When we envision the solution to climate change, we expect it to come from a negotiating table — not a place of worship. But religion is emerging as an influential force in the climate movement.
It makes sense. The reverence for nature and for creation are basic tenets of almost every major religion, and estimates say over 85% of the world's population subscribes to some faith.
Activists at the secular Alliance of Religions and Conservation and the United Nations Development Program believe this massive demographic — people of faith with an environmental conscience — has the potential to make a considerable impact in the global effort to curb climate change.
That's why they're helping world religions take the reins by designing five- to nine-year plans of action to address climate change.
"The world's faiths joined together in this cause — if viewed in terms of sheer numbers of people — could become the planet's largest civil society movement for change," UNDP Assistant Secretary-General Olav Kjorven said when ARC's initiative launched.
Using guidelines provided by ARC, most of the world's major religions — including the Baha'i, Buddhist, Christian, Daoist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Shinto, and Sikh — have drafted strategies for sustainability during the past year. Called "Plans for Generational Change," the climate-action roadmaps will be officially launched in November at a celebration hosted by ARC and UNDP at Windsor Castle.
"The fact that the majority of the world's faiths ascribe the creation of the world to an all-powerful deity implies that the leaders and followers of each faith have a moral responsibility for the continued well-being of our planet, and particularly for its natural environment," said ARC founder Prince Phillip in a preface to the ARC's seven-year plan guide.
Not all the plans strictly follow ARC's suggested 7-year model; several religions have tailored their environmental programs to align with sacred time periods within their faiths. The Daoists, for instance, last year became the first faith group to establish a seven-year sustainability plan, though they adapted it into an eight-year plan to incorporate what Daoists believe is a more auspicious number. Similarly, Jewish climate activists designed their Climate Change Campaign to coincide with the Jewish calendar's seven-year shmita cycle from 2008-2015. Sikhs dedicated the 300-year Cycle of Creation beginning in 1999 to nature. (In the shorter term, there's the five-year EcoSikh plan outlining a course of action for the Sikh community in response to climate change.)
But though their time frames vary, most of the action plans contain similar structural categories, based on ARC's seven recommended components. The categories — such as "faith-consistent use of assets," "education and young people," and "media and advocacy" — have been adapted by world religions into frameworks consistent with faith-specific teachings and practices. The plans lay out concrete objectives within these frameworks, and also represent broad commitments to combat climate change in key areas that can be translated into actions by individual faith groups.
Faith-based environmental organizations and religious NGOs around the world have led the effort to develop and disseminate climate action plans for each religion.
The Jewish seven-year plan released this April was spearheaded by the New York-based Hazon, along with an international network of partner organizations in Israel and the UK. The five-year Sikh plan was drafted by the Sikh Council on Religion and Education. The UK Earth-Mate Dialogue Center designed a seven-year plan for Islam.
The organizations hope to involve all levels of the faith structure in sustainability campaigns, from national faith groups to local churches, synagogues and mosques to individual followers. The Jewish Climate Change Campaign, for instance, aims to establish a "green team" working on sustainability in every Jewish temple and community organization by 2015. The Jewish climate pledge web site launched last month has gathered over 400 individual signers — a following that Hazon hopes to expand after its major social media campaign launches the week of Oct. 16.
A coalition of evangelical, Catholic, Protestant and Jewish groups just launched another campaign, Day Six, urging people to pressure Congress to get serious about stopping climate change.
Religion can circumvent the obstacles blocking international climate negotiations by attacking the problem from an entirely different angle, explained Jessica Haller, Hazon's volunteer director for the Jewish Climate Campaign.
"Religions cross boundaries, and we represent the same amount of people in the world as countries do. Religions don't have to deal with issues of finances, of sovereignty, of who's giving money to whom. We don't deal with issues of intellectual property on technology, or anything else that's slowing down negotiations in Copenhagen. We just deal with the fact that this is a moral issue we have to address," she said.
Across the faiths, seven-year plan organizers hope to leverage religious belief as a force to motivate more sustainable actions, especially by highlighting the connection between being environmentally conscious and being a person of faith.
"Really what we're saying is that sustainable actions are a part of what Jews do. They celebrate Sabbath, they remain kosher, and all of that stuff has in it an environmental sensibility. As a Jew, it already is core to who you are," Haller said.
Similar language can be found in the EcoSikh plan, which declares that "our connection to the environment is an integral part of our identity as Sikhs."
The authors of Islam's seven-year plan write:
"Qur'an calls for the preservation of nature, the enjoyment of its beauty and the prevention of distortion of the earth. Islam not only asks humanity to take responsibility to protect and conserve the environment, it also invites mankind to respect, cherish and enjoy nature."
Religions command vast resources, making them powerful players to complement the nation-based strategies being hammered out in Copenhagen. According to ARC, religions "own some five percent of forests, are connected to more than half of all schools, own and manage most of the world's tourist destinations ... and control some seven percent of all financial investments."
Religions also have the benefit of history when tackling the world's current problems. In a speech to Daoist planners last year, ARC secretary general Martin Palmer said the world's oldest religions stand in a unique position to effect environmental change by galvanizing their followers into action.
"It is about drawing on your wisdom of the past two to three thousand years and asking whether, within the next seven to eight years, we can begin to make a real difference. A difference that will last for the next two to three thousand years. No other group but you can do this," he said.