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If climate change is the defining challenge for human society, preserving tropical forests is essential - and faith can help
I grew up as the minister’s daughter in a Baptist church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a college town in the southern US. I witnessed first-hand how organized and energized faith communities took on the cause of racial justice in the early 1960s, as church leaders and lay members pushed to integrate the public school system, restaurants, and even the University of North Carolina basketball team.
Fifty years on, climate change has emerged as the defining challenge for human society around the globe, and conservation of the world’s tropical forests is essential to stabilizing the atmosphere. Standing forests provide safe-keeping for the carbon embodied in leaves, branches, trunks, roots, and soil.
Forests are also the only technology for carbon capture and storage to date that is safe, natural, proven, and cheap. Tropical forests alone capture 1.4 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, almost as much as the combined emissions from France, Germany, and the United Kingdom in 2015.
And just like in my youth, religious communities are now mobilizing the faithful, helping world leaders include forest conservation—and the rights of indigenous peoples, stewards of these forests—in climate change strategies. The most well known statement was issued two years ago when Pope Francis published his encyclical, Laudato Si. This widely quoted thesis singled out tropical deforestation early and often as a threat to many values of importance to the world’s religions.
But the Pope is not alone in his advocacy. He is joined by clergy and lay people from many faiths, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism, all of which share messages of respect and stewardship for the natural world, as well as a moral obligation to help the poor. Over the last 30 years, these leaders have participated in a growing movement to focus religious attention on environmental challenges, leading to a summit in June that formally launched an Interfaith Rainforest Initiative.
Appreciation for the wonder and beauty of nature is a thread that weaves across a wide variety of religious traditions. “For the Beauty of the Earth” was a hymn sung frequently in the worship services of my childhood in praise and thanks for Creation. Tropical forests harbor some two-thirds of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity, ranging from the charismatic megafauna of jaguars and gorillas to the astonishing variety of flowering plants.
In many human cultures, spiritual traditions are inextricably bound up with nature, with forests figuring prominently in creation narratives from all parts of the world. Among the participants in the Oslo meeting are indigenous leaders from the Amazon, Congo Basin, and Southeast Asia. Indigenous communities are the de facto stewards of much of the world’s remaining forested areas, even if their rights to these forests often remain unrecognized.
But in addition to their spiritual values, intact forests provide a wealth of wild products and environmental services that nurture and sustain human communities from local to global scales. Households that live in and around forests in developing countries derive, on average, more than one-fifth of their incomes from forest products such as fuelwood, honey, and wild fruits. And recent research reveals that forests generate the rainfall that maintains agricultural productivity in landscapes thousands of miles from the forest edge.
Faith leaders care especially about the connections between access to forest goods and services and amelioration of poverty and injustice. Dorothy Stang, the American-born nun murdered in the Brazilian Amazon in 2005, is one of many people of faith who have been martyred for standing up to the loggers, ranchers, and other agents of deforestation that destroy the forest-based livelihoods of the rural poor.
And among these injustices, climate change now looms as the largest. An increasingly unstable climate will worsen poverty and inequality, both within and between nations. Exposure to just one severe tropical storm—of the sort expected to become more frequent and severe with climate change—can knock a country off its path of economic growth for decades.
For poor households—without financial assets, sturdy housing, insurance, or access to medical services—the droughts, floods, fires, and pestilence that accompany a warming planet are beginning to look apocalyptic. To cite just one example, the 2015 fires in Indonesia—fueled by damaged forests and peatlands—are estimated to have caused some 100,000 premature deaths.
Achieving the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement and limiting the scope of global warming is hard to imagine without forests. Currently, emissions from deforestation are a major cause of climate change, accounting for more annual emissions than those from all sources in the European Union. And the role forests play, in removing carbon from the atmosphere, is critical; they buy the world time to achieve the deep, dramatic cuts in fossil fuel use needed to slow global warming.
When I get discouraged about the possibility of achieving the Paris goals I remember my childhood, when my father started his ministry in Chapel Hill. At that time, racial segregation was the norm and Coach Dean Smith’s recruitment of UNC’s first African American basketball player was a breakthrough. Today, my father’s church, where Coach Smith found support and encouragement, now has an “Earth Ministry” and solar panels on its roof.
Agents of change inspired by religious conviction are again taking the lead. People of faith are bound to follow.
Frances Seymour is a distinguished senior fellow at World Resources Institute. She is the lead author of the book, Why Forests? Why Now? The Science, Economics, and Politics of Tropical Forests and Climate Change and the former Director General of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).