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Karenna Gore Addresses the Climate Action Assembly II

Karenna Gore addresses the Climate Action Assembly II at the 2023 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, USA.

Thank you. It is an honor to be here alongside such distinguished speakers in this climate plenary session, and it is moving to be here in Chicago, the site of the first convening of the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1893, as part of the World’s Columbian exposition of that year. We would not be so quick to celebrate the anniversary of Columbus today, understanding the genocidal consequences of his arrival, and indeed we want to be clear and admit that one type of religion undergirded that colonial encounter every step of the way.

Thanks to the voices of Indigenous peoples, an awareness of the error of that thought system has broken through, that thought system of domination over nature and dehumanization of whole peoples. It has broken through even in the very faith institutions that promulgated it in the first place. And thank you, Madeleine Big Bear, for your powerful words of blessing and the presence of your ancestors, your message that opened this session this morning. 

These dialogues matter. We all have a great deal to learn from each other. Defending freedom and human rights is the theme of this year’s convening, and we are grateful to earlier generations of interfaith leaders for all that they did to help bring the legal architecture that protects human rights at home and around the world.

In particular, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document created with extensive contributions from interfaith leaders. It was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948. While the UN is far from a perfect organization, it remains our last best hope in many ways. It offers a platform to call out the authoritarian leaders who ignore human rights, and it is the principal forum for our ongoing struggle to stop the course of man-made climate change. 

We must all make it known to our political leaders that we are paying attention to that work, including at COP 28 in Dubai in December. In our time, more and more are recognizing a core truth. The right to live in a healthy environment is a human right.

Congratulations to all those organizations, including the Parliament, who successfully advocated for the UN General Assembly to recognize this right last fall. It is a right that we have seen in the news again this past week with the story of young people in Montana winning in a case in which the court ruled in their favor and against fossil fuel interests upholding their right to live in a healthy environment as articulated in their state constitution. And it is a right that we will be hearing a lot more about in the years to come. 

Just as religious leaders rose to the challenge of building a better world with human rights in 1948, so we need your influence and insights to articulate and defend the human right to the environment. Keep in mind that in 1948, the year the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed, the human population was about 2.4 billion. Today, it is about 8 billion and projected to be 11 to 12 billion by the end of the century.

At the same time, we have seen major decline in other species of life. Due to the massive deforestation, the depletion of underground water aquifers and top soils, and the inundation of our atmosphere with man-made greenhouse gas pollution, primarily from the burning of fossil fuels. When development comes at the expense of nature, as it does all too often, it is also the poor and marginalized human beings who suffer the most. The UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, issued a detailed report in June 2019 clearly stating this, “Climate change threatens to undo the last 50 years of progress in development, global health, and poverty reduction. It could push more than 120 million more people into poverty by 2030 and will have the most severe impact in poor countries, regions, and the places poor people live and work.” Defending freedom and human rights means taking action on climate now.

So, what can we do? Communities grounded in faith, values, and conscience have a critical role to play. The climate crisis is about more than data, science, and technology as important as they are. It is about our values, our relationships to each other, and the very nature and meaning of existence. The calls to action that I want to make today are in that spirit.

We need to reframe our mindset and our collective behavior about three things. Time, place, and being. 

First, time. Climate change is clearly not something happening in the distant future. It is here now, and so must be our response. The timelines and dates we hear from companies and governments can be distracting and confusing. 

We must accelerate the transition to renewable energy. We must act now to defeat the wave of misinformation and confusion and greenwashing. We must break free from the system that runs on short-term monetary investments at the expense of the well-being of the whole community of life.

Specifically, if you or your faith community or institution have money invested in the fossil fuel industry, move it now. Divest. We must simultaneously, in terms of time, think with a longer time frame in mind. We must widen our circle of moral concern to include future generations.

As many Indigenous elders have taught, make every big decision today with seven generations in the future in mind. I think back to my great-grandmother, who was born in 1899, who I knew well. That was just six years after the first Parliament of the World’s religions. And if I know my daughter’s granddaughter, that will make that span complete.

The work of those who were here at that first Parliament in 1893 is still unfolding. Today, let us unfold it further. 

Second, place. Reconnect to the ecosystem you live in. The water, the soil, the plants and animals and other beings. Honor the spirits of nature in whatever way your tradition affords you through words, rituals, ceremony, thoughts and action. Practice restoration of bio-cultural heritage as well as landscapes. The Center for Earth Ethics has worked with the United Religions Initiative on a guidebook for convening community conversations on ecosystem restoration, emphasizing the role of values, culture, and spirituality. We invite you to download it on our website and reach out to us to share your experience.

