Climate change is probably the biggest common challenge ever faced by humanity. If it is to be solved, religion has to be involved.
In previous eras, “the world” was large and powerful and human beings were small and weak. Now humanity has far greater power – enough to destroy its own environment. This why some people are calling it the “Anthropocene” era.
The challenge is enormous. It must impact economic development and redefine our thinking and attitudes regarding lifestyle, welfare, sustainability and justice – for the sake of the planet, for the sake of all life on it, and for the sake of our grandchildren and our grandchildren’s grandchildren.
There are at least four good reasons for the inclusion of religious traditions in this work.
First, historic religious traditions have a tried and tested cultural integrity, spiritual depth and moral force which can greatly enhance secular approaches. For effective change over time, it is not enough to know what needs to be done, it is also necessary to find the right narratives to make it compelling, and the right motivation to do it. Religion can create and inspire the stories, rituals, and motivation needed for a change of lifestyle. For many people, religions legitimize the cause.
Second, climate change is fundamentally a question of global justice. In religious traditions, the concern for justice tends to be central. Often it comes with an emphasis on the duty to hear the voice of the vulnerable and marginalized and to care for their needs. The Abrahamic monotheisms have tended to be anthropocentric in their approach to justice; the Dharmic traditions of Asia and many indigenous religions complement this with a more holistic vision of the connectedness of all things. Together they can work with secular traditions to develop visions of planetary justice.
Third, religious traditions play a role in leadership. In many contexts, religious leaders, both formal (usually men) and informal (also women), exercise influence on the so-called grassroots level as well as in national or international governance. Religious communities form networks all over the world. Narratives of suffering and solidarity are shared and invoke action. Long term change requires the contribution of religious leaders, as Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change has often said. New forms of religious and spiritual leadership need to be involved too; leaders of religious NGOs; informal religious leaders; scholars and artists. Religions and their leaders change, develop, rise and fall all the time – they should not be “fossilized”.
Fourth, the dimensions of the challenge can invoke anxiety as well as paralysis. There is a need for a realistic hope that releases the powers of imagination and action humans are capable of. In other words, there is a need to frame narratives of hope and possibilities. Religious traditions have ample experience of combining short term perspectives with a long term perspective and compelling narratives. One may wonder: if religious traditions old and new cannot provide the long term narratives of realistic hope, what else can?
Studies have been conducted on how people experience various activities that are associated with different levels of emissions of greenhouse gases. The results are encouraging. The activities that people find most satisfactory, such as socializing with others, praying and participating in cultural life, have low climate impact. On the other hand, less satisfactory activities, such as commuting, produce a high level of emissions. This indicates that a different consumption pattern is not only possible but may lead to enhanced quality of life and to higher levels of happiness. By attaching greater importance to education, health, culture and spirituality, we can create not only a sustainable society but a good life.