Time’s up: Walking in pursuit of climate justice

Guest commentary by Alison Wood, written for the Presbyterian Outlook in the midst of the PC(USA) Walk for a Fossil-Free World from Louisville, Kentucky, to St. Louis where General Assembly will be held. 

We’re learning all kinds of things on the #walk2divest:

It takes us two hours to walk five miles, with a snack break in the middle.

Ten miles in a day is an easy goal; to finish 15 or more we have to push our pace a little.

As a group, we like flavored potato chips better than plain.

We learn that Casey often breaks out in dance, Ashley often breaks out in song and three people have broken out in poison ivy.

We learn how to identify poison ivy.

There are 14-25 of us on the Walk for a Fossil Free PCUSA at any given time. We are walking from Louisville to St Louis in preparation for the 223rdGeneral Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in pursuit of climate justice. The youngest walker has been 11, the oldest walker in their 70s. On the walk so far, we have collectively walked 164 miles: 10-17 miles a day for 11 days. That’s about eight hours of walking each day.

Within and around our days of walking, we are learning from climate change experts. We hear presentations from hurricane survivors, farmworkers, financial advisors, mission co-workers, climatology professors, small town activists and big city organizers. Night after night, each teaches us about their own particular area of expertise and their lived experience.

Via video, pastors from Indonesia and Zambia have shared how their congregations are enduring droughts and extreme weather. A paleoclimatology professor tells us about how we know what we know about climate, showing us beautiful multicolored graphs of projected devastation. A PC(USA) mission co-worker lists extractive industries and the metals that are hiding under Andean lakes. Sisters who survived Superstorm Sandy describe visiting the wreck of their home after the storm. Every night, a different story.

I am overwhelmed by the variety of people presenting to our group of walkers. The organizers of this event worked to prioritize the voices of frontline communities and people of color — so the faculty teaching us through these weeks is diverse in every possible way. The variety has shown me the vastness of this movement, the big picture that surrounds our feet on this ground as we walk. Across this movement, from a dozen countries and a dozen viewpoints, I hear one loud message: people are suffering from climate change now, today. Time is up.

If our teachers could, they would grab us by the shoulders and shake their urgency into us. Instead, they tell us their stories.

“The ocean and the river met in our house,” Iliana says, about the night Sandy flooded their house in Sea Bright, New Jersey.

“Those glaciers will be gone in 15 years. It’s too late, there’s nothing we can do about it. They’re just gone.” Jed Koball, a PC(USA) mission co-worker in Peru, is talking about glaciers in the Andes Mountains that for generations have supplied water for the farmers who live there, and for everyone downstream. He’s talking about glaciers that will be gone in 15 years, no matter what we do now.

Pastor Nadia from Indonesia looks through the camera into our eyes when she says, “Climate change is not waiting for you, it’s now.” The change is happening now. The hurt is happening now.

“We’re not going to mitigate ourselves out of this — the train has left the station.” David Robinson, New Jersey state climatologist and professor at Rutgers University shrugs his shoulders.

Just a few days later, we hear a strange echo from Peter Krull, co-founder of financial planning firm Earth Equity Advisors. Investments are shifting away from the “fossil fuel economy,” he says, “the train has left the station.”

I remember that classic geometry problem: If the train of climate change and the train of economic reinvestment have both left the station, traveling at the speed of human effort, what are the chances my sister’s kids will be able to live in Seattle without growing gills?

Geometry was never my best subject. Neither, actually, was environmental science. I don’t know the answer to the train problem, or to climate change.

It is too late to prevent climate change, too late to mitigate ill effects. That does not mean that we should give up. As long as we are willing to listen, we can learn. There are experts in the world who are willing to share their knowledge, and members of frontline communities who call us into action. This group will hear from more teachers during the rest of this walk, and continue to learn about adaptation to this runaway-train-reality. We will listen to all the people we can, and let their words fill our bodies with urgency.

The time for waiting has long ended; it’s time for walking. For my sister’s kids and our 11-year-old walker, and all the kids in all the places in the world already being impacted by climate change. With every step on this walk, we draw closer to St. Louis and the actions our church can take there. We are bringing stories from around the world, an urgent need for change and hope for the future – and everything else we can learn along the way.

ALISON WOOD is a queer, white, cisgender, U.S.-passport-holding, Presbyterian pastor’s kid who is working to take apart the cultures of domination alive in her subconscious and in the world. Her vocation is to hold space for people to show up as themselves; her paid work is to coordinate the Tucson Borderlands Young Adult Volunteer program, a ministry of the PC(USA).