Pittsburgh, URI and the Paris Climate Accord

2 June 2017

People form a message of hope and peace with their bodies in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France, December 6, 2015. (Photo: Benoit Tessier/ Reuters)

Anticipating the signing of the Charter of the United Religions Initiative in June 2000, the question arose as to what city in the world would be the most appropriate for the occasion. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was chosen. Why? Because it is the city of bridges, bridges over the Monongahela River, the Allegheny River and the Ohio River, all of which run through the city. “URI is a bridge building organization” stated the first words of URI’s 21 principles. So why not begin in Pittsburgh?

In June 2017, the President of the United States, declared, “I was elected to represent citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” as he pulled this country out of the Paris Climate Accord. To me, this message felt like the bridges of Pittsburgh collapsed and a moat was being dug.

What URI aspired to in 2000 was, in broad outline, not much different than the Paris Climate Accord. The purpose of the United Religions Initiative was “…to create cultures of peace, justice and healing for the Earth and all living beings.” What we were attempting to do was go to all of the nations of the world and invite people of competing religions, tribes and cultures to unite in order “to heal and protect the Earth.” We looked for volunteers from all faith traditions, and so far, we have built bridges of cooperation in 101 countries.

As with politics, there are deep strains in religion for one group or another to see the world from an insular perspective. “It is all about us; forget about the rest of the world” is the dominant view. On the other hand, there are also people in politics and religion who see that, for the sake of entire world, responsible actions have to be taken. Accords must be entered into and distant people have to live up to a large vision. What is crucial is that we hold to the large vision and never surrender it regardless of who is in power. That is what URI is about and what the Paris Climate Accord is about.

When I was a young boy in the 1940’s, I went to Pittsburgh where my father was in a hospital. Without a doubt, it was the most polluted city I had ever seen. Soot everywhere; dirt from steel mills filled the air, the eyes and the lungs! But in 2000, when I went to Pittsburgh for the signing of the URI charter, I experienced a clean, vibrant and prosperous Pittsburgh. What had happened? When the steel industry abated, the folks of that city figured out that they could both “heal and protect the Earth” and make money at the same time. The bridges held.

Yes, the President of the United States was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh. But I have a URI conviction that he has a lot to learn from these citizens. The game isn’t over yet.