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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Nothing on the Table
distributed 12/19/14 - ©2014

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Susan Skoglund of Highland, California. Her generous support helps make this publication possible.

The UN climate negotiations in Lima -- which ran two days over their schedule before adjourning on Sunday -- were never intended to produce a treaty. Did the COP-20 talks accomplish their goal of laying a strong foundation for high-stakes negotiations that will be held a year from now in Paris? That depends on who you ask.

The UN says, "Lima Call for Climate Action Puts World on Track to Paris 2015." 350.org concluded that, overall, "the talks were a disappointment" so "our movement are going to have to step things up a notch." And the Cornwall Alliance (a conservative voice that I track to keep myself honest, and for some laughs) wrote, "The Lima Climate Conference ended Sunday with what can be seen as a failure for environmental alarmist groups."

So, the spin-doctors are all massaging the news to fit into their core messages. To be candid, I guess I'm about to do the same thing.

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What I find most interesting, hopeful and exciting about the COP-20 talks is something that never made it into the final document -- "The Lima Call for Climate Action" -- but shaped the tone and direction of the sessions.

The meetings opened with serious proposals to get the world off of fossil fuels. Around 100 countries, about half of the nations represented, (according to 350.org -- Associated Press says "dozens", which is still a lot) support the goal of phasing out carbon emissions by mid-century. That is a remarkable challenge to our global society. I am fascinated and delighted that such a dramatic proposal was discussed seriously.

"Nothing" was on the table. "Net zero" carbon emissions, getting human emissions back in balance with what the biosphere can absorb, was put forth as a legitimate negotiating position.

Getting net-zero by 2050 onto the table is being attributed to environmental lawyer Farhana Yamin who launched the idea in 2013. The idea has taken hold in scientific and diplomatic circles, and was prominent at the People's Climate March in September. (The Associated Press has a concise profile of her and the initiative.) The effort to move the world toward carbon neutrality extends beyond the UN negotiations through the multi-pronged efforts of "Track 0".

Nine Catholic bishops, coming from around the world to attend the Lima conference, released a short, yet powerful, theological statement. "Our message to political leaders and all people of good will is rooted in the experience and suffering of these poor communities." The goal of zero emissions was affirmed at the heart of the statement. They called on all of the negotiating parties "to build new models of development and lifestyles that are both climate compatible and bring people out of poverty. Central to this is to put an end to the fossil fuel era, phasing out fossil fuel emissions and phasing in 100% renewables with sustainable energy access for all."

Certainly, the possibility of a fossil fuel free world has been floating around for a long time among visionaries and activists. But I find it astonishing and exciting that the idea was on the table in Lima, backed by many countries -- including Norway.

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For churches, "nothing on the table" has two specifics.

  1. In this season of Advent, it brings to mind the wonderfully revolutionary words of Mary's Magnificat. The pregnant teen digs deep into her religious heritage and announces the embodiment of shalom, which will overturn and reshape the political and economic order. "He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty." (Luke 1:52-53)

    Her words are an act of prophetic imagination. As Walter Brueggemann has described the envisioning of alternatives, "We need to ask not whether it is realistic or practical or viable but whether it is imaginable."

    Putting an end to the fossil fuel era will bring down the powerful from their thrones. But that won't happen unless, like Mary, we can imagine the possibility, and lift up that alternative as good news. The surge of interest and excitement around "Track 0" options shows that we can be motivated and inspired when a wild idea is presented in a way that makes it imaginable.

    In Advent, and always, may churches be communities where the prophetic imagination is fertile and powerful.

  2. "Nothing on the table" suggests to me that one strategy of the climate justice movement is taking hold. The call to divest from fossil fuels is rooted in the knowledge that 80% of those fuels have to stay in the ground -- which leads, of course, to a virtually fossil fuel free future. I don't think that proposals for net-zero by 2050 would have made it to the table in Lima without a strong divestment movement.

    Divestment uses a financial tool to stimulate a public conversation. The goal of divestment, as some say, is not to bankrupt the coal and oil companies financially, but to bankrupt them morally. It is about revoking the social contract that has given legitimacy to their deadly pollution.

    The demand for divestment has been taken to colleges and universities, and has been taken up by congregations and denominations. Governments and investment firms have been reconsidering whether the trajectory of fossil fuels is financially viable. Shifting completely to renewable energy makes more sense when the moral and financial legitimacy of the fossil fuel industry is questioned publicly.

    Religious communities have been important partners in the divestment movement. The ethical issues of climate change and energy policies are where faith groups have expertise and authority. An opportunity to raise these questions is coming up in a couple of months.

    Global Divestment Day is actually two days, February 13 and 14. That weekend is a fruitful time for congregations to educate and advocate for divestment. Conveniently, that weekend coincides with Interfaith Power & Light's National Preach-In on Global Warming. I strongly encourage you to bring divestment and the net-zero vision to your congregation that weekend.

The UN climate conference actually debated proposals for getting off of fossil fuels, for being "net zero" on carbon emissions by 2050. Emissions amounting to nothing were on the table.

For the UN to consider such a thing would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. I find hope in the emergence of such an idea as a real possibility. And I am energized to continued action because I know that individuals and communities exercising prophetic imagination have transformed a wild idea into a plausible opportunity.

Join me as we continue to work toward a fossil fuel free world as an expression of God's shalom.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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