Sunrise, Photo Credit: Aly Tharp

Now that we have all had time to process this year’s GA, I thought it would be useful to share thoughts on the experience some weeks later. I decided to volunteer this year with UUMFE because I am passionate about environmental work and demanding attention from large organizations on the topic. This was my very first UUA General Assembly, and I aided UUMFE administrator Sabrina Louise in leading a series of Zoom meetings titled “The Daily Conversation”, in which videos from climate speakers were shown and participants were encouraged to have their own dialogue after the fact. Because this was my first GA, I was only recently introduced to the concept of AIWs, or Actions of Immediate Witness, and the annual voting system to decide the top three for the UUA to focus on. The one that interested me the most, Code Red for Humanity, only lost by one vote to be highlighted this year. This led me to reach out to its creator, Cindy Piester, who is a political organizer and activist for peace and climate justice. My interview with her is detailed below.

Q: Cindy, how would you reflect on your personal involvement with UUMFE and the UUA?

Thank you, Vandana and thank you to UUMFE for giving me this opportunity.

Life is a journey, and UU principles have always been central to my life. My relationship with the UUA, UUMFE, and other UU organizations deepened in 2019 when I participated in the amazing Create Climate Justice: Building a Movement for a Green New Deal Conference in D.C. It had been collaboratively organized with UUJEC and UUSJ and other UU partners. As a lifetime activist and organizer, I was deeply impressed by every aspect of the conference. Basav Sen set the tone boldly calling for a Green New Deal to address, not just climate change, but the social and economic inequalities that are built into our system.

Over the course of that multiple day event Pablo, Aly, Lavona, Doris and many, many, others made valuable and memorable contributions. In a democracy affirming action of no small consequence. The conference concluded with a day of lobbying as UUs fanned out across the Capital delivering hundreds of letters from UU Church members calling for climate justice. Many of us stayed after the conference to risk arrest as we blocked D.C. streets and demanded urgent climate action as part of DC’s first youth led Fridays for Future protest. That very significant event should be considered a model as we continue to deal with this climate emergency.

With a burning passion to increase awareness of the military impacts on the climate crisis and the urgent need to mitigate climate, I joined the Board of the Unitarian Universalists for a Just Economic Community (UUJEC). I am also a member of the UU Climate Justice Coordinating Team and I appreciate the opportunity to work with and amplify the climate justice efforts that we are all making.

The range of climate work done by UUs is impressive. It includes the Green Sanctuary Movement, avoidance of any organizational investments in fossil fuels, the efforts of the UUSC in assisting climate refugees, the incredible efforts of our member organizations to act locally and the wide-ranging efforts of the UU at the UN. But even with all of this we see emissions continue to soar and temperatures continue to rise. I do not see how we can meet the goal of the Paris Agreement without addressing military emission because scientists have told us they are around 6% of the annual global total. As public awareness of the impacts of those emissions on climate has increased it has served to bring peace and environmental organizations together as never before, but time is short and we must continue to act.

Q: Can you describe your work with Veterans for Peace (VFP)?

Yes. Well, Vandana, it really has a lot to do with my personal history, I was born the day my nation bombed Hiroshima. That had a devastating impact on me when I was old enough to read John Hershey’s Hiroshima, I couldn’t really understand how adults had allowed such a lethal weapon to be used against ordinary people killing children like me. Little did I know that in the future an entire generation of young people would be looking at my generation with a similar question, “How did we let climate change get THIS bad?”

As a nation, the bulk of our discretionary taxes go to fund the Department of Defense and we have been at war almost constantly since our earliest years as a nation. We have been focusing on a war-based conception of national security rather than prioritizing true national security. We cannot put an end to the climate crisis with bombs, in fact they worsen it. Diplomacy, negotiations and collaborative efforts must be prioritized as never before.

The opinions of US veterans as to their service differ, but the veterans that I work with tend to cringe when thanked for their service. How many Americans are aware that four times the number of veterans killed in post 9/11 wars have died as a result of suicide as have been killed in the wars? Many of today’s veterans don’t want to be thanked as much as they want to be heard. When will we really listen to what they have to say? Veterans For Peace provides a platform for some of those voices. Just recently, VFP members were arrested in Washington DC demanding urgent climate action.

My family has served in this nation’s wars going back to the American Revolution. My father was reliving the horrors of war on his death bed, and my husband returned from Vietnam with severe post traumatic stress and exposure to Agent Orange. He lived with the horror of that war all his life. War should always be the last resort.

Instead, the United States has continually aggressed against International Law to send our troops off to kill or be killed in illegal asymmetrical resource wars based on lies. There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but that fabricated lie worked. The nation of Iraq was largely annihilated while their oil reserves quickly came under the control of Big Oil. The war in Afghanistan was utterly tragic. These wars (and the militarization that they are rooted in) not only result in tremendous suffering and loss of life, but in the destruction of infrastructure and natural environments. As I mentioned earlier, Scientists for Social Responsibility are telling us that global military emissions contribute around 6% of global emissions annually.

