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Emerging from faith communities to address climate change

Emerging from faith communities to address climate change

Published: December 10, 2012
Photograph of beach in Sri Lanka
Photo: AFSC

Climate change is not just a scientific issue or an economic issue—it is an ethical issue. So for religious leaders, guiding people on how to live their lives in ways that recognize the impacts of human behavior on the climate is critical—especially in Southeast and South Asia, where evidence of climate change is all too visible.

In September, the International Network of Engaged Buddhists decided to bring together scientists, activists, and people from various faith traditions to discuss connections between moral and scientific work to mitigate climate change. Leaders from around Asia gathered at the Islander Peace Center in Sri Lanka for a 10-day inter-religious dialogue on climate change and peace building.

The event was sponsored in part by the American Friends Service Committee through its dialogue and exchange programs initiative, which provides opportunities for people working on social change to make new and energizing connections. Representing more than a dozen countries, 136 participants—community organizers, policymakers, religious leaders, and scientists—came together to share knowledge and build relationships to strengthen the work they are already doing in their own communities.

AFSC’s Russell Peterson, who organized the attendance of AFSC partners from seven Asian countries, noted, “For most people in the conference, climate change is not just a scientific issue; it is a moral issue. It’s about realizing that it’s our overconsumption of the world’s resources that is destroying the planet.” According to Russell, this conference marked a first step in approaching both the scientific as well as moral concerns of climate change in this region.

The conference began by examining the lived effects of climate change on local communities. Traveling to two sites in northern Sri Lanka, participants spoke with inland paddy farmers and coastal fishermen to hear their experiences of land erosion and resource scarcity. These visits were followed by a series of seminars that covered the scientific and environmental aspects of climate change as well as the role of religion in challenging the attitudes and values that have created the current situation.

After scientists and academics presented a series of overwhelming statistics on the first day, representatives of Buddhist, Christian, Baha’i, Islamic, Hindu, and indigenous faiths addressed the conference, touching on the connections between climate change and their own faith traditions. It was clear that all religions call for humans not only to be stewards of the planet, but to reserve a humble respect for the earth as the source of human life. As AFSC’s partner from Indonesia, Dr. Habib Chirzin, stated: “Islam is a state of mind, an attitude towards life, not just a religion. Submission to Allah is submission to the law of creation.” By illustrating an attitude of submission and harmony with all of creation, religious leaders spoke of encouraging others to adopt more sustainable lifestyles.

On the final day, participants developed a plan for next steps. The conference addressed major issues, but encouraged action on both the personal and political level. “The issues we’re discussing seem to be at sky-high level, and here we are, down on the ground,” said Russell. “And yet people were talking about doing what is possible in our own contexts. Grabbing the near edge of the issue and working with that.”

A teacher from a Muslim boarding school in Indonesia committed to incorporating issues of climate change into his curriculum. Buddhist monks in Myanmar committed to modeling sustainable practices at their temples. These commitments will be revisited during next year’s conference, which will be hosted by the Korean delegates in December 2013.

As the Venerable Bhikku Sanghasena said during the conference, “It is time for religious leaders not to remain confined to the monastery, the mosque, the church, but to come out and play an important role in addressing serious challenges faced by the present world. There have been many bad things done in the name of religions. Now is the time to do something good in the name of religions to save the world from further destruction.”