Religious leaders are united in their call for action on climate change and environmental justice for all, adding considerable weight to the global campaign for world leaders to reach an agreement on climate change in Paris later this year. But can their moral and ethical compass really influence the direction of travel? John Barwise investigates.

“To cause climate change and degrade the integrity of the Earth is a sin against God.” These are the words of His Holiness, Archbishop Bartholomew, echoed by Pope Francis in his “Care for our common home” encyclical, published in June this year.

The Pope’s encyclical is one of a growing number of declarations and statements from religious leaders calling on world governments to work together to combat climate change and to do much more to tackle poverty caused by a global economic system that exploits and degrades the natural environment with apparent impunity.

Economic and social costs

In an uncompromising 180-page message to the world, the Pope criticises the “weak international political response” to climate change and says businesses need to consider “the economic and social costs of using up shared environmental resources” as an ethical business responsibility. The letter also calls on humanity to “recognise the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this [global] warming.”

Commenting on his website, veteran environment campaigner Jonathon Porritt described the Pontiff’s intervention as “a significant moment” that has attracted global media attention. “This is of course the first ever encyclical written not just for Catholics but for the entire human population, which undoubtedly extends its reach,” he wrote.

The Church of England, which recently divested £12 million of its fossil fuel holdings, has added its voice to the climate change debate, and endorsed the World Bank’s call for the ending of fossil fuel subsidies and for more investment in renewable energy.

A motion passed by the General Synod in August recognises that climate change disproportionately affects the poor and welcomes “the convergence of ecumenical partners and faith communities in demanding that the nations of the world urgently seek to limit the global rise in average temperatures to a maximum of 2°C.”

Muslim leaders have joined the debate arguing that, from an Islamic perspective, the pursuit of happiness is about “living lightly on earth.” The Islamic Climate Change Declaration, published in August, calls on Muslims across the world to recognise their “religious duty” to play their part in combating climate change.

Speaking ahead of the Declaration, Shaban Ramadhan Mubaje, the Grand Mufti of Uganda, said: “Islam teaches us man is simply a steward holding whatever is on earth in trust,” adding: “Man should ensure that we do everything possible to protect this and future generations in order to leave this world a better place than we found it.”

Mohamed Adow, Christian Aid’s Senior Climate Change Advisor, said: “Coming on the heels of the Pope’s encyclical it is great to see Christians and Muslims uniting to tackle a common enemy.”

Senegalese imam Youssoupha Sarr calls for a more radical approach, urging the Islamic community to wage a green jihad against pollution. “Any form of pollution or aggression towards the environment is a sin and clearly forbidden. People need to be reminded of this,” he said recently.

A unifying theme

The collective influence of Islam and Christianity shouldn’t be underestimated. According to the latest survey from the Pew Research Centre, over 60% of the world's population will be Christian or Muslim by 2050: 29.7% will be Muslim and 31.4% will be Christian.

A recent poll In the Catholic Herald suggests that a third of Catholics would be likely to alter their lifestyle choices in line with Pope Francis’s statement on climate change. Seven out of 10 Catholics also expressed concern that the world’s poorest people are being impacted by climate change, and more than three quarters (76%) say they feel a moral obligation as Catholics to protect these people.

The unprecedented international media attention on Muslim and Christian declarations on climate change and environmental justice has brought to light the teachings from other world religions that share common concerns.

The Lambeth Declaration on Climate Change signed this June by representatives from the Muslim, Sikh and Jewish communities as well as the Catholic Church, Methodist Conference and other faiths, calls on all faith communities to: “develop the spiritual and theological resources that will strengthen us individually and together in our care of the earth, each other and future generations.”

A recent Buddhist Declaration on climate change says the scientific consensus is overwhelming, and challenges world leaders to act now or face the consequences. “If political leaders are unable to recognise the urgency of our global crisis, or are unwilling to put the long-term good of humankind above the short-term benefit of fossil-fuel corporations, we may need to challenge them with sustained campaigns of citizen action,” the declaration says.

Inspired by Pope Francis’s encyclical, over 300 Rabbis signed a rabbinic letter calling for action to prevent worsening climate disruption and to seek “eco-social justice”. “We believe it is important for the spiritual leadership of the Jewish people to speak to the Jewish people as a whole and to the world on this deep crisis in the history of the human species and of many other life-forms on our planet.”

The Hindu tradition recognises that man is not separate from nature. The Hindu Declaration on Climate Change says: “we are linked by spiritual, psychological and physical bonds with the elements around us.” Writing for the Hindu Press, Dhaisha Patel quotes Mahatma Gandhi: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world,” and says Hindus should “take the lead in Earth-friendly living, personal frugality, lower power consumption, alternative energy, sustainable food production and vegetarianism”.

Religious dissent

The collective engagement and concern of religious leaders over climate change and environmental degradation introduces a spiritual dimension that deserves to be heard. Yet their intervention has not been without criticism, often from those within their own faith.

Commenting on the encyclical, Bishop Peter Forster, Bishop of Chester, said: “Pope Francis should certainly be commended for his desire to deal with poverty in the developing world, but it is hard to see how he hopes to do so without economic growth and fossil fuels, both of which he thinks are unnecessary evils.”

Republican US presidential candidate and devout Catholic, Jeb Bush, was equally critical of the Pope’s encyclical: “I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope,” said Mr Bush. “I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm,” he added.