I’m a founding member of Veterans For Peace’s Climate Crisis and Militarism Project (VFP CCMP). I serve as the Outreach Director. One of my first undertakings was to build national and international support for of a bold letter to US Climate Envoy John Kerry asking him to center climate policy around the Department of Defense’s military emissions that are not be being adequately tracked or reported.

Most recently I submitted a VFP resolution on reporting DoD and NATO emissions to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This resolution will be voted on by the VFP membership beginning later this month. It was immediately endorsed by Daniel Ellsberg and others. *Beacon Books published all of Daniel’s Pentagon Papers 51 years ago. The release of the Pentagon Papers is widely credited with ending the Vietnam War as the papers revealed devastating secrets and lies about the war that had been kept from the public.

Q: Are military emissions your main focus in the climate space?

At this moment, yes. Vandana, I have strong reasons for doing this. Actually my home church, UUCV. gave me my first opportunity to speak on this subject in 2018. I am forever grateful to them for that. The story about militarism, wars, and climate is a huge one with many, many, facets.

Operating on the basis of military exceptionalism and primacy, as far back as the Kyoto Accords in 1997, military emissions reporting to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was exempted. This was accomplished as the result of U.S. pressure. Currently, these emissions are only voluntarily reported and when nations do report them they are typically severely under-reported. The tracking and reporting of military emissions are fundamentally flawed at every level
including at the level of the UNFCCC, itself.

Despite the efforts of the US Department of Defense to reduce emissions and green the military, it remains the world’s largest institutional user of fossil fuels and the world’s largest institutional contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. At a time when we are beginning to pass critical climate tipping points, we must ask ourselves if this is this how we want to use our last bit of fossil fuels?

Q: How did you feel upon learning that your proposed Action of Immediate Witness, CODE RED for Humanity, only lost by one vote to be an AIW focused on at this year’s UUGA?

Thank you for this question, Vandana. I am glad to respond to it. The AIWs that passed addressed women’s rights to choose, reparations, and ensuring that Medicare not be privatized. All of them are all critically important issues, supported by UU delegates. This very narrow difference resulted in a statistical tie, and the Commission on Social Witness tried to be as fair as
possible. They were, however, locked into protocols that made advancing this AIW for a GA vote nearly impossible. We are continuing, though, to try to build support for it so that it can advance of next year’s GA vote.

That effort centers largely on outreach to UU member congregations with information and educational opportunities so that they will be ready next year. Because the urgency is so important many may want to get engaged beyond that as well. So much depends on our immediate action.

It was a devastating loss for me, not personally, but for all of us because of the tremendous urgency of the rapidly advancing existential threat of the climate emergency and the tipping points that are already happening.

The IPCC’s sixth assessment report could not be more clear; global emissions MUST peak by 2025, at the latest, in order to meet the goal of limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial times. The issue at stake really is the urgency of unprecedented action, so my disappointment in this AIW not moving forward was not personal but out of deep concern that delayed actions would come at great cost to all of us and to humanity in general.

For decades the stunning extinction of species around us has been mind boggling. We are already living with unbearable rises in temperatures, extreme weather events, droughts, unprecedented fires raging across millions of acres of forests, rising sea levels, and the advancing social costs as water and food scarcity take hold and particularly impact vulnerable frontline ecosystems and communities.

Our lack of action is a near term death sentence for those of island nations. Recent heat waves have hit Europe, Asia, and Africa. Africa is especially vulnerable as it does not have the resources to either adapt or mitigate climate impacts that it did not contribute to.

Inevitably, without urgent action, those who inherit this planet from us will be the ones to face the worst outcomes of our failures. The climate emergency is the most devastating issue of intergenerational injustice in the history of humanity. I pray that we will find the will to act together to now to prevent this. Military emissions play a huge role in this.

If anyone out there is interested in working with me towards energizing those in your area of influence, of energizing your congregations or communities, please contact me. A 16 minute video presentation on the AIW is here. Congregations can easily educate themselves by arranging to see one of VFP Climate Crisis and Militarism Project’s slideshows or I can offer one on the AIW itself if there is interest. There is much to be done, the climate emergency is NOW.

Thank you UUMFE and Vandana for giving me the opportunity. The climate crisis is not going way, if you see any opportunities for us to work together in the future, please do not hesitate to contact me. So much is at stake.

Cindy Piester 

UU Church of Ventura (CA)

Unitarian Universalists for a Just Economic Community, Board Member

UU Climate Justice Coordination Team

Veterans For Peace Climate Crisis and Militarism Steering Committee, Outreach

Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, International Environmental Working Group