Ecumenical Responses to Climate Change: A Summary of the History and Dynamics of Ecumenical Involvement in the Issue of Climate Change

By Hallman, David G. | The Ecumenical Review, April 1997 | Go to article overview

Ecumenical Responses to Climate Change: A Summary of the History and Dynamics of Ecumenical Involvement in the Issue of Climate Change


Hallman, David G., The Ecumenical Review


Although the focus of this issue of The Ecumenical Review is on climate change, the context add the implications go beyond that specific concern. Climate change provides a useful case study of the ecological threats to creation and the economic and social inequities within and between societies caused by current economic systems and practices.

After an historical overview, I shall look at the accomplishments and limitations of the first WCC study document, Accelerated Climate Change: Sign of Peril, Test of Faith, published after a 1993 consultation in Driebergen, Netherlands (Driebergen 1), then discuss the results of the second major climate change consultation (Driebergen II) held in November 1996, from which the papers here have been drawn.(1)

Driebergen II was distinguished by four emphases: a critique of sustainable development and exploration of sustainable society/community as an alternative; the importance of regional perspectives and voices in responding to climate change causes and consequences; the significance of the foregoing for ecumenical process; and a notion of oikos as "ecumenical earth". The papers that follow explore these themes.

Sustainability discussions in ecumenical circles

More than a decade before the term "sustainable development" was popularized by the Brundtland Commission,(2) the concept of sustainability was being articulated by scientists, theologians and economists at a WCC consultation in Bucharest in 1974. We should not lose sight of the fact that the ecumenical community can claim some credit for conceptualizing sustainability. Much has happened to the concept over the past twenty years and serious concerns can be raised about how its integrity is being compromised by current tendencies to misconstrue the term "sustainable development" to legitimize clearly unsustainable practices.

The Bucharest consultation was convened in response to the Club of Rome's report, The Limits to Growth, I which sounded an alarm about how depletion of natural resources, pollution and population growth were placing an intolerable strain on the earth's resources. What emerged from the Bucharest discussion on the role of science and technology in the development of human societies was the articulation of a "`concept called sustainability' -- the idea that the world's future requires a vision of development that can be sustained in the long run, both environmentally and economically".(4) The Bucharest findings were brought to the attention of a wider ecumenical public by the eminent biologist Charles Birch in his address at the WCC's fifth assembly in Nairobi the next year. Birch's eloquent promotion of the concept of sustainability was followed by the decision to adopt a major WCC programme on the "just, participatory and sustainable society" (JPSS).

The JPSS framework reflected awareness of the need to link socio-economic justice and ecological sustainability. This recurring theme in the ecumenical community has in turn been a gift to the broader global community. Many non-governmental organizations (NGOs), government departments and international organizations have had either development concerns or environmental issues as their focus while the churches have tried to hold the two dimensions together. During the late 1970s, the WCC Department of Church and Society worked to promote the JPSS framework, including at the 1979 conference on Faith, Science and the Future at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, USA.(5)

The JPSS framework was expanded by the WCC's sixth assembly (Vancouver 1983) with the inauguration of the conciliar process on "justice, peace and integrity of creation" (JPIC). Some feel that the JPIC focus lost some of the specificity of the JPSS framework, since there was no explicit reference to "participatory", with its conceptual links to movements for people's empowerment, nor was "sustainable" in the title. …

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