FaithInvest's Lorna Gold reflects on how, despite the seriousness of the crises facing us, she is inspired by the way faith groups are responding to the challenge
'We all have to start acting as if we really believe that God created the world and that it is worth saving' – Rev. Martin Johnstone, Church of Scotland Minister, at COP26
Someone bought me a t-shirt as a gift this year. It depicts a scene from Back to the Future, that iconic 1980s movie featuring Michael J Fox as Marty McFly. The slogan on the t-shirt reads: 'Marty, whatever you do, don’t go back to 2020'. I think we could add 2021!
These have been two tumultuous years where lives have been turned upside down. Nobody has been untouched by the coronavirus and its relentless ability to disrupt our sense of normality. It has left us all exhausted with the constant unknowns and unwanted surprises.
While the pandemic has dominated headlines, arguably even bigger crises have continued to deepen. Among these, the climate crisis, in particular, became more pressing in 2021.
There is mounting evidence that predictions scientists thought were far in the future, such as the destabilisation of Antarctic ice-sheet, are actually happening much quicker. In fact, a scientific report in December 2021 now predicts that the Thwaites eastern ice-shelf, the main buttress against sea level rise, is on the verge of collapse. It could break off within five years.
'No one is coming to save us'
Yet despite this, as well as the growing public protests, the UN Climate talks in Glasgow, COP26, failed to deliver. There was progress for sure – but it felt like getting out the garden hose when there is an inferno approaching.
Greta Thunberg said of COP26: ‘We need to understand nobody is coming to save us’ – and I agree with her. While a growing number of countries are doing their level best to tackle the crisis, the system is working against them. Moreover, there are still many forces at work, especially the fossil fuel industry, actively trying to undermine good efforts. The result is endless delays when time is of the essence.
In the face of all this, perhaps Marty McFly would be right not to time travel to now. Why would anyone want to wake up in the middle of this crisis? Yet why is it, that despite this, I feel more hopeful than ever?
This is not a time for despair
I put it down to faith. This is most definitely a time to be deeply worried about what the future holds, but it is not a time for despair. It is a time for active hope. The pandemic and climate change are both reality checks. They signal to us that humanity is off course and needs to change direction. They cast light on a world in search of a deeper meaning beyond the dominant globalised culture which is so influenced by consumerism, extraction of resources and a dogma of limitless economic growth.
This is a time to restore balance, to set limits and understand that far from being set apart from the earth, we humans are entirely dependent on ‘mother earth', from whom we derive everything. It is a time to reset.
It is against this backdrop that the role of faith communities in tackling ecological destruction is emerging as one of the most important and exciting developments in 2021. People of faith make up more than 80% of the world’s population and have significant resources at their disposal to make an impact on many crises, not least climate change.
Faiths commit to 'bold plans'
Because faiths are both global and local, they represent a highly organised sector of civil society that can be mobilised quickly. Faiths move people at a deep level – they are about the most profound stories we tell ourselves and others about why we are here. What faith leaders say matters – it has a powerful influence on shaping our understanding of what really matters and what remains.
In 2021, several developments happened in the faith world which give serious hope in terms of accelerating action on climate and biodiversity.
The first is the meeting Pope Francis held on October 4 with faith leaders in preparation for COP26. In the statement issued, the 48 faith leaders present (representing some 60-70% of the world’s population) made solemn commitments to accelerate action on climate change.
Not only did they appeal to world leaders to act, but they recognised that they needed to take action – they needed to fulfill their role as leaders.
They committed to producing 'bold plans' and to 'aligning their investments' to tackling the ecological crisis. This is hugely significant and has resulted in a serious up-take in the FaithPlans programme which FaithInvest has jointly organised with 26 key global partners. In 2022, the faith community is poised to make unprecedented commitments, backed by action plans, to shift the dial on climate action.
Change within the financial sector
The other significant shift is the acceleration of change within the financial sector to respond to the climate crisis – and the role that faith asset owners are playing in that. Many initiatives emerged in the finance space in 2021 which enable more rigorous disclosure and regulation of ESG and climate finance.
There is a growing understanding that climate change and other ecological risks are serious and need to be addressed. Over 120 faith groups publicly divested from fossil fuels, showing that they recognise the need to align investments to climate action through negative screening. In many respects, divestment away from fossil fuels has started to go mainstream, as demonstrated at the COP26 launches of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty campaign and the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance.
Now faith communities are looking at what comes next in terms of investments: what further divestment campaigns need to happen? How can investments be redirected into clean technologies? How can the ambition of faith climate action be matched with adequate finance? Again, as we head into 2022 there are encouraging signs that faiths are actively considering how they align their investments to their deep mission which calls for care for the living earth.
This is an auspicious moment
More than ever I feel that this is an auspicious moment. It is a moment to embrace the hard truth of the situation we are facing as a human society on this beautiful, fragile planet – but not to despair. As people of faith this is a time to step forward and, in the words of Rev. Martin Johnstone at COP26,
'to start to live as if we really believed God created this world and it is worth saving'.