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Faith communities essential to dealing with the climate crisis: Prof Johan Rockström

What a wonderful Faith, Science and Philanthropy webinar we had yesterday, with some outstanding speakers and very thought-provoking, disturbing but ultimately hopeful messages!

Timed just before the start of the COP28 climate conference, the webinar was chaired by Johannes van de Ven, Executive Director of the Good Energies Foundation, co-hosted by FaithInvest and the Laudato Si' Movement, and featured leaders from the worlds of science, faith and philanthropy.

The climate crisis

We started by reflecting on the urgency of the climate emergency, before going on to discuss the unique contribution that faith groups can bring to addressing the crisis.

'This is an existential threat; we're not only breaching physical boundaries, we are actually trespassing moral boundaries...I do not see a way of succeeding in the transition without a helping hand from faith and belief communities' Prof Johan Rockström, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research

Prof Johan Rockström, Director of the renowned Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, said the science was clear: 'We now are, unfortunately, having to conclude that we are at risk of destabilising the entire planet. We are undermining life support for all species on Earth, including us humans,' he said.

'We are following a pathway that will take us to 3C of global mean surface temperature rise within this century. Let me be very clear. The climate science community is entirely in agreement here – this is a path to disaster. Destabilising Planet Earth means we are threatening creation,' he said.


'This is an existential threat; we're not only breaching physical boundaries, we are actually trespassing moral boundaries... I do not see a way of succeeding in the transition without a helping hand from faith and belief communities.'

What can faiths contribute?

After such a sobering message about the urgency of the climate crisis, it was, nevertheless inspiring to hear what faith communities are already doing – and that religious groups have a critical role to play in bringing about the transformation in attitudes and behaviour we need.

Dr Andrew Steer, President of the Bezos Earth Fund (at $10 billion, the largest philanthropic commitment to fight climate change and restore nature), said the evidence was overwhelming: 'It is actually what you believe that will drive how you behave.

'So faith, which is the driving force of most of humanity, must play a decisive role,' he said. 'We need to embrace faith communities and give them a seat at the table and the respect that is deserved... and certainly from the standpoint of the Bezos Earth Fund, we would love to work with you.'

Dr Steer paid tribute to Pope Francis's 'iconic Laudato Si' and now Laudate Deum', saying: 'If you ask what are the most important pieces written on climate change and ecology, Laudato Si' would be up there, probably more influential than the Stern Report. What a great gift from God that we have this.'

Systems and behavioural change

Talking about the importance of systems change, Dr Steer said most reductions in greenhouse gases had come about without the need for massive behavioural and systems change. 'If you look at the UK, emissions have fallen, incomes have risen and most citizens don't know anything about the reduction because now, instead of coal-based electricity, they're getting gas-based electricity.

'That's not system change or behavioural change. But over the next 10 years, we're going to have to see behavioural change. We're going to have to change the way we live, travel and work and that requires an issue of the heart.

'And what I love about the kind of thing that some of you are working on is that whilst in the climate change movement, we've been in search of a really crisp narrative for years, linking climate change to science and the economy and society, and so on, but actually the faith-based narrative is already there.'

Sr Alessandra Smerilli, Secretary of the Vatican's Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, said the climate crisis was at the very top of Pope Francis's list of priorities, she said: 'Pope Francis is extremely worried that we are not responding adequately to the climate emergency. He unambiguously aligns the Catholic Church with the scientific consensus.'

COP28 could represent a change of direction, she said, adding that the Pope is calling for 'the abandonment of fossil fuels' and an energy transition that is binding and drastic.

He was also not afraid to call out the oil and gas companies that are planning to use the COP to plan new projects and increase production: 'It would be suicidal because It will mean exposing all humanity, particularly the poorest, to the impacts of climate change' she said.

Sr Allesandra said the Pope strongly encouraged civil society to shift the paradigm towards a sustainable future: 'A broad, multifaith and secular movement is essential to shift the status quo,' adding, 'The Pope wants to remind us that the cry of the poor and the cry of the earth are the same cry – they are not two separate crises but one social and environmental crisis.'

FaithInvest CEO Dr Lorna Gold, who was also representing the Laudato Si' Movement of which she is Board Chair and which co-hosted the webinar, said there was a huge opportunity on the horizon when it comes to working with faiths to tackle the roots of the climate crisis, as well as responding to the growing challenges of adaptation.

'Faiths need to be engaged effectively. I dare to say we cannot solve the climate crisis without this engagement. This can only be done from the inside out, from the grassroots to the grass tops' – Dr Lorna Gold

'Faiths are key stakeholders in our world: highly motivated, organised, with scalable solutions; already activated from grassroots to the grasstops,' she said.

'Faiths have the potential to become the bedrock of the biggest environmental movement in the world. The statistics speak for themselves. This is game changing potential.

'For those of us working in this space, embedded within the faiths, so much needs to be done to harness this potential.

'Faiths need to be engaged effectively. I dare to say we cannot solve the climate crisis without this engagement. This can only be done from the inside out, from the grassroots to the grass tops.'

The snowball effect

Our final speaker, Huda Jaffer, Director of SELCO Foundation, which implements sustainable energy projects among Muslim, Hindu and Christian communities in India and Africa, gave us concrete examples of the leadership and impact of faith-based organisations taking up sustainable energy.

'Whenever we have worked across India and Africa, [faith-based organisations] are the first champions proving the impact that can happen if you power your health centres with clean energy, if you use energy efficient appliances,' she said. 'We are seeing the snowball effect.

'Now, because of that, India has taken up one of the largest programmes on powering health with solar energy in the world, 25,000 health centres, close to 12% of the population, moving to 100% solar and renewable-based public health value chain.

And the same programme is now being taken up by WHO in Africa for 10,000 centres, so we are seeing the snowball effect that has been triggered by faith organisations.'


This was a very rich, inspiring and, we believe, very important webinar. It's available to watch on YouTube and we do encourage you to watch it, if you have not done so, and to share it with others you think may be interested.

Lorna's presentation on the work of FaithInvest, the Laudato Si' Movement and faith groups generally is also available to see by clicking below.


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