Faith leaders must stop acting as if there's no preventing natural disasters

(RNS) — Hurricanes have been in the news a lot lately. A lot. And with every storm comes another litany of lives lost — each one a child of God — and destruction to the planet many of our faith traditions teach we are to steward and protect.

Most recently, Hurricane Ophelia, the easternmost Atlantic hurricane on record, battered Ireland and the United Kingdom. Most of the people who died during this storm didn’t die from the impacts of floods or collapsing homes, but because of the wildfires fueled by the winds of the hurricane.

This comes after the deadliest wildfires in California history, which claimed at least 40 lives, and which forced the evacuation of 90,000 people from their homes. In the last two months alone, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria have unleashed unprecedented destruction on the inhabitants of Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, with the Caribbean Island of Barbuda declared “practically uninhabitable” by its prime minister, Gaston Browne. Gone. Wiped from the map.

In the midst of ever more surreal headlines, the phrases become routine, like so much of the dysfunction and suffering currently affecting our nation: We hear about the deadliest, the hottest, the most expensive on record.

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We jump into action after destruction has hit with courageous self-sacrifice and awe-inspiring generosity, all the while pretending as if there was nothing we could do before the storm hit, before the fires started.

As faith leaders, we believe it’s time we stopped pretending and summoned our great generosity of spirit and incalculable ingenuity to address the ongoing disaster that is causing so many of our other disasters: climate change.

In the last several decades, natural disasters have been increasing in both frequency and intensity. And 40 percent of the world’s population, including our fellow New Yorkers, live on coastlines while sea levels are rising.

Last weekend (Oct. 28) New Yorkers from across our city marched to mark five years since Superstorm Sandy pounded the Eastern Seaboard, causing billions of dollars in damage, and devastating coastal New Jersey and New York City in particular.

In those five years, while some significant action has been taken to help residents recover and rebuild, many of our fellow New Yorkers still remain out of their homes. And there has been very little action to prevent the next storm from hitting and not enough done fast enough to shore up our neighborhoods from that next storm and sea level rise.

With the current federal administration pulling us out of the most aggressive and comprehensive global plan to combat climate change, the Paris agreement, the need for New York to be the climate champion that acts is greater than ever.

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In the past it has often been pointed out that though the United States is one of the largest global producers of carbon emissions and consumers of energy, we are also the most insulated from the detrimental impacts of changing climates. Our wealth and infrastructure enable us to adapt. Meanwhile, it is the world’s poorest populations that have contributed the least to climate change who are hit the hardest by its effects, and are least able to recover.

This is all still true. And, after Sandy, and Irma, and Harvey, and Maria, and wildfires, and floods, can we really say that the U.S. is not being significantly impacted?

We are not climate scientists, or policy experts, or politicians. We deal with the aftermath of the failure of these groups to form consensus and the political will to act. We are the ones who somehow have to comfort families who have lost everything, sometimes including a loved one. We hear the stories of all that cannot be rebuilt. It is our congregations that raise money for victims, assemble hurricane buckets, and send relief workers.

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The climate crisis is a moral crisis and it will require moral courage to address it. But our faith teaches that we must not allow fear and a mentality of scarcity to drive us to inaction. That is why earlier this year The Riverside Church voted to divest from fossil fuels. We cannot remain invested in the very coal, oil and gas companies that are most responsible for climate change. Our city and state must also cut its ties from these industries that are out of alignment with a healthy climate and thriving communities.

It is time we demand our elected leaders take further, deeper, morally justified, action to address climate change. Our world, our people, needs New York to be a beacon of hope that others can aspire to.

We cannot wait for another storm or fire or flood before we act.

(The Rev. Amy Butler is the seventh senior minister at The Riverside Church in New York City, known for its public pulpit and social justice legacy. Rabbi Mike Moskowitz is the senior educator for Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice organization combating suffering and oppression. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)


  1. “Last weekend (Oct. 28) New Yorkers from across our city marched to mark five years since Superstorm Sandy pounded the Eastern Seaboard…” what could possibly be the point to this? Too much time on their hands, I would say.

  2. “The White House has sought to downplay a major climate change report, which was compiled by 13 US federal agencies.
    The study is at odds with assertions from President Donald Trump and several members of his administration.
    It says it is “extremely likely” human activity is the “dominant cause” of global warming.”

    The US seems to be in the grip of an anti-intellectual fearfulness. Clever people are less likely to believe in our God, and educating ourselves/our children might lead us to question the simple, unsupported but precious swamps of belief we hide within – therefore clever people are wrong/bad/tools of Satan etc..

    I have US-based extended family who accept that global climate change is a fact, accept that its effects are bad and likely to get worse but, because they cling desperately to the possibility that some of it (NB – some) may be due to natural cyclical processes, they refuse to countenance any reduction of the (admitted) human contribution. They believe that Jesus won’t allow the earth’s destruction because he’s reserving that story-to-frighten-children for himself and/or that if God is allowing it then fighting against it is somehow fighting against their deity!

