Environment

From the Global to the Local: Take Action Now

Now more than ever those who can read the signs of the times and accept the science of climate change must move from passivity to activity. Although climate change is certainly a global issue, actions must begin at the local level, in our own backyards. Mayors are in the forefront of sustainability issues and a number of them have shown tremendous initiative in addressing issues at the local level. A key concern of municipalities throughout the United States is that the federal government cannot be regarded as a source of leadership on climate change. 

The series of questions that follows is designed for you to ask local leaders. It is time for us to challenge them. Schedule an appointment to meet with the mayor of your city or with someone from his/her office. Write a letter to him/her and/or write a letter to the editor of a local newspaper. Put the questions out there and get people thinking. It is not necessary to ask every single question. Choose those that are of most concern to you.

The following questions are derived from the areas of sustainability that are used to determine “Greenest Cities”: CO2 emissions, energy, land use, buildings, transport, water, waste, air quality, and environmental governance:

Does the Mayor belong to the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate Change and Energy?

How many buildings in the city are certified by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEEDS)?

What are the criteria for new building construction?

What plans does the city have to reduce dependence on fossil fuels?

What portion of the electricity in the city is from renewable energy sources?

How many miles of bikeways does the city have?

How many green roofs do city buildings have?

What plan does the city have to reduce greenhouse gases?

How efficient is public transportation?

Does the city have hybrid buses?

How much green space does the city have?

Does the city have a plan with target dates to reduce energy consumption?

Does the city ban the use of plastic bags?

Does the city have a climate action plan?

Does the city have an Office of Sustainability? (e.g. Philadelphia)

Sometimes it is difficult to feel that what one person does makes a difference. Then it is helpful to remember the words of Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

A few quotes to ponder:

“We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.” – Mother Teresa

“What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and one another.” –Mahatma Gandhi

“The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long…America cannot resist this transition. We must lead it.” –Barack Obama

“When we heal the earth, we heal ourselves.” – David Orr

“If we pollute the air, water and soil that keep us alive and well, and destroy the biodiversity that allows natural systems to function, no amount of money will save us.” –David Suzuki

“We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.” –Native American proverb.

“We stand at a critical moment in Earth’s history, a time when humanity must choose its future. As the world becomes increasingly interdependent and fragile, the future at once holds great peril and great promise. To move forward we must recognize that in the midst of a magnificent diversity of cultures and life forms we are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny. We must join together to bring forth a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace. Towards this end, it is imperative that we, the peoples of Earth, declare our responsibility to one another, to the greater community of life, and to future generations.” –Preamble to the Earth Charter

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Climate Justice

The quote above summarizes so clearly the world we are called to see today. I remember once reading that we can live in a house of mirrors where everything we believe is reflected back to us or a house of windows where reality changes moment by moment. To deny climate change is to choose to live in a house of mirrors, but the reality outside the windows is that millions of people are suffering and being displaced because of the disruptive effects of climate change: stronger storms in the form of tornados, hurricanes, and cyclones, tsunamis, forest fires, extreme drought in some areas and flooding in others, melting glaciers and rising sea levels.  Climate change knows no borders. It affects all of us, but those living in poverty are disproportionately affected.

Pope Francis reminds us in his encyclical Laudato Si’ that “Climate change is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all.” He continues with a quote from the Bolivian Bishops that “Both everyday experience and scientific research show that the gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest.” A call to climate justice is woven throughout the encyclical.

A brief look back at headlines of natural disasters around the world during the past year:

January

  • Southern US states braced for floods as Mississippi nears record crest
  • Floods hit 16,000 properties in wettest December in a century in the UK
  • El Niño rain turns southern California roads to rivers
  • Monster snow storm bears down on US east coast threatening chaos
  • Deaths in Japan and Taiwan as record cold snap hits east Asia
  • Wild weather lashes Australia, bringing damaging winds, flooding rains and hail

February

  • Call for urgent inquiry into world heritage forest fires in Tasmania
  • Rescuers race to save dozens trapped under rubble of Taiwan earthquake
  • UK’s winter floods create 30,000 tonnes of landfill waste
  • ‘Severe’ earthquake close to Christchurch (New Zealand) results in injuries and cliff collapse
  • Cyclone Winston: tens of thousands homeless in Fiji a week after storm

