The burning issue that’s uniting all faiths

by Gretchen Castle | Friends World Committee for Consultation
Wednesday, 16 November 2016 14:58 GMT

Pope Francis arrives to lead his weekly general audience in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican, February 10, 2016. REUTERS/Max Rossi

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As the world faces climate change and other unprecedented pressures, faith can help guide action

These are extraordinary times, in need of us to be a little less ordinary, a little less afraid and a little more courageous, because the lives of our future generations are at stake.

We are facing a number of ‘unprecedented’ events occurring in human history.  The unprecedented rate of global mean surface temperature rise.  The unprecedented rate of species extinction.  Unprecedented warming and acidification of the oceans, chemical pollution and land degradation. 

These crises are interconnected throughout human behavior; what we do to heal one in turn helps heal the other.  We can close our eyes, for the news is exhausting if not disempowering, and think, ‘What can I possibly do?’ Or we can stare our children in the eye and say that we acted when we knew.

We can be strengthened by a language which transcends national interests and economic ideologies. Faith has the language which speaks of hope over fear, compassion over indifference.  At a time when religion is used daily to justify violence, this is also a time when voices from faith communities worldwide are seeing urgent and fair action to limit our human impact on this earth as a moral obligation. 

Their shared compassion for the most vulnerable is witness to those already struggling to adapt to the consequences of environmental degradation.  Their shared language questions desires for limitless growth and power, and calls for a right relationship with one another, the earth and all living beings.  

Last week a high-level Interfaith Statement was presented to leaders at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Marrakesh. Today, it was received by the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. It is the second such Statement on climate change in 2016, the first of which was presented in April 2016 at the signing ceremony of the Paris Agreement in New York.

The statement expresses its ‘profound gratitude’ for the Paris Agreement, a remarkable and an ambitious framework for action.  Yet success is not guaranteed, as the Agreement lacks legally binding targets for greenhouse gas emission reduction and financial (and other forms of) support.  The Agreement’s effectiveness in guiding humanity from global catastrophic climate change is highly dependent on political will and trust.  

Responding to this vulnerability, faith voices have defined specific actions as critical to an effective and fair agreement. The high level signatories are from the Buddhist and Engaged Buddhists, Muslim, Hindu, Jains, Baha’i, Sikh, Indigenous spiritual leaders, Brahma Kumaris, Jewish and Christian communities - including Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Episcopal, Baptist, United Church of Canada, Franciscans, Dominicans, Benedictine, Jesuit, Carmelite, Church of Scotland, Church of Norway, Church of Sweden, the Salvation Army, Pentecostal, Lutheran, Quaker, United Church of Christ, and Unitarian Universalist.  

Many of these faith communities have been at the forefront of action to divest from fossil fuels.  Recognizing that the combustion of fossil fuels accounts for a majority of current greenhouse gas anthropogenic emissions, divestment action is based on the belief that it is immoral to profit from our children’s destruction. 

With this personal and communal witness, faith voices are calling for a continued collective shift by sovereign wealth funds and private sector funds away from fossil fuels and into renewables and other climate mitigation and adaptation actions.

The Faith Statement also asks countries to pursue the Agreement’s temperature goal by urgently decreasing emissions to allow a chance to limit a global temperature rise at 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. 

At a time when 1.6 trillion dollars was spent on military expenditure last year alone, the statement strongly requests a change in priorities – to increase financial flows and technology transfers instead; to end energy poverty with renewable energy; to support adaptation and loss and damage for already irreversible effects.  It asks countries to ensure the Agreement’s commitment to respect and protect human rights, the rights of indigenous peoples, gender equality, a just transition, food security, intergenerational equity and the integrity of ecosystems, when taking action to address climate change. 

Finally, the statement asks for stricter environmental protection and controls on dispute mechanisms in trade agreements, so that government actions to curb emissions can be effective.

This is a turning point in human history.  We have the knowledge of what is happening and why.  We seek wisdom in our own lives, in our national and international policies, to transform our human behavior which feeds these planetary crises.  We can be thankful for recent and positive ‘unprecedented’ events: unprecedented collations of climate science as witness to the world; the unprecedented speed with which the Paris Agreement on Climate Change was ratified; the unprecedented level of human rights language in an environmental treaty.  

But this work has just begun.  As I write, the climate has warmed nearly 1 degree Celsius in some 150 years, compared to about 1 degree Celsius.  Our current greenhouse gas emission levels remain on track to increase temperatures another 3 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.  We cannot experience this rate of change without massive suffering to our and other species.  Suffering that can be avoided with urgent and fair action.  

We still have time, but not much time.  This is an urgent call to our conscience to act  and collective ability to make change happen.

Gretchen Castle is secretary general of the Friends World Committee for Consultation’s World Office.