    Yes, they are “Baptist” – yes, they voted Trump, yes they are lovely, decent but poorly educated people.
    And yes – they live in fear – fear of illness, fear of job loss (at 70+!), fear of there not being truth behind the supernatural ideology that pretends that they are heading to a better eternity.

    Knowledge is feared because it can’t be bent to the narrow, and often preposterous, confines of ideas that support the chosen belief system. Fear it – fight it through rejection (always irrational rejection of course – because to be rational requires knowledge and knowledge is the enemy).

    This is the wickedness that religion contaminates the world with – the conviction that the one life we know we have is merely a precursor; a necessary rigour to determine that we are fit to progress to an unevidenced and irrationally propounded eternity of slavery – so the only important thing is what we do in order to attain our eventual status as a well-fed guppy in the great goldfish bowl in the sky – and the rest can, literally, go to hell.

    And yes – I know that not all religious people subscribe to this intellectual debasement – but most don’t try to fight it – perhaps either because they fear the backlash or because they need the shared underlying irrationality and are concerned that in opposing their fellow religionists they will come to the rational undermining of their own (much, much nicer) beliefs.

    I applaud the writers’ willingness to put their heads above the parapet – I wonder how they merge their decent concerns for the planet and for future lives with the underlying beliefs their jobs/titles appear to require.

  3. Enoch and Elijah are on their way to witness against the cause of global warming, of course it will be a little late to take up a collection of believers.

  4. Still waiting on Riverside and other global-warming devotees, to explain exactly how they’re going to help all those low-income and fixed-income folks in New York and America, who absolutely rely on fossil-fuels to maintain lower living and heating expenses.

    (And also for their daily transportation to work, school attendance, doctor appointments, church attendance, job interviews.
    Not to mention getting their transportation to the grocery store, where food costs just happen to be linked to trucking transportation costs. When fossil-fuel prices go up, the food prices go up. Hello, Riverside?)

  5. You missed the point – it is those with the least capacity – who are left to bear the greatest consequences. Including increased fuel costs with Harvey taking 25% of refineries off line with gas prices doubling in some areas.. There are other energy alternatives in the pipleline and increasingly available and affordable. Or enacting home energy/transportation subsides for low income families. And being proactive in terms of climate mitigation – but you need government policy that accepts climate change is real and takes step to mitigate impacts and minimize accelerants to change.

  6. The whole idea behind “divestment”, “carbon tax”, and all the other mess that GW’s are pushing, is to drive up fossil-fuel costs to the point of no return, thus leaving “solar, wind, yada-yada” as the only alternative gigs. (Most GW’s reject nuclear power.)

    But these same folks — let’s take Riverside since they wrote this RNS article — are noticeably NOT talking about Riverside “enacting home energy/transportation subsides for low income families.” In fact, there was no discussion of ANYBODY enacting such subsidies. The GW’s are messed up. They obviously want their global warming religion to get “subsidized,” but not the poor people.

    I sometimes browse the NYC streets live, via the online EarthCam. Every single time, I’m seeing that virtually **none** of those buses and taxicabs run on solar or wind. Nor can solar or wind power lower the grocery trucking transportation costs.

  7. It still goes back to the point that it is the most vulnerable that are hurt. Which makes it a moral responsibility with the question being to do what. There is little any church can do outside of having green policies, reviewing any investments to see if and how they contribute and to lending support and their support to others as to local/regional action plans. If the GWs are messed up, then all the more reason that there be a voice at the table that looks at impacts on the most vulnerable as well in terms of setting out strategies.

    With respect to offsets, there is the federally funded Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program administered locally. In other words the extent of funding is also politically driven.

    Divestment would not drive up fuel costs unless all stockholders did globally. In the US costs are first of all, artificially low relative to other developed countries, with taxpayers subsidizing drivers given current tax policies (most other countries tax fuels with monies going towards roads and their maintenance). The price of fuel is generally controlled by OPEC

    The most vulnerable also are impacted by the air we breathe with 50% of Americans breathing in air polluted at levels associated with increased risk of certain illnesses/diseases and premature death. And of coursethey are impacted to a greater extent by extreme weather events .

    You can read what 4 major cities including New York are doing now in terms of both reducing emissions and/or mitigation measures. . And I am guessing that the actions being taken are not being done in response to a GW lobby group but in response to ‘in their faces’ observation.

    Also you might be interested in knowing that this organization/framework
    also exists. And once again it has been a pleasure exchanging viewpoints

  8. According to scientists our use of refrigerant and other gases caused a decrease in our ozone layer. In accord with the Montreal Agreement (1989) nations banned these ozone depleting chemicals. Recent evidence indicates success. Man does have the capacity to seriously affect the environment – as we are likely doing now with excessive outputs of CO2.

  9. Transportation in NYC is mostly done by non-fossil-fuel technology, such as electric (the subways) and hybrid (buses). Food prices might go up if gas goes up, but they also are going to go up as the result of droughts and wildfires.

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