Religious communities and climate change

Climate change will challenge everyone, the wealthy and the impoverished, the young and the old, and the devout and the secular. A topic that has too long been considered the exclusive realm of environmentalists and scientists is finding its way onto the agenda of the broader community, from neighbourhood associations to faith-based groups. In fact, climate change may be doing a lot to forge a greater dialogue around science within organized religion.

This is a truly powerful thing.  As religious communities come to understand that every institution is affected by climate change, no matter how small or far their reach, they can act as a very influential mobilizing force. Most estimates report about 80% of humanity as following a religion, which speaks volumes about the positive impacts these groups could have to move forward progressive climate change policies, as well as reduce their own footprint. Too exclusively, international negotiations have placed their hopes with our political governments to successfully negotiate an agreement around climate change, with very limited success. From national governments concerned with the effects on their overall territory and security, to municipal governments examining their food systems and water supply, climate change is often discussed, if only in the backroom. It’s rare, however, that these same governments seek to engage other leadership in their attempt to adapt and mitigate climate change, although this is starting to change. Last year, under the auspices of the United Nation’s, faith leaders convened at Windsor Castle to discuss ways religion could promote sustainable behaviour. Hopefully, this is the start of a trend, where leaders of various communities take charge of the issue of climate change, filling the void left by our political leadership. Just as importantly this can send a very clear message to that same leadership, when such large and united constituencies express such grave concern. Religions are powerful allies. Holding large investments and integral to education systems across the world, they are often able to speak from a position of authority and trust, and as such need to be integrated into broadcasting the impacts of climate change.

For many faith leaders the motivations are very clear. Often religions have humanitarian concerns that extend beyond their religious membership, and they recognize how the impacts of climate change will only amplify our current humanitarian crises. Many faiths that view the Earth as their “God’s creation,” and see our abuse of natural ecosystems and polluting of the world as being tantamount to a sin. For many, there is also the realization of how this will impact the human lives that they shepherd. With so many displaced, and the resource conflicts that may arise, there should be serious concern about the breakdown of the communities which are so often integral to religions. Being faithful, so often about trying to lead a good life, is made so much harder under the strain of climate change, as after all, it is harder to be virtuous in a world of scarce food.  Importantly, religious organizations have a unique perspective. Not preoccupied with electoral cycles and party politics, they are able to take a very long view of the world, thinking in much greater time spans than our domestic politics about the course of human civilization. With this view, it is no wonder that they are very scared of how climate change will affect the billions of lives that religion is so deeply a part of.

Climate change extends beyond differences in faith, and it seems that the religious community’s consensus does too. This is very important in showing our governments that the issue of climate change extends beyond any particular segment of society, beyond the youth and the environmentalists; that it affects humanity in its entirety and diversity, and needs to be responded to in such equal measure. In addressing the impacts of climate change, we need to use whatever social capital we have to motivate action, and with the participation of faith based groups, civil society is buttressed by long-standing social institutions. Truly climate change should engage every level of leadership, and in doing so, it’s my hope that we can create positive change, and come COP16 this November, motivate action on the part of our governments to cooperate and recognize the faith placed in them.

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