As the COP28 climate conference gets underway in Dubai, Chattanoogans gathered Sunday evening to hold a candlelight vigil calling for leaders to do more to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
"We are running out of time," said Dan Joranko of Tennessee Interfaith Power and Light, which helped organize the event at nightfall outside the Hunter Museum of American Art.
Sandra Kurtz, of the group's Tennessee chapter, said different religious groups share a common moral concern when it comes to pollution, extreme weather and displacement of people around the world.
Joranko told the gathering that 2023 is set to be the hottest year on record. He warned of increased wildfires, drought and rising sea levels that could reshape the world for generations to come.
He called the Chattanooga climate plan, which his group has been helping map out along with others such as the Sierra Club and Sunrise Chattanooga, the best in Tennessee. The plan is a nonbinding strategy to promote green jobs, boost alternative transit and reduce the city's carbon footprint as the city seeks to de-carbonize by 2050.
After Joranko spoke, Caroline Archer, of the First-Centenary United Methodist Church, led the group in song. Then Bassam Issa, of the Islamic Society of Greater Chattanooga, read passages from the Quran that emphasized the perfect balance of the Earth. He also discussed the climate effect of Israel's bombing campaign in Gaza.
That gave way to more song.
"It will take a change of heart for this to mend. But miracles do happen every shining now and then," Archer sang.
Then the 20-something people in attendance lit candles and lined up in silence on either side of the footbridge heading toward Cherry Street.
For a few minutes, their candles flickered and illuminated their faces. Cars roared in the distance and at one point passersby went between them on scooters.
Then Dixie Riall of the Sierra Club took the microphone and broke the silence.
"We pray," Riall said, "that love and wisdom might inspire my actions and our actions as communities so that we may, with integrity, look into the eyes of brothers and sisters and of all things and truthfully say we are doing our part to care for them and the future of the children."
A conservative activist group called Save Chattanooga has emerged, sparked by concerns about surveillance and personal freedom that they say arise from the Chattanooga plan. City officials added a preamble to the plan that expressly states it will do nothing to impair privacy or personal freedoms.
Kurtz, of the Chattanooga Interfaith Power and Light chapter, said she has had a hard time getting conservative Christians to care about climate change. Surveys have found that many believe the fate of the climate is in the capable hands of God -- and brush off the climate science indicating human carbon emissions have dramatically altered the global ecosystem.
"For people who think that God is going to take care of everything, the answer to that is, 'God works through people,'" Kurtz said in a phone interview before the Sunday event. "It's time to fulfill your obligation to care for the Earth."
Kurtz said Chattanooga-area entities have made headway reducing emissions but should do more.
"TVA is dragging its feet about putting in renewable," she said, in reference to the Tennessee Valley Authority's plans to build new natural gas infrastructure even as it moves to shut down its coal-fired plants.
Some research has found that natural gas, when it leaks, can produce emissions at just as harmful a rate as coal.
By phone, Tennessee Valley Authority spokesperson Scott Fiedler said the major power producer is working to add as much solar energy as possible, but for now, he said, gas is the only mature technology that can reliably provide electricity to the millions of people of the Tennessee valley.
"We want to be as green as everybody else," he said. "We're on the same side of the coin. It's just the question of how fast, what and how much are people willing to pay for?"