They converged on downtown Edmonton in a bid to save the world.
Nearly 6,000 young people joined millions of people around Canada and the world Sept. 27 for a Global Climate Change Strike to demand government action to address the climate crisis.
The event was sparked by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, who was in Montreal alongside young Canadians gathered to ask political leaders to develop a plan to reduce manmade carbon dioxide emissions to zero by 2050.
Faith leaders had gathered Sept. 22 for a candlelight vigil, sponsored in part by the Archdiocese of Edmonton and Citizens for Public Justice, at the Alberta legislature prior to the Climate Change Strike.
Just days later, the younger generation picked up the torch.
Students walked out of both Catholic and public schools, the University of Alberta, NorQuest College and MacEwan University, converging at the Alberta legislature grounds to have their voices heard.
“We’re here saying that we need to be stewards of our planet,” said Alyssa Tonnes, a speaker at the Edmonton Climate Change Strike. “This is our house for our neighbours and everybody around us. What we do here affects people in other places as well.”
Her comments echoed Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s 2010 call during the 43rd World Day of Peace that “We are all responsible for the protection and care of the environment. This responsibility knows no boundaries.”
“Seeing how many other people around me, in Edmonton, in the oil capital of Alberta, stand by climate, it was really empowering for me personally,” said Tonnes, a member of Edmonton Youth for Climate, an organizer of the strike along with Climate Justice Edmonton and the Beaver Hills Warriors.
A recent graduate Archbishop MacDonald High School, Tonnes said she became a part of the climate change movement in part through her Catholic education, which has shaped her world view, as well as Pope Francis’ call to be stewards of creation.
The threat of melting ice, rising seas, longer droughts and stronger storms is so great it’s become not only a concern for young people, but for all people of faith, including Pope Francis himself as articulated in 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ subtitled On Care for Our Common Home.
Pope urges world leaders to do more
“It is necessary to ask whether there is a real political will to allocate greater human, financial and technological resources to mitigate the negative effects of climate change and to help the poorest and most vulnerable populations, who suffer the most,” Pope Francis said in a Sept. 23 video address to the United Nations Climate Summit.
Pope Francis said that while the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement raised awareness and the “need for a collective response,” the commitments made by countries “are still very weak and are far from achieving the objectives set.”
It’s that theme of caring for our common home that’s woven into the hearts and minds of young people.
“They are looking at their lifespan and seeing these crises hitting them hardest when they are my age,” said Nathan Kowalsky, who teaches environmental philosophy at St. Joseph’s College in Edmonton.
The alarm over climate change is affecting a wide demographic, so it’s no surprise that young people are, in some sense, leading the environmental movement.
As parent, Kowalsky said he’s forced to shield his two kids when they watch the news and the warnings of climate change. To him, there’s no doubt it is “crisis” that will take political will — preceded by public pressure in form of protests like the climate change strike — to address.
“I don’t think there’s grounds for much reasonable doubt about the fact that climate change is occurring, that it’s anthropogenic. It’s occurring because of human activity, and that it’s likely to be very detrimental to the survivability of massive amounts of people and other species.”
Those future crisis scenarios, he said, could involve desertification, floods, droughts, deforestation, extinction of certain species, climate migration, starvation, and the disappearance of some smaller countries.
“It may not be catastrophic in 10 years but after 10 years of not doing enough we’re going to lock in catastrophic effects,” said Kowalsky, an expert on Laudato Si’.
“Even if most of us survive in some form or other, it can be a crisis in terms of what we have done to the world God gave us.”
As a philosophy professor, Kowalsky is concerned less about climate change data as he is about what ought to happen to address climate change — the reasons why those goals should exist.
One of the most critical tools in his toolkit is Laudato Si’.
While framed as Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, Kowalsky said it also addresses poverty, economic insecurity and the Church’s teaching on social justice — a wide range of teaching that requires a big commitment.
“My change would have to be herculean. I don’t think it’s possible for me or anyone else to do one thing or a bunch of things that would make much of a difference at all. All of us, collectively, have to make the difference.”
It requires conversion to protect our common home even if that means a radically different lifestyle than simple acts to protect the environment, Kowalsky said. It may affect where we live, work, play and travel and what we eat and wear.
“We actually need to do a whole lot more than that and it’s about a reorientation of our lives, a fundamental conversion of our cultures because of the things that we love. It’s a change of heart. It, I think, involves a fundamental change in our lives toward simplicity, distribution of wealth to other people who haven’t got it and that means giving up a lot of what we have as wealth,” Kowalsky explained.
While environmentalists focus on resource sustainability, Pope Francis’ ethic goes beyond that.
“He calls it integral ecology,” Kowalsky explains. “He integrates the concern for the poor and the oppressed together with the Earth which is being treated as if it is poor and oppressed … It’s rooted in the sacramental understanding of the world. It’s really powerful.”
Laudato Si’ is not prescriptive in the sense that it doesn’t have specific policies for government, Kowalsky said, but it does indicate that the current policies are “not remotely meeting the goals we have set.”
A contributing factor may be that not everyone is willing to agree to basic facts. There are those who deny climate change science — a hindrance, Kowalsky said, to political action.
“‘Skepticism’ is the main tool kit for the anti-environmentalists. It’s been to attack the science,” Kowalsky said, noting the same denial couched as skepticism occurred when tobacco was first linked to cancer.
“‘It’s possible that none of this is happening. And none of it will be bad. And none of it is our fault.’ And wouldn’t that be handy? Chances are it’s unlikely that’s the case. We should gamble on the other sides of things essentially.”
Gabrielle Gelderman, an organizer of the Edmonton Climate Change Strike, urged faith leaders to become more politically engaged in the environmental movement
“For me, it’s about creating a better society and a better community, one in which we can care for each other in the way God intends,” said Gelderman, a representative of Climate Justice Edmonton.
“We either make a huge shift in the way we design our economy, or we catapult over several tipping points and see the end of civilization. And we need the church to get on board and help mobilize enough people to make the political and economic change that’s needed.”
However, Kowalsky questions the effectiveness of climate change protests, saying they haven’t, at least so far, had the effect on political leaders. He hopes that will change with events like the worldwide Climate Change Strike.
“Radical change is what is required, but radical change is not in the slightest bit what is palatable to the majority of policy makers and probably most voters too,” he said.
“If it’s sustained, if it’s widespread, and if it grows, it can change things in ways that are not even foreseen. So that’s what I’m hoping this does. I hope it’s not a one-off thing. I hope it’s not something that fizzles. I hope we see consciousness shifting in massive amounts of people.”
While the clock is ticking, climate change activists are sounding the alarm even louder.
Long before last week’s strike, young Indigenous people from communities severely affected by climate and ecological breakdown have been courageously speaking up. Autumn Peltier, from Wikwemikong Unceded Territory, started advocating for safe drinking water and clean waterways in 2013, at the age of eight. She addressed the UN General Assembly last year at age 13 and, earlier this year, was named chief water commissioner by Anishinabek Nation.
Kowalsky said his own faith requires him to take action, however small, to protect the environment
“I don’t want to meet my maker and tell Him ‘I was kind of waiting for you to do the job’,” Kowalsky said.
“When God said ‘I asked you to take care of the poor. I asked you to take care of my creatures and my world. I gave you the brains and the heart and the hands to do all these things’ … I don’t want to be that guy.”