Faith groups in unprecedented push for climate action

Religious leaders have put their spiritual weight behind action to curb climate change, says Martin Palmer of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation
<p>(Image by&nbsp;Pete Souza /&nbsp;Official White House Photo)</p>

(Image by Pete Souza / Official White House Photo)

You don’t often get a prophecy coming from the United Nations (UN). It is an organisation more associated with data and weighty documents, peace-keeping troops and bureaucracy. But in 2009 one of its senior staff made a prophecy – at least that is what we call such statements in the world of religions.

Olav Kjorven, then a UN Development Programme (UNDP) Assistant Secretary General, said just before the disastrous Copenhagen climate change Conference of Parties (COP) that if “the world’s faiths joined together in this cause [climate change] – if viewed in terms of sheer numbers of people – it could become the planet’s largest civil society movement for change”.

That was in 2009 just after he had co-chaired with Ban Ki-moon and the UK’s Duke of Edinburgh (who is married to Britain’s Queen) a joint UNDP and Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) celebration of over 30 long-term plans by major faiths dedicated to environmental action.

Six years later, as we head towards another momentous climate change summit this time in Paris, Kjorven’s prophecy is en route to being fulfilled. The rise of religious action and commitment on environmental issues is now the dominant feature of civil society’s response to these crises in many countries. It parallels the action and commitments of environmental organisations but reaches a greater audience.

This is not a new element of religious activity. As far back as 1991, the World Council of Churches linking over 300 Protestant, Lutheran, Anglican and Orthodox traditions, launched a global warming programme with its members. This was because Christians from the Pacific islands had come to the General Assembly in Canberra and told stories of how their islands were drowning.

In 2000, the faiths were present at the Amsterdam COP for the first time in significant numbers following commitments on climate issues arising from a WWF/ARC meeting in Kathmandu, Nepal celebrating faith called “Sacred Gifts for a Living Planet”.  However, Faiths have played a fringe role at climate summits for many years  but this year something greater is happening.

The temptation in the past was for worthy organisations to try and get religious leaders from all the major faiths to sign a common statement calling for action. Frankly, these have been a waste of time for two reasons. First, such statements mean nothing to anyone because in order for them to be signed, everyone has to abandon anything that really means something.

For example, the name of Christ, references to the Qur’an, talk of karma or reincarnation, in favour of a bland statement that can cause no concern to anyone and, therefore, is of no interest to anyone.  Second, many of the people signing have not done anything themselves to protect nature or cut carbon emissions.

This has changed. While there are a fewer such statements emerging, the new religious movement on climate change has taken dramatically different routes to Paris.

First, Faiths have over the last decade undertaken audits of what they own, buy, invest in, run and control – from buildings, through schools, to investments and land. They now come as committed partners making their own changes in order to show what Faith means in action not just words.

For example, the Anglican diocese of London has reduced its carbon emissions by 20% and is en route to fulfil its goal of 40% cuts by 2020 compared with 2005  – way ahead of any national commitment. In the US, the Interfaith Power and Light movement is helping thousands of religious communities to cut their emissions, again way ahead of any national commitment. Guides for Hindu temples, Sikh gurdwaras, mosques and synagogues exist around the world helping Faith communities make the right choices in terms of, not just energy use, but also sustainable land use, agriculture and purchasing.

Second, Faith-based commitments are being developed, not only founded upon real action and targets, but also building on the strengths of faiths from their own internal networks.

In August, a significant faith-centric statement came from an astonishing network of Islamic organisations at the International Islamic Climate Change Symposium in Istanbul, which was hosted by Islamic Relief Wordwide – a major Islamic development agency.  The statement, grounded deeply in Qur’anic studies, Shariah law and Islamic tradition, as well as science, marks the first ever truly international Islamic declaration and called upon “oil producing states” to “lead the way in phasing out their greenhouse gas emissions as early as possible and no later than the middle of the century”.

This declaration was the fruit of many years of patient work by Islamic environmental groups led by the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Science (IFEES). While it primarily represented activist groups, rather than powerhouses, such as Islamic states, it was the largest such gathering and most coherent declaration on environmental issues in Islamic history.

Eastern religions

On a quieter, but nevertheless significant, level was the release of Buddhist and Hindu declarations in October and November. Again, never before have these Faiths called together such a wide spread of leaders and made such explicit statements. The Hindu declaration draws profoundly upon core Hindu texts and teachings within the context of our current crisis and hasgarnered support from a remarkable array of faith leaders. It is perhaps indicative of the open nature of much of Hinduism that it invites others from outside the Faith to support its goals to add their signatures.

The Buddhist declaration marks a significant moment in the religion’s engagement with climate change and the other environmental concerns. Buddhism has run many religious environmental projects world wide from one of the earliest The Buddhist Perception of Nature launched in Thailand in the early 1980’s through to major government supported initiatives in Mongolia. But the declaration is the first collective venture of its kind in Buddhism and its potential for real change cannot be over estimated.

Challenges raised by the failure at Copenhagen in 2009 have given rise to new movements within the Faiths. A good example of this is Eco-Sikh with a hands-on approach and a sense of climate issues being part of a bigger religious picture.


Worldwide, many churches, Jewish organisations and other Faith bodies have made statements as well as ensured that they are deeply engaged. For example, the Southern African Faiths Communities Environmental Institute (SAFCEI) has led interfaith initiatives ranging from law cases against polluters through festivals of Creation to lobbying the COP. In the US, GreenFaith has led initiatives on energy efficiency and audits. It has also played a leading role in mobilising Faith groups to attend major climate marches and demonstrations, such as in late September at the UN General Assembly.

Another interesting initiative has been Ourvoices ,which has also mobilised people to join marches and organize pilgrimages. This is perhaps less powerful now due to the ban on any such march or pilgrimage in Paris itself as a result of the recent terrorist attacks. A distinctive feature of Ourvoices is its focus on prayer and on holding in prayer and thought the outcomes of Paris and those involved in the negotiations. This is faith drawing upon its own strengths and beliefs, as well as a sense of reflection often sadly missing in more secular approaches to these issues.

Pope’s encyclical

Interestingly, the Buddhist declaration references the Pope’s milestone of religious concern for ecology,  June’s Papal Encyclical “Laudato si”. This was a historic first for the Catholic Church in terms of an Encyclical – the most authoritative teaching of the church – on ecology, which has become a standard bearer for other Faiths to go deeply into their own traditions and come out ready to engage. It is often referred to as a climate change encyclical – in fact, it is much broader than that and puts climate change within a wider social, ecological and human perspective.

And that is the third route. For the faiths, climate change is not THE problem. It is a symptom of a problem that is human greed, manifest in consumerism, in the dominance of certain kinds of economics and in the attitude that we are apart from nature not a part of nature.

It was this greater understanding that lay behind President Hollande of France asking ARC, R20 and French publishers Bayard to co-host with him the Summit of Conscience. The summit invited Faith leaders and artists to come together with politicians in July to ask everyone in Paris to answer one simple question ‘Why do I care?’ The week after the Paris bombings, President Hollande wrote to every world leader attending the opening of the COP on 30 November asking them to answer the same question – a question answered by hundreds of religious leaders worldwide.

Ultimately, climate change will only effectively be controlled or dealt with by a wider change of values, which lead to lifestyle changes – in essence a simpler lifestyle. It will only be addressed through the influence of groups, such as the Faiths, when we remember that this planet is not here for us but for the whole of Creation, Nature – call it what you will. In the end, unless we restore a right relationship with every living element of this fragile gift of a planet, no number of marches, petitions or worthy organisations will make much of a difference.