Central to the work of the LSE Faith Centre is the understanding that religious faith is not a compartmentalised aspect of an individual’s life but instead informs a worldview that continually shapes a person’s behaviour and actions. As responding to climate change assumed unprecedented global urgency in 2019, it seemed timely to acknowledge and explore how religious actors can play their part in mobilising climate action. To this end the inaugural Faith and Climate Action programme was launched. Eliana Abdo reviews the programme and the examples of faith-based responses to the climate crisis presented by LSE students.
‘Until recently, scientists have often framed climate change in terms of the future, but for many people on this planet, this ‘future’ has already arrived. The human and financial costs of climate-related flooding are already much higher, longer-lasting and far-reaching than we thought’, writes Preethi Nallu of the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) agencies, when discussing the financial costs of extreme climate events.
While there are still a few loud people who think that the climate crisis is an exaggeration perpetrated by a significant number of scientists, or an excuse for children to skip school, we are actually facing an almost universal acceptance in the scientific community when it comes to the severity of the major issue of our generation.
A landmark report issued by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in October 2018 states that without “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society,” our world will exceed a 1.5°C rise much sooner than we think, significantly increasing the likelihood of floods, heatwaves and droughts.
In the wave of the IPCC report and other studies, 11,000 scientists from 153 countries have issued a statement in the magazine BioScience setting out the true face of the climate crisis, while calling out the political inertia on the matter and asking for tailored changes. This is the scientific article with the biggest number of endorsements ever published and it builds on the idea that ‘it is a moral obligation for scientists to warn humanity about any existential threat, such as the climate crisis’. The commitment of these scientists resembles a manifesto, a promise. Despite the climate deniers, naysayers and those who criticize campaigners and environmentalists, Prof William Ripple, of Oregon State University and lead author of the statement, has publicly admitted that the scientific community is actually encouraged by the growing international movement asking for real change when it comes to tackling the climate emergency.
But what are people doing? What are some recent and inspiring projects that are being promoted to actually affect change?
On 26 September the United Nations announced the winners of the ‘Global Climate Action Awards’. The prizes celebrate the most efficient initiatives fighting the current climate crisis, and as Niclas Svenningsen of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Secretariat suggests, ‘giving a public recognition to projects and people who are using their innovative thinking and leadership to really create change is of extreme importance’.
Over 670 projects were presented, and among the 15 winners we find Impossible Foods, a company proposing plant-based substitutes to meat-based products. Their most famous invention, The Impossible Burger, is now served in over 17,000 restaurants including the likes of Burger King, and its popularity looks set to grow.
Other awards went to Infosys, the second biggest informatic corporation in India, thanks to their commitment to end their carbon emissions, and to Beyond the Grid Fund for Zambia, a Swedish fund which provides results-based financing to companies willing to enter into the Zambian market in order to offer clean off-grid energy. After two years of operation they were able to provide clean energy access to over 750,000 people across the country.
While these are just some of the incredibly inspiring actions undertaken by individuals or businesses to shape real change, over the past term the LSE Faith Centre has been exploring how faith can contribute to the climate conversation through our new student programme Faith and Climate Action. The world’s religions, while grounded in foundational beliefs and practices, have never been static. They have always both effected change and been affected by change in response to intellectual, political, social and economic forces. We started to wonder what faith groups have already been doing to respond to the environmental crisis and, with our students, we found the following.
Tzu Chi Foundation is an international Buddhist humanitarian NGO with special consultative status at the United Nations Economic and Social Council, and has conducted efforts in environmental protection since 1990. A leader in recycling, it enhances environmental protection by offering facilities and guidance for civil communities to practice and implement a sustainable lifestyle. Tzu Chi links the global issue to questions of individual lifestyle and ethics and its work is helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
EcoSikh connects Sikh values, beliefs, and institutions combatting climate change. This DC-based environmental organisation is now co-ordinating with volunteers and environmental specialists to plant 1,820 forests around the world, including in the UK.
The Italian Buddhist Union has decided to donate a significant part of the funds they have raised in the past few years to environmental causes, such as a project to clean up toxic waste in southern Italian sites.
A Rocha Kenya, a Christian conservation organization, is working tirelessly in the Malindi-Watamu area to achieve the long-term conservation of threatened habitats and species. They do so using the funds generated from eco-tourism to provide secondary school eco-bursaries to local children, teaching them actions for the conservation of the region. They also provide livelihood projects like better farming methods that are not detrimental for the land. They have also established a biodiversity research and monitoring programme, building up knowledge that is vital for managing and protecting threatened habitats.
In regards to sustainable agricultural practices, Global One, a UK-founded organisation seeking to develop sustainable solutions using Islam as a source of inspiration, is also training local farmers in Kenya and Nigeria. They deliver courses on sustainable farming skills, teach about environmental degradation and its risks, and build new infrastructure that may be needed to support green agriculture.
If religious organisations are not usually at the forefront of digital technology, Catholic environmentalist and cartographer Molly Burhans is working to change that. Molly is the founder of GoodLands, a US-based non-profit organisation that aims “to help Catholic communities around the world use their property for good.” While the Catholic Church is one of the world’s largest landowners, very little land inventory has been done. GoodLands believes that the Church must understand the potential of landscapes and their roles in our lives, since landscape management offers some of the most effective ways to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. GoodLands has also recently produced a video showing how global warming will affect Catholic dioceses, especially when it comes to displacement and famine. One of the purposes of this kind of data imaging is to allow church leaders to prepare for life under intense heat waves. Combined with other data, such as the availability of lands in nearby areas that are less affected, church leaders can plan ahead of potential disasters.
Other faith-based organisations that have embarked on a ‘green’ journey are Mitzvah Day International, an annual day of Jewish-based social action, which has dedicated its 2019 theme to tackling climate change and helping the environment, and The Bhumi Project, a global Hindu platform and network which over the past ten years has established itself as the leading international Hindu voice on global environmental concerns, training young Hindu climate leaders, issuing the Hindu Declaration on Climate Change, and organising multiple interfaith events around this crucial issue.
These are just some of the numerous religiously-inspired initiatives we were able to identify that are concentrating their efforts on fighting global warming and the current ecological crisis. In a time of darkening environmental prospects, the historically unprecedented rise of religious environmentalism is a profound source of hope and we dare to say that the future of the environmental movement will not look as secular as we once thought it would.
Note: As part of this programme the LSE Faith Centre commissioned a series of theological contributions on Faith and the Environment which can be viewed here.
Note: This piece gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the LSE Religion and Global Society blog, nor of the London School of Economics.