justice Rally

Unitarian Universalists gather on the National Mall for the Moral Action on Climate Justice rally during Pope Francis's address to Congress September 24, 2015. (© Joan Britt)

© Joan Britt


For many Unitarian Universalists, Pope Francis’s visit to the United States in September shined a spotlight on what they see as the most urgent moral—and existential—issue of our time: climate justice.

“The pope is closer to the truth on climate change than any politico,” said the Rev. Earl Koteen, a board member of UU Ministry for Earth, who traveled from California to Washington, D.C., to participate in events around the pope’s address to Congress. “He’s not trying to spin things. He’s also making the critical connection between economic inequality and our failure to act upon the prevailing threat of climate change.”

Koteen was among about 200 UUs who participated in climate justice actions connected to the papal visit, including attending the Moral Action on Climate Justice rally on the National Mall on September 24, which UUs helped organize. The crowd watched the pope’s address—which focused also on immigration and the excesses of capitalism—on several Jumbotrons.

Referring to Laudato Si’, his papal letter lamenting environmental degradation and global warming, Pope Francis urged action to mitigate the “most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity.” He added, “I am convinced that we can make a difference, and I have no doubt that the United States—and this Congress—have an important role to play.”

The pope’s message buttressed the hopes of UUs who believe his leadership on this issue can spur worldwide action to slow climate change.

“We have an absolute crucial moral imperative to act on climate change. It is probably the most important social justice and moral and spiritual issue of our time, and perhaps any time,” said Eric Goplerud, a member of the UU Congregation of Fairfax, Virginia. Goplerud is executive director of the Faith Alliance for Climate Solutions, an interfaith coalition in Northern Virginia that engages faith-based communities to identify and advocate for solutions to climate change. Many of the UUs who attended the events were from congregations in the Greater D.C. Metro area.

The night before the rally, All Souls Church Unitarian in D.C. hosted a worship service, which about 150 UUs and others attended before processing down 16th Avenue to join an all-night, interfaith vigil on the mall. Cedar Lane UU Church in Bethesda, Maryland, hosted an interfaith service the evening after the rally, where the Rev. Fred Small led a ceremony for the earth. Small left his position as senior minister of First Parish in Cambridge, Massachusetts, this summer to become a full-time climate change activist.

“I hope that Unitarian Universalists understand that we really are part of an ecumenical and interfaith and global movement for climate change, that we must work with others in our efforts, and that we’re not alone,” said the Rev. Dr. Rob Hardies, senior minister of All Souls. “Our vision of the interdependence of creation is so central to this struggle and something that’s really core to our values, so we have an important voice to bring.”

In June, the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly in Portland, Oregon, passed an Action of Immediate Witness, “Support a Strong, Compassionate Global Climate Agreement in 2015: Act for a Livable Climate.” The resolution urges U.S. support for a global climate agreement at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in December. The AIW endorsed a UU delegation to attend and support the Paris conference, including Doris Marlin, a member of All Souls deeply involved in coordinating UU climate justice efforts.

A delegation of UUs delivered a letter from UUA President Peter Morales to a U.S. envoy to the United Nations, who will carry the letter to Paris, according to Lavona Grow, board chair of Unitarian Universalists for Social Justice in the National Capital Region (UUSJ).

“Events help change attitudes, but we’re here to sustain people around right action,” Goplerud said. A number of UU-related groups are working together, including UU Ministry for Earth, UUSJ, and Commit2Respond.

Whatever is negotiated in Paris “means nothing if there aren’t troops on the ground holding people accountable and helping to change communities,” said Goplerud. That’s where the faith communities have a critical role, and should be pressing ahead on many fronts, he said.

If the 150-plus nations at the conference agree, for instance, to cut greenhouse emissions by 50 percent in 15 years, then UU congregations should follow that goal, he suggested. Several congregations in the metro D.C. area and elsewhere have already set themselves a voluntary carbon tax, by which they charge themselves a dollar amount connected to their carbon dioxide emissions, he said.

“Our failure to step up to the situation we’re in may well mean extinction,” said Koteen. “People don’t want to discuss that, but the science in support of those concerns keeps getting stronger. So this is a time not to confuse hope and magical thinking, and a time to look for courage regardless of the consequences.”

He added, “We really need to do more as a faith, more connecting with telling the truth and providing more pastoral care for those who find the truth so painful.”

ceremony for the earth

Cedar Lane UU Church in Bethesda, Maryland, hosts an interfaith ceremony for the Earth during Pope Francis’s visit to Washington, D.C. (© Bob Denniston)

© Bob Denniston