Keeping the eco-faith

January 25, 2010
By James Catford
The Washington Post

Copenhagen, just over one month ago, was a success - both for myself and the Bible Society in the UK. I'm not referring to the climate conference itself with its disappointing political outcomes. What I refer to is the success of those who made their voices heard in the build-up to the conference.

These voices, weighed in media coverage and discussions, were effective in pricking a global conscience with an urgent need for collective responsibility. They triumphantly raised the profile of the dangers greenhouse gases pose to our planet and livelihoods by allowing easy access to information on climate change. It was these voices, from the third sector -- public services, scientists, schools and faiths -- that began to have an impact on my attitude towards the environment and the subsequent actions of Bible Society to help keep the collective conscience awake to protecting the earth.

One month before Copenhagen's Climate Conference, faith leaders from around the world gathered in Windsor, UK, at an Alliance of Religions and Conservation summit attended by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, to celebrate how faiths can continue to make a positive impact on the environment. Thirty commitments were signed by nine faiths, proving the steadfastness of the faithful in the run up to the political decisions due to be made at COP15.

Around this time, my colleagues and I began to re-address the Biblical scriptures that care for the earth. Engaged with the relevance of the scriptures to creation care and curbing climate change, we began an exciting journey to sharing ways in which the scriptures - Biblical, Jewish and Islamic, can inspire practical steps to protecting the environment. These scriptures now appear on an interactive resource on faith and climate change that unites all faith climate organisations and opens dialogue for its members in a friendly network to share best practice and celebrate our collective responsibility.

The science of manmade climate change has often been called into question. The rise in aviation emissions by those who attended the Copenhagen Conference only aided a sense of hypocrisy or scientific disbelief from those of us who read about it from afar. Immediately following COP15, a Bible Society poll conducted on Faithbook - an interfaith social networking page on Facebook - showed 47% of the faithful feel that religious leaders should fly less to set an example and reflect the ecological beliefs of their faiths. Last week, in response to Copenhagen and the results of the poll (in which 63% also believe that religions have not yet done enough to tackle climate change), Bible Society hosted, via the new online network, the world's fist virtual dialogue, or "no fly summit", on faith and climate change.

The No Fly Summit on Faith and Climate Change, I hope, opens a bright green door for interfaith dialogue. The summit attracted speakers from all over the world: Jerusalem, Switzerland, Kenya, UK and the Caribbean - they needed only log in at home. Using cutting-edge video chat room technology, the speakers were able to talk to each other, via the network Faith Climate Connect, about the scriptures, Copenhagen and practical next steps. Speakers included the founder of the Jewish Climate Initiative, Rabbi Michael Kagan; the Environmental Adviser to the Archbishops' Council of the Church of England, David Shreeve; the African representative in the World Council of Churches Committee for Climate Questions, Prof Jess Mugambi; Dr Denise Thompson; and, Rabbi Awaham Soetendorp one of the leaders of the Earth Charter. The "No Fly Summit" brought them together for a technological first, for they were watched on a huge screen by an audience in London and people from all over the world could log into the network at home and post questions to the speakers.

The outcome was very positive and, for me, it marks a promising start of practical progress for faith communities following Copenhagen. I hope both the dialogue and the network help to keep up the momentum of those voices that were heard prior to the conference. The virtual dialogue was certainly proof that people of faith are not distracted by the disappointment of COP15. Each of the speakers made reference to ways in which God makes it very clear in the scriptures, that we should be responsible stewards of the earth and all agreed that care for the environment is a religious duty, not just a question of faith and scriptures.

This viewpoint is also echoed by 7 out of 10 people in the Faithbook poll, who say that caring for the planet is not just supported by faiths and scriptures: it is a religious duty. Reassuringly, in the face of disappointment following COP15, two-thirds of people also believe that their faith and scriptures have a greater influence on their environmental actions and beliefs than science or government policy.

I take great comfort from both the poll results and the fact that, with its launch last week, the online network Faith Climate Connect has already attracted over 100 members from across 21 countries. It shows what an impact people of faith can have in the climate change debate and how we can tackle it together as a collective. If governments and political leaders won't take the lead, then the faith community must. As the virtual dialogue made clear, God tells us to take care of His planet. At the end of the creation story in Genesis it says: 'God saw all that He had made and it was good'. It's a beautiful world and I, for one, want it to stay that way. I have faith that I'm not alone in finding the best way to look after it.

James Catford is Chief Executive of the Bible Society (formally British and Foreign Bible Society) and has been in post since 2002. Previously, Catford was Publishing Director for Hodder Headline and later HarperCollins.