To Whom Much is Given
by Cynthia Scharf
I was raised Presbyterian and went to church with my family nearly every Sunday. For several years, the senior pastor of our church was a globally-minded preacher who challenged our congregation to respond more fully to the world’s suffering. He shaped my social consciousness more than anyone in my formative years. In my mind’s eye, I can still see a verse from the Bible taped onto our family's refrigerator. On it was a quote from Luke: "To whom much is given, much shall be required". In one way or another, I’ve carried that verse inside me to this day.
I have been given so very much in life, and in so many ways. One of those ways is through my work for the last several years on emergency humanitarian relief, and most recently on climate change. For eight years (2009-16), I worked for the then-head of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, on his top priority issue: climate change. The job was the opportunity – and the challenge -- of a life time. I’ve never worked harder, and never have I been so overwhelmed by the sheer scale and complexity of an issue.
During those eight years I met scores of courageous citizens, often working behind the scenes, to push for more action on climate change. From concerned mothers to scientists, from teen activists to rabbis, imams, pastors and the Pope, they came from a broad spectrum of nationalities, religions and political persuasions. I also encountered some less than courageous national leaders whose promises failed to materialize into tangible deeds.
At times, I felt quite depressed about the world I’m bequeathing to my daughter. Progress was elusive and very hard-won. I will never forget the strange mix of exhaustion and exhilaration that I, along with countless other people around the world, felt when than Paris Climate Change Agreement was adopted in December 2015 by 195 countries. I was at the Secretary-General’s side that night in Paris. We were not naïve. We knew the Paris Agreement would not be enough to halt runaway climate change. We knew it would be a long and very difficult road ahead. But it was a start – an essential, long-overdue, collective first step. At last. At long, long last.
My passion for working on climate change is personal as well as professional. As a mother, an American, and an aspiring Christian, I’ve struggled with the knowledge that the world I’m bequeathing to my child is one that will be shaped by an increasingly unstable climate that will cause suffering for her generation.
People often ask me if I have hope, given the work I do. My husband and I named our daughter Hope, so suffice to say it’s a stance, an attitude, I take very seriously. But for me, it somehow feels like the wrong question. Beyond hope, what I try to summon is courage and perseverance. And perhaps most of all, I turn to my faith -- the kind of faith described in Hebrews 11: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.”
For nearly a decade, I’ve listened to some of the world’s best minds talk about the climate crisis. I’ve heard many very sound, evidence-based arguments for why we need to act urgently. But clearly the message isn’t getting through. I’m convinced we need to go much deeper, beyond the rational arguments for action. We need to speak to people’s values and belief systems, and to their faith. Only then will we find the courage to respond to perhaps the greatest challenge humanity has ever encountered.
What does this mean? First, it means we need to speak honestly about the gravity of this challenge and not shy away from hard truths.
Let me be the first to say that I am definitely part of the problem. I am not a climate saint. I fly a great deal for my job. And while I try to limit my impact and consumption in other ways, at the end of the day, I’m very much a part of the fossil-fuel economy that will need to change radically if we are to diminish the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible climate impacts.
Americans are a generous people, often responding with great magnanimity when disaster strikes. None of us is intentionally seeking to do harm as a result of our modern lifestyle. But most of us don’t connect the dots between driving our cars and rising sea levels off the shores of Louisiana or Bangladesh.
At root, there is a profound disconnectbetween our actions and their consequences for our neighbors in this country, for other communities around the world, and for the planet. Far too often, we have seen nature as ours to exploit at will, instead of acting as its stewards. We have consumed without caution, as if to medicate some inner angst or fill some God-shaped vacuum in our hearts.
Two other hard truths: One, we’re passing on an enormous environmental debt to future generations, one that is incomparably more serious than any financial or government debt. And two, our global, fossil-fueled economy is causing significant harm right now for millions of the world’s poorest people. These are among the communities who have contributed the least to climate change, but are suffering first – and worst – from its impacts.
How do we speak truthfully about these issues, but not paralyze people and contribute to a sense of mass despair? I don’t have easy answers. But I think it begins with more looking in the mirror and less finger-pointing at others. It means holding our children closely and acknowledging that it’s up to us – to our generation – to do what we can, each according to his/her talents and abilities.
It’s also about letting ourselves feel – on a gut level -- the grief that comes with potentially losing something we love: a magisterial forest, a babbling stream, birds that greet us with their songs, a beloved natural landscape from our childhood. All this and more are being disfigured and diminished by one species - our own – as our actions contribute to levels of planetary warming that are dangerous to all species.
Protecting our natural heritage is one of the most sacred – and patriotic - acts we can undertake. We will need leaders of all ages, and from all walks of life, who can rouse us from our slumber. We will need poets, artists, musicians, writers, and filmmakers who can tap into our collective psyche and remind us of what it is we love, what is at stake, and what is worth fighting for.
Finally, we will need all the world’s faith communities to help lead the way, because they speak to why we are here… what it is we owe to others… to the creation, and to the One who created us. Together, we can summon the courage - and humility – needed to respond as Luke has called us to respond. “To whom much is given, much shall be required”.
Cynthia Scharf served as the head of strategic communications and chief speechwriter on climate change for the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon from 2009-2016. As a senior member of the Secretary-General’s Climate Change Support Team, Ms. Scharf played a key role in organizing two global UN climate change summits (2014 and 2009) and advised the Secretary-General during the UNFCCC negotiations, including the landmark Paris climate change agreement in 2015. Prior to her work on climate change, Ms. Scharf worked on global humanitarian and public health emergencies at the U.N. and with international non-governmental organizations in the Balkans, Africa, the U.K. and Russia.