March

  • Tornado touches down in Oklahoma
  • Military helicopters join fight against biggest wildfire in Kansas history
  • Crane arm bent in half after 105mph Storm Katie winds hit UK
  • Storms batter the Southern States while Australia still swelters

April

  • Vanuatu hit by 6.9 magnitude earthquake
  • Thousands stranded by floods and landslides in north-west Pakistan
  • Battered Fiji braces for fresh disaster with arrival of Cyclone Zena
  • Japan hit by 7.3-magnitude earthquake
  • Ecuador earthquake: death toll triples following 7.8-magnitude quake
  • Heavy rains lead to flooding of more than 1,000 Houston homes
  • India crippled by extreme weather as 100 million exposed to floods

May

  • Huge wildfire blazes across China-Mongolia border
  • ‘Absolutely apocalyptic’: Fort McMurray evacuees describe terror of Alberta wildfires
  • Dozens buried by landslide in south–east China after heavy rains
  • 23 tornadoes rip across Midwest
  • Sri Lanka floods displace 350,000 people and leave scores missing
  • Powerful earthquake recorded in Australia’s Northern Territory
  • ‘There are no words to describe how bad it is’: India endures severe heatwave
  • Cyclone Roanu: Bangladesh moves 2 million people from coast
  • Deadly volcanic eruption in Indonesia
  • Western Australia earthquake has strength of ‘atomic bomb’
  • Houses collapse during severe floods in southern Germany
  • 20,000 Families Displaced by Floods in Ethiopia

June

  • Sinkholes and landslides follow flooding in France and Germany
  • Paris floods: ‘There’s something terrifying about it
  • Northern Tasmania faces worst flooding in decades as storm heads south
  • Floods in southern China, while a powerful tornado hits Montana
  • New wildfires erupt in California as heatwave strikes west coast
  • Deadly Floods Hit Central Region of Ghana

 July

  • Typhoon Nida creates chaos across Hong Kong
  • Deadly storm hits Macedonia
  • Canary Islands fire ravages 7% of La Palma
  • Hundreds evacuated from path of wildfire in southern France
  • Floods Leave 11 Dead and 1,700 Homes destroyed in Niger

August

  • Louisiana flooding: 20,000 people rescued as major disaster declared
  • Floods in Louisiana and the Philippines, and a heatwave in South Korea
  • Myanmar struck by 6.8-magnitude earthquake
  • Deadly earthquake hits central Italy
  • Typhoon Lionrock hits Japan
  • Dozens Killed in Floods, Over 100,000 Affected in Sudan
  • Deadly Floods in Mali and Burkina Faso

September

  • East coast of New Zealand struck by earthquake of 7.1 magnitude
  • Oklahoma earthquake among strongest in state history
  • Wildfires in Spain force residents and holidaymakers to evacuate
  • Train derails after landslide as heavy rain causes UK travel chaos
  • Thirteen dead and more than 200 injured in 5.7 Tanzania earthquake
  • Haze from Indonesian fires may have killed more than 100,000 people
  • Samoa hit by hail storm so rare residents thought it was a hoax

October

  • ‘It was like a monster’: Hurricane Matthew leaves Haiti in crisis
  • Typhoon Chaba sweeps away houses and cars in South Korea
  • Italy earthquake: historic structures levelled in biggest quake since 1980

November

  • Thousands stranded and towns cut off after New Zealand quakes
  • Fukushima residents urged to flee as 7.4 magnitude quake hits Japan
  • 7-magnitude quake strikes near El Salvador as hurricane Otto makes landfall
  • Torrential rain and floods hit south and eastern parts of Egypt
  • Deadly Flash Floods Hit Johannesburg

December

  • Thousands in Tennessee hope to return home as rain slows wildfires

This is just a brief snapshot of some of the multiple natural disasters which occurred during the past year. Not all, but many are caused by human activities. Millions of people have been affected; oftentimes those in countries with little infrastructure to cope with the after effects of these disasters.

