Religion gets behind fight against climate change

November 2, 2009
Agence France-Presse

PARIS—Leaders from nine major faiths meet at Windsor Castle on Tuesday in an exceptional initiative that supporters predict will harness the power of religion in the fight against climate change.

The ecumenical gathering at the home of Queen Elizabeth II, 22 miles west of London, is being co-staged by the United Nations and Prince Philip’s Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC).

Representatives from Baha’ism, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Shintoism, Sikhism, and Taoism will unveil programs that “could motivate the largest civil society movement the world has ever seen,” said U.N. Assistant Secretary General Olav Kjorven.

U.N. Chief Ban Ki-moon will launch the event under the banner “Faith Commitments for a Living Planet.”

“We expect to send a strong signal from religion to governments that we are extremely committed. It’s about religions mobilizing their followers to act against climate change,” Kjorven told AFP in an interview.

Eighty-five percent of humanity follow a religion, a figure that shows the power of faith to move billions, he pointed out.

In addition, faith-based groups own nearly 8 percent of habitable land on Earth, operate dozens of media groups and more than half the world’s schools, and control 7 percent of financial investments worth trillions, according to ARC.

“But the problem is deeper than economics and money, it’s much more about the moral idea [of] ‘Nature is God’s Nature, so we have to be kind to it,’” said Victoria Finlay, ARC’s director of communication.

“Global warming and its impacts cannot be looked at just as a material problem. The root causes are spiritual,” agreed Stuart Scott, whose Interfaith Declaration on Climate Change—calling for the “stewardship and reverence for creation”—has been endorsed by dozens of major religious organizations.

In July, some 200 Muslim leaders gathered in Istanbul to forge a seven-year climate change action plan.

One of the measures adopted was the creation of a “Muslim eco-label” for goods and services ranging from printings of the Koran to organized pilgrimages.

“We don’t want to distance ourselves from governments, we are all in the same boat,” said Mahmoud Akef, who led the initiative. “If we devastate the planet, we’ll have no place else to live.”

Sikhs who feed some 30 million people in need every day in their temples in India are poised to revamp their kitchens to make them “eco-friendly,” and China’s Taoist temples are going solar.

“Religions cross boundaries and don’t have to deal with issues of finance, of sovereignty, of intellectual property on technology”—all issues bedeviling U.N. climate talks, said Jessica Haller, director of the Jewish Climate Campaign.

American environmentalist Bill McKibben, the founder of grassroots climate group, has identified two wellsprings for the worldwide tsunami of support for his web-based cause: educated youth and faith-based groups. organized a day of “global action” on Saturday, Oct. 24 of more than 5,000 mainly small-scale climate-awareness events around the world.

“If Earth is in some way a museum of divine intent, it’s pretty horrible to be defacing all that creation,” McKibben, an author who is active in the Methodist Church, said.

“And if, in Christianity and other faiths, we are called upon above all else to love God and love our neighbors, drowning your neighbor in Bangladesh is a pretty bad way to go about it,” he added.

Scientists warn that unabated global warming will likely cause ocean levels to rise at least 3.25 feet by century’s end, enough to wreak havoc in high-populated low-lying deltas, especially in South, Southeast and East Asia.

For Peter Newell, a professor at the University of East Anglia in England who had tracked climate activism for more than a decade, religion has the traction to haul a truly global movement.

“It would be a huge mobilizing force if people started to frame the issue of climate change in religious terms,” noted Newell.