Paris, Day 4: How Communities Can Use Faith and Storytelling to Inspire Climate Action

John Hill is using communication skills honed over 23 years of work in Washington, D.C., every day this week in Paris at COP21.

As Assistant General Secretary for Advocacy and Organizing at the United Methodist Church’s (UMC) Board of Church and Society, Hill works with an international UMC delegation that aims to tell the stories of those most affected by climate change, both to COP negotiators here in Paris and to policymakers and congregations in the U.S.. and elsewhere. His work is leading an innovative new path in connecting faith, climate and community action.

“For us, as people of faith,” says Hill, “climate is about stewardship, it is justice, it is about sustainability and sufficiency. We have an abundance that is entrusted to our care and we unfortunately have misused and ‘mis-distributed’ it unfairly over the years. For me and our delegation, it is simply a matter of justice.”

His team, which consists of UMC delegates from Liberia, Germany, and the Philippines, tracks the COP negotiations and reports on them every day to congregations and others back home. It also advocates greater support for the Loss and Damage mechanism (formalized at COP negotiations in Warsaw in 2013) by listening to and retelling—through meetings, YouTube, blogging, and other media—the stories of people who have contributed so little to climate change but are feeling the brunt of its affects so deeply.

Rosemary, from Uganda, for example, told Hill of her experiences working at a women’s co-op back home.

Because of the changing climate, said Hill, the seeds Rosemary and her fellow co-op members traditionally planted no longer grow in her community, and the rains come at a different time. “For me in Washington, D.C.,” says Hill, “if the rains come later it just means I pull out my umbrella later. But for Rosemary and her community it’s not a matter of convenience, it’s a matter of survival, of economic standing.”

Stories have changed the course of climate dialogue, as evidenced by Yeb Sano, who was lead climate negotiator for the Philippines at the 2013 COP talks in Warsaw. “Yes Sano took to the floor at the Warsaw COP,” says Hill, “and described how his father’s hometown, Tacloban, was being destroyed by Super Typhoon Haiyan.”

Yeb Sano’s deeply emotional appeal that day “really changed the conversation around the impacts of climate change,” says Hill, “and really challenged that set of negotiators to realize the irreversible harm that is happening today. As a result we have the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage, so the conversation really shifted.”

Is the storytelling landing on fertile ground with Hill’s work in Paris and D.C.?

“We are absolutely reaching elected officials, getting into the local press, making sure the voice is raised,” says Hill. “Members of Congress, elected officials at all levels, are listening to us, inviting us to meetings.”

One of Hill’s goals is to convince US policymakers to support the Green Climate Fund, one mechanism for US support to alleviate the suffering in countries affected most by climate change.

The U.S.. is very concerned that its climate aid “gets interpreted as compensation and liability,” says Hill, “that we are somehow ‘everyone’s FEMA.’ “

Instead, says Hill, the U.S.. government could learn from the Methodist Church, which, over the years, has shifted from a “missional mindset,” and from simply transferring funds overseas, to “a partnership, to building relationships and locally driven solutions.”

Does the American faith community have a special role to play in climate change solutions?

“The first thing we need to do is open our ears,” says Hill. “To listen to the voices from outside the United States. I know for me personally this helps change my perspective.”

We also need to “make a personal and public pledge” to climate solutions and to those suffering under climate change both at home and abroad, says Hill. “I feel a particular responsibility as an American to change my own patterns of consumption, to change my own use of earth’s resources, but also to ensure that the US delegation (here in Paris) and policymakers back home understand that we are connected to people around the world. And churches can model the justice we would like to see.”

Long days of back-to back meetings, of tracking tedious negotiations and finding just the right words to send an inspirational message back home can wear on someone even as tireless as Hill. But he draws inspiration from those whose stories he is telling.

Yeb Sano, for example, is no longer a formal climate negotiator for the Philippines, but is still at the forefront of climate action. Over the past months he led a group of pilgrims on a climate march from Rome to Paris for COP21, and Hill and others met him and his group at the Basilica of Saint Denis in Paris last weekend for prayer, reflection, and celebration.

“Just to hear the stories of folks who have been walking for months in support of climate…it’s hard for us to feel tired after long days of work and negotiations when there are folks committing to such a personal trek, such a long journey, and then also those folks who are feeling the impacts of climate change every day in their lives.”

These stories keep Hill and his colleagues inspired and hopeful in Paris, as the talks shift into high-level ministerial meetings during Week 2 of COP21. To find out more about effective ways to communicate about climate change, check out ecoAmerica’s new report: Let’s Talk Climate. Or, visit Path to Positive Communities to collaborate and learn from the successes of community leaders throughout the US. 

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