Will Mennonites join climate battle?

January 13, 2016 | Viewpoints | Volume 20 Issue 2
Will Braun | Senior writer

Climate is back on the global agenda, but still not squarely on the Mennonite agenda. Following a period of major global attention that peaked around 2007—with heads of state, celebrities and filmmakers backing the cause—the climate struggle bottomed out at the 2009 Copenhagen conference, which was clouded with pessimism and excuses. Now, the pendulum of public concern has swung back.

The pope’s encyclical on the topic helped. With the deaths of Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela, and the inability of Barak Obama to rise above the role of politician, Francis has emerged as the most prominent global moral authority figure. His encyclical gained traction, coming at a time when humanity was ready to return to climate concerns.

And Justin Trudeau came along just in time to shine some sunlight on the cresting wave of global care at the Paris climate talks late last year.

Another focal point of energy on the climate front has been the fossil fuel divestment campaign. The crux of this initiative is to push institutions—foundations, churches, cities and especially universities—to withdraw investments they have in the 200 largest fossil fuel companies and to reinvest the money in companies dedicated to an alternative energy future.

The campaign is the calculated strategy of Bill McKibben, a leading environmental thinker and gifted mobilizer. It launched with a tour of U.S. universities and an article in Rolling Stone magazine in 2012. The goal is largely to stigmatize the fossil fuel sector, not unlike the way similar initiatives put the tobacco industry in the public bad books.

McKibben calls the fossil fuel sector a “rogue” and “reckless” industry. Yes we all depend on fossil fuels, but these companies, unlike us, actively seek to maximize the consumption of fossil fuels meanwhile fighting the public policy changes that much of the public would support. Of course, these companies all have their niche green activities and green PR campaigns, but the heart of their business model is to maximize extraction and sales of fossil fuels.  

McKibben has the support of people like Desmond Tutu, who compares this initiative to the divestment campaign that helped topple apartheid.

Today, more than 500 institutions representing over $3.4 trillion in assets have made some form of fossil fuel divestment commitment. Mennonite Church Canada is not among them. At least not yet.

Two years ago a few members of MC Canada churches, myself included, initiated a campaign to get MC Canada to consider divestment. We called it Fossil Free Menno and we asked people to sign an online letter asking conference leaders to study divestment. It was a volunteer, small-budget ($16) initiative, but it provided MC Canada members an opportunity to express a desire. Only 117 people signed.

Nonetheless, church leaders set up a working group. That group will have a report out in advance of Assembly 2016. Greener pension options have also been created for individuals under the MC Canada pension umbrella.

For a 2007 article, I asked MC Canada about climate change and setting specific emission reduction targets—I proposed a 50-percent reduction. Jack Suderman, MC Canada Executive Director at the time, said that a target of some sort was “definitely worth considering.” He said many staff already biked or walked to work and air travel was kept to a minimum, but more could be done.

A year later I returned to ask about progress. I heard about compostable dinnerware at Assembly, primarily online registration and paperless promotion for the event. In addition, the event site and lodgings were consolidated to minimize travel during the event.

The current MC Canada executive director has consistently talked about the importance of climate change. According to an MC Canada release, Willard Metzger’s “pursuit of climate justice” has landed him meetings with Stephen Harper, Elizabeth May, Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau, prior to him becoming prime minister.

The same release says “climate change is widely expected to continue increasing poverty levels by impacting food and water resources and livelihoods, eventually making some parts of the earth unliveable.”

In 2011, Metzger attended the United Nations climate talks in Durban, South Africa. He was scheduled to attend the Paris conference as well—along with an estimated 40,000 others—but cancelled in order to deal with the latest round of MC Canada lay-offs.

What has MC Canada done to reduce actual emissions? Metzger says they have “reduced the number of face to face meetings for its various boards.” Metzger’s year-end letter to congregations did not mention climate. Given the response to the Fossil Free Menno campaign, that omission won’t have bothered many people.

The global community mustered a new level of resolve in Paris. This should help reduce human suffering, something Mennonites care about. Will Mennonites now join the global community?

See also: “Will you sign up to be a ‘FossilFreeMenno’?”

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Will, thank you for your commitment and persistence in raising the issue of climate change in the Mennonite community. I first asked myself the question in your article's title when I attended a conference discussing climate change as a moral issue in May 2010, when I was one of only two Mennonites among the 80 or so attendees. Right now climate change is taking its toll most on the global poor, who are least able to adjust to it and also have contributed the least to atmospheric CO2 emissions. As Christians, we are called to love our neighbours, not flood their homes and destroy their crops. As Christians, we are called to care for God's creation, not ignore the scientific consensus because it's inconvenient to our lifestyles.

Mennonites have a long history of expressing God's love in the world through helping the "least among us". Climate change is a crisis, but also an opportunity to boldly embody God's love in a world whose suffering is exacerbated by the damage of our collective carbon emissions. I like to share practical actions, because often people care deeply and want to do something but the problem is so overwhelming they don't know where to start. Here's five things that we all can do now:

1. Talk about climate change to at least one person every day. Despite the urgency of this global crisis, there is a curious silence about it in our society. Change that.
2. Pray daily about climate change, and ask for God's guidance on this issue.
3. Make space in the church community for grieving what we have already lost, and for our thoughtless desecration of God's creation.
4. Divest from fossil fuels, both individually and collectively (and of course, sign up to be a "FossilFreeMenno").
5. Sit down with your elected officials (local, provincial, and federal) and discuss the need to act on climate change, including putting an honest, transparent, and steadily rising price on carbon. And keep going back until we have the political will to act on this issue.

The discussion on Mennonite efforts to address climate change, such as the "Fossil Free Menno" campaign and greener pension options, underscores the ongoing dialogue within the community about the extent of their commitment to climate action.

In conclusion, just as individuals can order essays that align with their specific goals, Mennonites face the choice of aligning their values of peace and justice with the global community's efforts to combat climate change. The question remains whether Mennonites will take a more prominent role in this critical global issue.

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