I had the opportunity to meet the late Wangari Maathai, the Nobel Laureate from Kenya several years ago and something she said has stayed with me: “In the course of history there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground; a time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other.” It is time for all of us to look out the window and see the one world that we all share. Perhaps the mission of the Pachamama Alliance, an international environmental organization, might challenge each of us as we move into a new year: “To bring forth an environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling and socially just human presence on this planet.”

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Caring for Our Common Home: Responding Together to Climate Change

“From here, thousands of miles away, the Earth shows the incredible beauty of a magnificent blue and white pearl, floating in a vast, dark sky. It looks like it could fit into the palm of my hand. On it there is everything that is sacred and loved by us.” Edgar Mitchell

“From the moon, Earth is so small and so fragile, and such a precious little spot in the universe, that you can block it out with your thumb. Then you realize that on that spot, that little blue and white circle, is everything that means anything to you – all history, music, poetry and art, birth and love and death, tears and joy…And then you are changed forever.”  Rusty Schweigert

“When I saw it from space in all its beauty and fragility, I saw our most urgent task — to cherish and preserve it.” Sigmund Jahn, GDR

Earth – our home as seen by the astronauts challenges all of us to accept this most urgent task of cherishing and preserving it. In a nutshell: Earth’s population today is 7.3 billion; more than 8.7 million kinds of plant and animal species inhabit the planet with humanity; scientists tell us that more than 80% of plant and animal species have yet to be identified; our planet is 29% land and 71% water. The single biggest threat to our home today is climate change.

Pope Francis reminds us that “Climate change is a global problem with grave implications…it represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day…A great cultural, spiritual and educational challenge stands before us, and it will demand that we set out on the long path of renewal.” Francis calls us to an ecological conversion. What does that mean?

It means taking the time to understand the realities of climate change. Is some of it natural? Absolutely. Natural causes include volcanic eruptions, ocean currents, earth’s orbital changes, solar variations, and global warming, but those changes take place over millions of years, not within a span of 50-100 years. Fossil fuels, solid waste, leaking coolants and aerosol spray propellants are causing changes unprecedented in human history. Signs of climate change can no longer be ignored. They are everywhere:  changing rain and snow patterns, changes in animal migration and life cycles, less snow and ice, thawing permafrost, changes in plant life cycles, warmer oceans, rising sea levels, damaged corals, stronger storms, higher temperatures and heat waves and more droughts.

Humanity’s ecological footprint, the measure of human demand on Earth’s resources, now exceeds the planet’s bio-capacity (its ability to renew resources) by 50%. In 1961 we used 74% of Earth’s resources in a single year. In 1985 we used 114% of Earth’s resources in a year and in 2012 we reached 156%. This year, August 8th, 2016, was Earth Overshoot Day, the day the planet’s inhabitants used up an entire year’s worth of resources.

What can one person do? Look at the following suggestions and decide today what steps you (and/or your organization) can take to help create a sustainable future, one in which “environmental, social and economic development meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”:

  1. Shut off your computer or put it to sleep when you aren’t using it;
  2. Use public transportation or carpool whenever possible;
  3. Take a shorter shower (by shortening your shower by one minute you can save more than one thousand gallons of water in a year);
  4. Carry reusable bags when shopping;
  5. Turn off the lights when you leave a room;
  6. Buy local whenever possible.
  7. Use a refillable travel mug or water bottle;
  8. Turn off your cell phone at night;
  9. Recycle paper, plastic, metal, and glass;
  10. Turn down the thermostat (for every degree you turn down your thermostat you will save up to 3% in heating costs);
  11. Print less and double-side whenever possible;
  12. Compost;
  13. Learn about renewable energy sources: biomass, solar, wind, geothermal, water;
  14. Write a letter to the editor and/or local and national legislators expressing your concerns about environmental sustainability;
  15. Support environmental organizations (e.g. Ohio Interfaith Power and Light);
  16. Take the St. Francis Pledge: Pledge to PRAY, ACT and ADVOCATE for a more sustainable world. (http://www.catholicclimatecovenant.org/pledge)
  17. Learn more about the UN Sustainable Development Goals. (http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals/)
  18. Vote for candidates who are committed to creating a more sustainable world for all.

Earth: One Planet, One Home, One Community.

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