Q & A with Sr. Joan Brown, on the way to COP21

Sr. Joan Brown, second from left, poses with her guests to the Champions of Change awards in June, Srs. Marlene Perrotte, Odile Coirier and Cathy Darcy. (Submitted photo)

Early Dec. 1, Franciscan Sr. Joan Brown, executive director of New Mexico Interfaith Power and Light and a regular Global Sisters Report contributor, boarded a plane to Paris for the United Nations' climate change summit. Brown, who was at the U.N.'s widely lamented climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009, will speak in Paris on behalf of both Interfaith Power and Light and Franciscans International.

Before leaving for France (and before an interfaith prayer service blessing her trip), Brown chatted with GSR about her hopes for the conference and the role that faith communities play in environmental advocacy.

GSR: So you're kind of wearing two hats in Paris — one for Interfaith Power and Light and one for Franciscans International. Can you explain how that works?

Brown: I am with Franciscans International as an official observer, so I'll be monitoring inside the conference and doing some presentations for Franciscans International outside the conference. Then the State Department asked Interfaith Power and Light if they would do a presentation on what faith communities are doing in the United States around climate change, and so I'm helping Interfaith Power and Light foundress and president Rev. Sally Bingham and [executive director] Susan Stephenson.

What do you plan to say in these presentations?

My parts will highlight some of the real, practical things that faith communities have been doing and will continue to do in order to push our leaders: putting faith into action through public policy advocacy for issues like cleaner energy, water conservation, education, energy efficiency, and local food. Faith communities see [climate change] as a huge issue, and our leaders need to be acting as if this is a moral, ethical and justice concern. So I'll be linking the practical — basically practical call to action, as the pope has been saying. Boots on the ground!

On Nov. 30, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reportedly told world leaders at the conference that this may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for them to act on climate change. Would you agree?

I would agree, because we're really coming down to the moment where we're going to act or we're not going to move with any action. All of the major religious traditions have put huge emphasis on the need to act: the pope's encyclical, Laudato Si'; the Dalai Lama's very strong statement calling for action within the Buddhist community; the Islamic Declaration on Climate Change. The evangelicals just came out with something a few weeks ago in the United States. I think all of these support what Ban Ki-moon is saying, that this is the moment that we must act. 

Participants in the Women’s Wilderness Camping Retreat, Santa Fe National Forest, summer 2015. (Provided photo)

What is your ideal outcome for the conference?

[Leaders] have put in their proposals of what they are going to do within their countries, so those commitments are already on the board. Now, it really is a matter of some strong accountability measures coming out of this meeting to make those real and viable.

The other element, which from my reading is going to be rather controversial, is the finances. The United States really needs to take responsibility as one of the chief polluters and assist our poor brothers and sisters with financial mechanisms to address adaptation and mitigation. I would like to see our brothers and sisters in "developing countries" — those suffering the most and with the least economic leeway — that their cries for justice be heard. I mean, that would be ideally what I would like to see happen. 

Why do you see climate change as a moral and ethical issue?

It comes from the basic message that's in all major traditions. It's worded differently, but it is to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. And who is our neighbor? Our neighbors are those next to me. They're the future generations, the children. They're brothers and sisters who are economically challenged. They are the refugees and immigrants who are being affected by climate change. And my neighbor is also, as St. Francis of Assisi would say, everyone and everything. All the elements, all of the creatures, the plants. What it really comes down to is: Am I following this basic command to put love into action?

You were in Copenhagen in 2009. Would you be in Paris this year if you weren't presenting?

Yes, I would be. This time, there's a much stronger religious interfaith presence than in the past, but there needs to be a presence. We work on this issue all the time, and it is an ethical and moral concern of our day. Many brothers and sisters are already suffering. So part of being there is just to say, 'Yes, this is very important, and we need to act on it.'

[Dawn Araujo-Hawkins is Global Sisters Report staff writer, based in Kansas City, Missouri. Follow her on Twitter: @dawn_cherie.]