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Economist article celebrates religions' role in challenging climate change

September 24, 2014:

This timely article was published on The Economist's 'Erasmus' blog in advance of the UN Climate Summit 2014 in Washington DC.

Religion and climate change

Competing to save the earth

Sep 19th 2014, 16:26 by B.C.

WHEN heads of government from across the world convene in New York next week to consider ways of cooling the planet, a crescendo of religiously-inspired voices, as well as secular green rallying cries, will be resounding in their ears. During the 48 hours before the big meeting opens on September 23rd, two worthy inter-faith organisations—the World Council of Churches and Religions for Peace—will host a "summit" of their own, backed by 30 prominent faith leaders.

Meanwhile, it is hoped that millions of people of "faith and moral belief" from across the world will have signed up to an e-petition, our voices.net, which urges the world's political leaders to act boldly on climate change, both in New York and at next year's "make-or-break" session in Paris.

The petition, organised by the British pioneer of green investment, Tessa Tennant, has won backing from a series of "ambassadors" who are already familiar figures in the world of greenery  and religion. They include: Sally Bingham, a California-based Episcopal cleric whose energy-saving initiatives have drawn in 15,000 communities and parishes; Mary Evelyn Tucker, who runs the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale University; Seraphim Kykkotis, an Orthodox archbishop based in southern Africa; and Martin Palmer, secretary-general of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, which co-ordinates the environmental activities of a dozen faith groups round the world.

If this sounds like a "Pope is Catholic" story, it is nothing of the kind. Getting to the point where secular and religious players with the declared aim of "saving the planet" can appear on the same page—or website or e-petition—has been more difficult than usual in recent months. Perhaps harder than at any time since religions began to began to pay public attention to the physical fate of the earth, a quarter of a century ago.

To understand why, consider the surreal condescension with which Christiana Figueres, the UN bureaucrat who is steering the global climate negotiations, addressed the religions of the world, as recently as May. "Many forward-looking cities, progressive companies and concerned citizens are urging their governments to ink in a new climate agreement in 2015. It is time for faith groups and religious institutions to find their voice and set their moral compass on one of the great humanitarian issues of our time...." she declared, disclosing her (or her speech-writer's) lamentable ignorance of what religious leaders from the Dalai Lama to the Patriarch of Constantinople have been doing and saying since the early 1990s.

In fairness to Ms Figueres, she is equally lofty in the way she addresses everybody else, taking every opportunity to propagate her view that investors should simply withdraw all funds from the fossil fuel industry. That is certainly an opinion to which she is entitled as a concerned global citizen, but it is not clear how her job as executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change entitles her to lobby for the virtual destruction of a sector of the world economy which, whatever its misdeeds, will have a part to play in any rational approach to the planet's future.

Behind the scenes, say insiders, some hard but productive conversations have taken place between UN bureaucrats, the French organisers of next year's climate summit, and people whose labours for the good of the planet are inspired by faith. These conversations started against a heavy background. The disastrous outcome of an earlier "make-or-break" summit on climate change, in Copenhagen in 2009, has made all environmental campaigners, both spiritual and secular, wary of investing too much moral capital in a single diplomatic event. On the other hand, according to people familiar with the process, secular bureaucrats have realised recently that they need something other than endless statistics to galvanise the conscience of the world.

What the secular bureaucrats found to harder to grasp is the fact that religious groups hate being hauled in to "tick a box" or discharge some public duty as providers of moral education. Religions have their own distinctive world view, expressed through rites, stories and self-limiting rules, and their own understanding of time, space and utility. For many a religious person, "prayer" is not another sort of e-petition, but rather a state of mind or soul that involves walking humbly and cautiously before the Creator, something which is seen as desirable regardless of what the statistics may be saying. Moreover, you cannot have a dialogue with a religious person unless you have some respect for the integrity of that person's world-view.

Stilll, the good news is that there has apparently been learning on both sides. It would still be fanciful to talk of an emerging global consensus on the need to cool the world. But perhaps the mood will have changed by the time the Paris summit comes round in December 2015, whether or not humanity's mind has been concentrated by some fresh catastrophe.

Link to the original article.

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