Meet the Activists Who Walked Over 900 Miles to the UN Climate Talks

By Yessenia Funes on at

Joanna Sustento lost her parents, oldest brother, sister-in-law, and 3-year-old nephew to Super Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. More than 6,000 others died, too. That storm was her first real taste of what climate change would look like for her people in the Philippines.

Since then, she’s become an active voice in seeking justice for communities that will be forced to deal with the worst climate impacts, despite having played little to no role in the crisis. This year, she joined Catholic advocacy groups at the 24th Conference of the Parties (COP) in Katowice, Poland.

She didn’t fly there, though. Sustento walked.

She and about 15 other Catholic activists embarked on a climate pilgrimage that began at the Vatican on October 24. They walked past mountains and into cities, eventually making their way through Poland’s coal country. They saw homes that burn coal for heat. Sustento was “shocked” by the thick smog, she said.

Sixty-five days and more than 900 miles later, the group arrived at the conference December 7. Some didn’t take part in the entire walk—Susteno, for instance, joined in the Czech Republic, the last leg of the passage. Many others walked all the way from Vatican City and through five other countries before arriving in Poland.

Why? To tell stories like Sustento’s and to inform the world about how climate change is fuelling disasters and impacting people around the world. Throughout the pilgrimage, the group stopped in community centres and churches to share how they personally have been impacted by climate change and why others should care. They also brought this message to the conference itself, attending speeches and panels and giving interviews. Really, though, the destination wasn’t COP; it was the hearts and minds of those they met on their way there.

“Protecting our common home is our responsibility regardless of religion or belief,” Sustento said to Gizmodo in an email. “You do not need to be Catholic to care for your neighbours. You only need to have a heart.”

The crew stands before a coal plant in Velenje, Slovenia. Photo: Albert Lozada

You may not have to be Catholic to care, but the Catholic church has certainly been more outspoken about climate change since 2015 when Pope Francis published Laudato Si, his encyclical all about humanity’s impact on the environment. We’ve seen nuns speak out against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Catholic reverends, priests, and more nuns sent Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke a letter in March telling him to quit pushing for more offshore drilling. Then there are groups who have been committed to the international climate negotiation process way before the Pope even spoke up on climate change—like CIDSE, an international alliance of Catholic agencies that focus on development issues.

CIDSE’s been participating in the COP negotiations since 2008, using the forum to hold press conferences and meet with government representatives. As Valentina Pavarotti, the communications director for CIDSE, explained to Earther, the group is committed to climate justice, a topic that has taken center stage during this year’s COP from island nations to frontline protesters. Some of the group’s members took part in this year’s pilgrimage, too.

“We want to bring the voice, especially of the most vulnerable populations and the poor, to COP,” Pavarotti told Earther. “We want to make sure that aspects like human rights, indigenous rights, gender equality, just transition—issues missing from the mainstream discussions at COP—we want to make sure they are included.”

The injustice of climate change is what pushes Jane Mellett to act. She’s another one of the climate pilgrims who is a parish pasture worker for the Dublin Archdiocese in Ireland. She joined the crew in Italy, so she walked most of the way. She said climate justice is important to Catholics because “we firmly believe that any state of injustice is not acceptable, and this is a matter of fairness.”

She points to those like Sustento who walked alongside her.

“The richest countries in the world are at the root of the climate crisis, yet it’s the poorest countries in the world that suffer the most—for example, the Philippines,” Mellett told Earther. “For us as Christians, love of neighbour requires us to act when our brothers or sisters are suffering.”

She had never been to a COP before, but she still managed to wrangle a quick meeting with the Irish minister for the environment, she said. She shared some of the stories about Super Typhoon Haiyan with him. “They’re so caught up in the policy-making and numbers that the human story gets lost,” Mellett said.

Sustento feels she needs to continue sharing her story with people like Mellett. After all, this story isn’t only hers. It’s her community’s. And she inspired all types of people along her pilgrimage, she said. Talking to them was a highlight, but she also loved the walking, especially among the forests on paths paved with golden leaves.

Even at the end of the journey when they finally arrived in Katowice and Sustento literally couldn’t walk anymore, a fellow pilgrim carried her on her back. Like that moment, saving the world from climate change will require teamwork, cooperation, and a sense of humour.

Here, the group heads to Comacchio, Italy, but the journey never really ends, does it? Photo: Albert Lozada

Featured image: Albert Lozada