Some climate change sceptics claim that at best global warming is a myth, or worse, a form of religious cult — an offshoot of environmentalism-as-a-religion. The Yale Climate Connections forum analysed a number of leading media articles where commentators repeatedly used the phrase “global-warming-as-a-religion” (GWAR), in their editorials. The results, according to the Yale study, suggest that “calling global warming a ‘religion’ effectively neutralises appeals to the scientific consensus.”

Environmental stewardship

Faith leaders place a strong emphasis on “stewardship” and not “ownership” of the earth, and argue that the needs of future generations must not be compromised by this generation’s unsustainable exploitation of the earth’s resources.

From an Islamic perspective the root cause of climate change is the absence or lack of human stewardship. An interpretation of the Holy Quran Verse 6:165 states; “God it is Who appointed you stewards upon the earth and raised some of you by degrees above others, that He may try you in that which He has given you.”

Salman Zafar, founder of the EcoMENA journal, told Croner: “The Islamic principles on environmental sustainability, as mentioned in the Holy Quran, state that ‘the privilege to exploit natural resources was given to mankind on a guardianship basis (stewardship)’.”

Pope Francis’s encyclical says our “dominion” should be understood as a sense of responsible stewardship. He refers to the Eucharist as: “a source of light and motivation for our concerns for the environment, directing us to be stewards of all creation”.

Preserving natural resources and generating new ones for future generations is an argument presented in the journal Reform Judaism. Referring to the Book of Isaiah, the journal argues that we are the Earth’s stewards and says that the Earth is: “a loan from God and we should work to preserve it”.

Environmental justice

A common concern running through all the religious declarations is that climate change and environmental degradation create social injustice and suffering for the many because of what the Pope refers to as the “self-centred” greed of the few.

The millennium Ecosystem Assessment, published by WWF, shows clearly that a degraded environment affects poorer communities the most. The livelihoods of an estimated one billion people depend directly on natural resources and local ecosystems for their food and water. Damage to the environment, polluted soil and a lack of fresh water leads to more hunger, illness and poverty, according to the WWF. Illegal logging and fishing deprives local communities of local resources and robs governments of revenues that could support them.

The Pope describes Saint Francis of Assisi as his “inspiration” on matters of ecology and communities and what binds them. “Today, we have to realise that a true ecological approach always becomes a so¬cial approach; it must integrate questions of jus¬tice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor,” he writes.

Social justice sits alongside environmental stewardship as a unifying theme in the Islamic Declaration, which calls on the rich countries to recognise their “moral obligation to reduce consumption so that the poor may benefit from what is left of the Earth's non-renewable resources”.

In Islam teachings, Abdullah ibn `Abbas reported that the Prophet Mohammed said: “The believer is not he who eats his fill while his neighbour is hungry.”

Global economy and consumerism

The encyclical is a radical attack on the free market economy and extreme consumerism which the Pope says “leads people to believe that they are free as long as they have the supposed freedom to consume.” The paradox, according to the Pope Francis, is that people know consumerism “is not enough to give meaning and joy to the human heart, yet they feel unable to give up what the market sets before them.”

Writing in the magazine Ethical Consumer, Sarah Javaid, from the Muslim-led group MADE, says Islam recognises the interconnection of all living things and the “delicate balance (mizan) of the earth.” Javaid says the prophet Muhammad led a simple and sustainable lifestyle and Muslims are deeply conscious of the numerous material blessings such as food, clothes, technology and other things that we often take for granted. According to Javaid, the Prophet “advised his followers to only consume what is necessary, being mindful of the use of natural resources and avoiding waste, even if resources are plentiful,” she adds.

Population growth

Curbing consumerism would at least relieve some of the pressure on the Earth’s dwindling resources. But there are other pressures. World population is projected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050 from its current level of around 7.2 billion, which many analysts say will have an added impact on climate change and world resources. As living standards improve and life expectancy increases globally, the problem of overconsumption is set to get much worse.

Pope Francis counters this by arguing that demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development. “To blame population growth instead of extreme and se-lective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issue,” he said. He goes further, saying: “It is an attempt to legitimise the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalised.”

Gathering momentum

The call for action on climate change and environmental justice for all is gathering momentum. But will world governments listen to religious leaders, and can their collective engagement make a difference?

So far, 53 countries have submitted their national greenhouse gas reduction plans to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, ahead of the talks in Paris. This means over 60% of the world’s entire carbon footprint is covered by national pledges. But there are still some notable exceptions. India, with over 1 billion Hindus and 180 million Muslims, has yet to submit its plans, while many South American countries with their majority Catholic populations have also still not declared their commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet the unifying spiritual message adds a religious authority and moral imperative that environmental campaigners are simply unable to articulate. Religious leaders appeal directly to their followers, over and above the actions of their respective political leaders.

This is a point that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is keen to emphasise. “Dealing with climate change will take more than just global policies and agreements, it will also take a unified stance from the world’s religions,” he said at the Vatican climate change summit in April. “To transform our economies, however, we must first transform our thinking, and our values. In this, the world’s religions can provide valuable leadership,” he added.

The twenty-first session UN Climate Change Conference takes place from 30 November to 11 December 2015, in Paris, France.

Last reviewed 27 October 2015