Also, when it comes to place, be aware of those who suffer from environmental injustice in your region, always those who are already suffering from some combination of poverty and racism, which we must also commit and work to eradicate. Remember, it is the same fossil fuel pollution that drives climate change that also harms the locals–it also has local ambient air pollution that harms the health and well-being of the people that live there.

Caring about environmental justice is a form of self-care, and it is also climate action. This may lead to building alliances for many things, including to resist the buildout of fossil fuel infrastructure, which we know is very important in this time, as David Hales reminded us right at the start. I witnessed this in Union Hill, Virginia, a few years back, when a pair of historic African-American Baptist churches in Buckingham County, Virginia, joined forces with the community of Yogaville to defend their land from a toxic methane compressor station.

And under the leadership of Swami Dayananda, who I met at the Parliament of the World’s Religions just some years back–I think it was Toronto, or was it Salt Lake City–under the leadership of Swami Dayananda and Pastor Paul Wilson and others, and with the very real help of the prayers and songs and ritual and ceremony that consistently cultivated goodwill and fortified their spirits, this interfaith community prevailed in protecting their place and defeating that toxic project. And they helped bring about the cancellation of the entire Atlantic Coast Pipeline in July 2020. And of course, this call to resistance and solidarity also applies to the petrochemical plastics factories that are part of the same industry’s pattern of environmental and climate injustice and dehumanization of communities of people.

We call for a strong global plastics treaty. And we also must work in each of our places to stop the madness of building out more production of single-use plastics that harm human and ecological health.

As this crisis unfolds, some call for false solutions like geoengineering, the sky, or other bets on new technologies to try to bend this biosphere to our will, remember, it is not the earth that needs fixing. It is us. The human relationship to place can be a force for both climate mitigation, stopping the problem from getting worse, and climate adaptation, adjusting to the changes with justice, compassion, and wisdom. And many of us have much to learn from other cultures about what that looks and feels like in practice.

As the Haudenosaunee Confederacy wrote in 1978 in a basic call to consciousness, quote, “The majority of the world finds its roots in the natural world, and it is the natural world and the traditions of the natural world that must prevail if we are to develop truly free and egalitarian societies.” 

And this brings me to the final category, which is being. As we defend freedom and human rights, let us follow the example of those First Nations elders. Let us acknowledge our relations and relationships with other than human life, and defend their freedom to be, as well as our own. Let us celebrate, demonstrate, and communicate about the essential oneness of life.

This is a truth that is expressed in the highest form of all the world’s spiritual traditions, in one way or another. And in some ways, the crisis of climate change is a revelation of that oneness. Burning fossil fuels in mid-latitudes of the planet contributes to ice melt at the poles, which causes sea level rise that drives people from low-lying coastal areas and inundates small island nations. Deforestation of the Amazon, which we heard about Wednesday night straight from those who live there, contributes to the heat domes and the rain bombs and the wildfires that have popped up all over the planet, causing so much suffering. We can change this pattern from extraction and combustion to care and love and regeneration, and we can transform our collective destiny. We live in this interconnection, and it does not need to be tragic. It can be a force for good.

I think about the words of Howard Thurman, the longtime dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University, a Baptist, a mystic, a deep thinker. He recalled the feeling he had as a child on the Atlantic coast of Florida. “I had the sense that all things, the sand, the sea, the stars, the night, and I, were one lung through which all life breathed. Not only was I aware of the vast rhythm enveloping all, but I was a part of it, and it was a part of me. The resulting synthesis seemed to me not just metaphysical, but religious.” 

And so, as I close, let’s take a moment to breathe, to consider not only those of us in this hall and those of us online, but that great lake outside, that life under the water, those birds in the sky, the forest in the Amazon, the ice at the poles. Let’s consider how we bring these insights about time, place, and being into our communities and town halls and boardrooms and social circles in a way that is both practical and catalytic. As many faith leaders have taught us, freedom comes from much more from belonging within the community of life than from constantly trying to escape and take exception to it.

The great Bengali poet and educator, Rabindranath Tagore, wrote, “Emancipation from the soil is no freedom for the tree.” Interfaith dialogue is a powerful force for good in the world. Faith traditions are diverse, but we all share a sense that values run deeper than politics or price tags, that life has meaning, and that there is some form of higher power to which our actions are ultimately accountable. So in sum, let me end by thanking all of you. Thank you for having the courage of heart to take action on climate.

And just by being here in Chicago or tuning in from afar, you are building momentum for the global change that must and will come in order to save and protect and cherish life within this beautiful earthly home that we share.

Thank you.

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