Faith leaders help advance moral arguments

By  Joe Gunn
  • December 20, 2011

Vibrant public discourse is highly desirable, but it demands thoughtful application.

During climate negotiations at December’s UN conference in Durban, the discourse was sour. On Day 1, disgruntled environmental activists presented Canada with a “Colossal Fossil” award after Environment Minister Peter Kent declared “Kyoto is the past.” Following media reports that the Canadian government planned to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol, Kent clarified on Dec. 5 that Canada was not actually withdrawing but would simply not agree to a second commitment period.

That was followed by a torrent of exaggerated invective launched in Canadian media in response to a full-page ad published in the Globe and Mail. The ad, signed by South African dignitaries, including the Nobel Peace laureate,  Anglican Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu, praised Canada for its role to end apartheid in South Africa but also questioned Canada’s current commitment to prevention of climate change, which was called “a life- and-death issue” for Africans. The ad went on to criticize the sacred cow of Canadian energy policy: the Athabasca oil sands.

“By dramatically increasing Canada’s global warming pollution, tar sands mining and drilling makes the problem worse, and exposes millions of Africans to more devastating drought and famine today and in the years to come… We call on Canada to change course… to support international action to reduce global warming pollution.”

The response was immediate.

CBC featured a platitudinous retort by Rex Murphy. Then, also on CBC, Kent, weighed in to defend oil sands development:

Kent: He’s (Tutu) making unfounded criticisms of our petroleum industry. 

CBC: He doesn’t know what he’s talking about?

Kent: I look forward to talking to him again and seeing him maybe when I get to South Africa.

CBC: So are you going to tell him that you are going to stay…

Kent: I will tell him that Canada’s proud of the natural resources with which our country’s been blessed. Tell him that Canada is proud of the commitments it’s made to regulate in a responsible and sustainable manner our resources, including the oil sands. And I will tell him that we’re proud of the commitments that we made to Copenhagen and Cancun to materially reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. 

CBC: You’re getting fossil awards, you say you’re so proud but you’re getting fossil awards?

Kent: From the uninformed or ideologically driven…

But the most virulent retort, directed at the oil sands’ “misguided critics,” came from the editorial board of the National Post. It read, “Archbishop Desmond Tutu should shut his trap when it comes to the oil sands.” The Post subsequently removed a photo of Tutu and the offensive caption from its web site, but has not published the apology requested by Canadian church leaders.

Climate change and environmental destruction are hot-button issues. A showdown in Durban seemed pre-ordained. Yet months before the Durban Conference, Canadian faith communities were trying to open avenues for dialogue with politicians. A very respectful and non-judgmental Interfaith Declaration signed by more than 60 faith groups encouraged Canadian action to advance climate justice. An event on Parliament Hill drew some 70 faith leaders to discuss climate issues and faith-filled responses with MPs from the NDP, Liberal and Green parties — but no Conservative MP attended.

For public justice to become a reality, avenues for political dialogue must remain open. It is important to assume the best intentions of participants, even those with whom we may disagree. But denying faith leaders the public space to advance moral arguments on deeply spiritual issues — such as humanity’s relationship with nature — displays ignorance of their role in society and a poor memory about how change is achieved. We can object to what faith leaders say, but not their right to speak out.

On Dec. 12, after his return from Durban, Kent confirmed Canada’s withdrawal from Kyoto.

Faith leaders have requested a meeting with the Prime Minister or his representative to discuss Canada’s commitments to climate justice. That meeting should happen soon. Serious dialogue on this important issue must continue.

(Joe Gunn is Executive Director of Citizens for Public Justice,

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