For religions, climate change is both a threat and an opportunity

Published by Giles Goddard on Tue, 27 Sep 2016 11:48
Vicar's Blog

Basking in London’s hottest September since 1911, a quick glance at news images of torrential rains in other parts of the country was a salient reminder of climate change in action. Freak temperatures, flash floods and monsoon-style downpours are now annual occurrences in the UK. Today even the most ardent climate sceptic would accept that global warming is producing an increase in extreme weather incidents.

Governments are staggering slowly towards combatting climate risk. But what about religious institutions? With over 2 billion Christians, 1.6 billion Muslims, 1 billion Hindus and about 500 million Buddhists around the globe, one might reasonably expect voices from the faithful to emerge on the issue. But with the exception of Pope Francis’s powerful speech on the Whitehouse lawn last September, such voices have been notable for their reticence.

This is changing. Last July, the Church of England’s General Synod voted to stop investing in two of the most polluting fossil fuels—tar sands oil and thermal coal. Among forward-thinking groups such as Operation Noah and the Green Christian, “ecotheology” is a new buzzword. And across the country, grassroots faith-based organisations are springing up. In Birmingham, EcoIslam tirelessly produces books, conferences and workshops demonstrating the link between environmental action and Qu’ranic belief.

Publications like Dr Husna Ahmad’s “The Green Guide for Hajj”, plant the idea among the faithful that religious pilgrimage can be a chance to opt for sustainable travel and to ditch the plastic bottles. People across the religious spectrum are waking up. Amid the gathering clouds of greenhouses gases I detect a small ray of hope. For what threatens every one of us can also bring us together, and urgently too.

We held our first Interfaith Climate Symposium on Wednesday 21st September. Sir David King, Bishop Nicholas Holtam, Dr Ahmad and George Marshall were the keynote speakers. You can read the presentations here. It was a very successful and encouraging event. I was struck by how quickly outward differences can fall away when an alien danger threatens to engulf everyone, regardless of creed or colour.

Our speakers, from Bishop Nicholas Holtam to Rabbi Natan Levy and Maiya Rahman of Islamic Relief, may consult different scriptures, but when it comes to stopping temperatures rising above 2 degrees C, all of us speak with one voice. A real sense of urgency has emanated from our assorted array of dog collars, hijabs and kippahs.

Such opportunities do not come around very often. On the contrary, “interfaith dialogue” tends to be clumsy, halting and mired in political correctness. It sounds like a bit of a chore and it quite often is. The prospect of a dangerously shifting climate, by contrast, focuses the mind and provokes genuine exchange. If your mosque can reduce its carbon footprint by 20% over 12 months, how did you do it, and can the rest of us do the same?

One organisation that has been quick to spot the chance for interfaith action on the environment is the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC). This secular body, headquartered in Bath, develops environmental programmes across the different faiths. Its work ranges from helping Cambodian monks to protect local forests to assisting churches like St John’s Waterloo, to produce a “Sacred Spaces” Festival next June.

Perhaps the most striking moment for me, at the Interfaith Symposium, was the moment when Dr Ahmad called Rabbi Natan Levy and me forward, and held our hands aloft, saying, 'I need my brothers here with me. [I need them] to be my voice, to fight for my right to practice my religion, for my right to wear the hijab and to care for my sons and daughters and granddaughters - as they would care for their own. Why do I ask for this at an evening about climate change?' she asked, her voice now shaking with emotion. 'Because only when we think as one humanity can we save this planet.'

In that moment, all our intellectual constructs about what constitutes “God” were set aside. We are no longer a gathering of different faiths and dogmas. We are simply members of the muddled human species, pooling our hopes and prayers in a moving show of unity. We are saying; climate change is real, let’s work together to protect ourselves—and our habitat.

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