by Gary Payton
On Thursday, June 1st, the car I was traveling in was T-boned at an intersection by an extraordinarily reckless driver. The vehicle was damaged but drivable, and I’ve moved on from the scene of the accident with greater wisdom and resolve. The vehicle? The global climate movement. The other driver? Well, let’s just say he used to be in real estate.
The details of President Trump’s Paris Agreement withdrawal announcement are now all too well known to us. So, in the days since the Rose Garden “car wreck” I’ve reflected deeply on my own climate movement journey and where I go from here.
In December 2015, I attended the UN Conference of the Parties (COP21) as an official “observer” with the support of the PCUSA’s Office of Environmental Ministries. My goal was to “bear witness” to the critical negotiations and share that story via the PCUSA’s Eco-Justice Journey blog, the Idaho Conservation League, and public presentations. As an environmental advocate, for months I’d prepared “in my head” – studying the UN processes, absorbing the environmental positions of multiple nation states, and deepening my knowledge of the impacts of climate change.
The reality of Paris, however, changed my outlook forever. It was the “in the heart” experiences which took me to a different place. For years, I’d written and spoken in future tense of climate change and its impacts. I regularly framed remarks in the context of my two grandchildren and the world they’d experience in decades to come. My days at COP21 radically altered that framework. Paris shook me out of my comfortable American perspective and introduced me personally to the suffering of sisters and brothers happening today from climate change.
Over a modest lunch with a Maryknoll sister from the Philippines, I heard her personal story of on-going ministry with the victims of Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. The most violent cyclone or hurricane to ever hit landmass killed over 6,000 men, women, and children; destroyed whole communities; and, injured and displaced tens of thousands more. Haiyan’s strength came from warmer waters in the Northwest Pacific exacerbated by climate change.
Standing in a circle of young activists from Southern Africa, I spoke with Michael Haduyu who was part of a team which had bicycled 8,000 kilometers through 8 countries carrying the message of climate change impacts. All along the route, he and team members urged the nations’ negotiators to remember the common people displaced by crop failure, drying rivers, and altered rain patterns – impacts directly affecting the lives of people who in no way were major contributors to the greenhouse gas emissions changing our world.
I listened respectfully to Anote Tong, the President of Kiribati, as he described the dire circumstance of his Pacific island nation being consumed by rising ocean water – the destruction of culture, the disappearance of homes and communities, and the displacement of an entire population. Described as “a disaster that never goes away,” the expectation is that the island nation will completely disappear in the lifetime of its youngest citizens. Sea level rise: a direct result of climate change advanced by melting polar and glacial ice worldwide.
What distressed me most in the Rose Garden announcement was the total disregard for the fate of citizens of the world, anyone outside the United States. I found the callousness, the arrogance, to be overwhelming. In the name of jobs and American industry we would willing withdraw from the Agreement, further alienate tens of millions of global citizens, and risk accelerating some of the worst coming impacts of climate change?
I said I’d walked away from last week’s “car wreck” with greater resolve and wisdom. My reflections come in the form of questions which you may be asking yourself.
May we each go from the shock of June 1st with greater wisdom and resolve as we heed “the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”