Man overlooking lake and mountains


Climate Activist Bill McKibben, Cardinal Miguel Ayuso Speak on Environmental Justice

By: Henry D. Brill

November 3, 2020

Climate activist Bill McKibben and Cardinal Miguel Ayuso, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, spoke on environmental justice at two events co-hosted by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University in October 2020.

McKibben, an early leader in the movement against global warming, discussed his recent book, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? (2019), with Berkley Center Senior Fellow Paul Elie on an October 28 panel

The next day, Cardinal Ayuso provided a keynote address to kick off “Interreligious Responses to Laudato Si,” a two-day conference which explored how Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical resonates across faith traditions. 

In addition to the keynote address, the conference included two panels on “How Laudato Si Resonates among Religious Traditions” and “Implementation of Laudato Si: A Call for Multireligious Collaboration.”

Climate Change as a Moral Issue

McKibben reflected on his nearly 40 years as an environmental activist and noted the moral failures of those in power to mitigate the climate crisis.

“By now, the dominant emotion when we deal with climate change is some combination of fear and shame,” explained McKibben. “Having been warned by scientists, we didn’t do anything.

Cardinal Ayuso took a similar approach by describing how Pope Francis understands the issue of global warming and planetary well-being, commenting,

According to Pope Francis, the ecological crisis is ultimately linked to a crisis of values, a spiritual void that pervades the society of our times.

The crisis of values leading to inaction on climate change has made global warming a leading issue of international concern, as McKibben noted.

“It is now implicated in every decision we make about the economy, politics, and theology,” he said. “This is the dominant fact of life in the twenty-first century.”

Environmental Justice and the Common Good

Climate change is a social justice issue with unequal effects on people worldwide, a theme emphasized in both events.

“The iron law of climate change is the less you did to cause it, the sooner and the harder you get hurt,” said McKibben, who cited record flooding in Vietnam as just one recent example.

For his part, Cardinal Ayuso stressed how we need to work across lines of religious and cultural difference to tackle the social and ecological challenges of global warming.

“We need to think of ourselves as a single family dwelling in a common home,” the cardinal said. “All of us—irrespective of whichever religion we profess—have a moral and religious responsibility to shape an ethic of care for the earth.”

The connection between social solidarity and ecological well-being is also stressed in the October 2020 encyclical Fratelli Tutti. Elie reflected on the new encyclical in his conversation with McKibben, commenting,

Planetary interdependence is such that we can’t act meaningfully without really thinking of our effects on the people whose islands are a foot above sea-level, 10,000 miles away from us.

Connecting COVID-19 and Climate Change

Interconnection between humankind and the environment is also evident in the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Cardinal Ayuso.

“The pandemic has also made us recognize, as the Holy Father says, ‘When we mistreat nature, we also mistreat human beings,’” explained Cardinal Ayuso, noting how vulnerable people are most impacted by the coronavirus crisis and response.

At the same time, Cardinal Ayuso also stressed how the pandemic can be productive as a moment for pause and reflection.

“The health crisis and the lockdowns have positive changes in our thinking and our living,” he said. “They have presumably made us become less individualistic, less consumerist, and less self-centered.”

According to McKibben, quarantine periods do come with positive environmental outcomes, but they also highlight the need for continued work to address climate change on the structural level.

“Indeed, emissions fell, but they didn’t fall as much as people expected,” he explained. “Most of the damage that we’re doing in the world appears to be hard-wired into our systems.”

Hope for the Future

There is still hope to be found in the future of human action to address climate change, according to McKibben.

“The rise of the Climate Strike movement around the world over the last two years has been the single most heartening thing we’ve seen,” shared McKibben, referring to the movement inspired by youth activist Greta Thunberg.

The divestment movement—which has seen public and private institutions, including Georgetown University, divest from fossil fuels—is also a source of hope for McKibben.

Cardinal Ayuso pointed to collaboration across faith traditions as another productive avenue for future work on the climate crisis.

“In Laudato Si, Pope Francis underlines the urgency and importance of dialogue with all religions for the care of our common home,” he said. “The good news is that concern for the environment has now become a major interreligious preoccupation.”

The cardinal hopes that interreligious dialogue can help to create a society capable of addressing the climate crisis, as well as the coronavirus pandemic.

“There remains, however, a lot more to be done to ensure an ecologically responsible social order based on shared values,” he said. “The COVID-19 pandemic beckons us to do the same, without any further delay.”

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