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Sustainable futures

COP26: faith for a safe climate future

The recent IPCC Working Group 1 report has made it clear that the climate crisis is not fundamentally a challenge of science but a challenge of our beliefs, commitments and actions. The UN Secretary General commented that “the evidence is irrefutable" and that the report sets out “a clear moral … imperative to protect the lives and livelihoods of those on the front lines of the climate crisis”. With morality at the heart of the crisis, the question then arises: which organisations can help direct such action at the scale and speed required to avert climate catastrophe?

Framing climate change in terms of morality shifts the discussion from being about what is politically expedient or economically feasible to what is ultimately the right thing to do. In Glasgow, there will be lots of talk about Nationally Determined Contributions (the greenhouse gas reductions committed by nation states), innovative financing arrangements, new technological solutions, and priorities for adapting to natural disasters. However, the complexity of these issues can mask the fact that there is an urgent need for transformative (not just superficial or incremental) change. Societal transformations are about wholesale shifts in how we behave and how institutions function, but transformation also means recalibrating the values, goals and paradigms that drive us. These dimensions have been termed ‘deep leverage points’, because while they are difficult to change, they can have a huge influence on the behaviour of the systems we are embedded within. Take our food systems for example. The ‘goal’ of the system (in most western, developed countries) is to ensure plentiful, convenient, cheap, attractive, diverse foods on demand whenever we need it. However, such goals have led to soil degradation, labour exploitation, biodiversity loss, overuse of pesticides and fertilisers, excessive packaging, and high carbon emissions from transportation. What would a food system look like with the ‘goals’ of health, environmental sustainability, just work and ensuring people are connected to the landscapes where their food is produced? These goals, values and paradigms can be understood not only at the level of systems, but also societies, organisations and individuals. For example, an often-unchallenged paradigm within western industrialised societies is that material consumption is a path to personal fulfilment – such a belief is at the heart of neoliberal capitalist ideology, promulgated by media and has much to answer for our present unsustainable lifestyles.

So what alternative values or paradigms are there that can offer new foundations for climate action, and how can they be cultivated? A recent article by Prof. Chris Riedy talks about the need for “alternative discourses” whereby “discourse coalitions” can create new meanings about the world and weave new narratives that can support sustainability. Faith communities represent often radical alternatives of values, paradigms, beliefs compared with dominant secular capitalist discourses. Yet, despite over 80% of the world’s population identifying as religious, climate policy has by and large been framed in secular terms. Religious paradigms can represent ideas and concepts that seem ‘out of place’ in policy arenas, but they represent vastly different assumptions about the nature of the earth, the role of humans and the purposes of life. Examples include principles of compassion, love for one’s neighbour, interconnectedness, shalom (peace), and the sacredness of creation. While religious beliefs can be used to support perspectives that undermine environmental action (e.g. fatalism, anthropocentrism, as evidenced in some of the interplay between conservative Christianity and right-wing politics in USA), this only further emphasises the importance of explicitly considering religious perspectives rather than ignoring them in policy arenas.

"Framing climate change in terms of morality shifts the discussion from being about what is politically expedient or economically feasible to what is ultimately the right thing to do."
Dr Chris Ives

Faith traditions around the world have been gathering pace in responding to the climate and nature crises. Examples include Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si (On care for our common home), and the multi-faith statement “Faith For Earth: A Call for Action”. Yet responses extend beyond written commitments and platitudes. For example, 42 faith institutions from around the world recently committed to divesting from fossil fuels. A huge variety of practical actions by faith-based organisations towards the Sustainable Development Goals can be seen via a new online portal.

Recent research led by the University of Nottingham has also identified the potential for interventions framed in religious terms to initiate, activate and sustain pro-environmental behaviours among lay Christians. Our study of responses to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2020 “Saying Yes to Life” revealed that theological messages about the environment led to a reduction in beliefs that humans are above nature, and greater appreciation of and obligation towards the natural world. We also observed that people adopted more environmentally friendly lifestyles, particularly when it came to energy use, food choices and recycling habits. This work suggests potential for positive actions for environmental stewardship rooted in faith-based values, beliefs and worldviews.

One of the four goals of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow is to “accelerate action to tackle the climate crisis through collaboration between governments, businesses and civil society”. During the summit, Jeremy Kidwell (University of Birmingham) and I will explore how faith is being considered (or not) amongst a variety of government, civil society and business actors, and ask the question – how can collaboration between faith groups and other organisations be fostered and supported to bring about transformative change for a sustainable climate? We will seek to curate spaces for conversation about (in Bruno Latour’s terms) not “matters of fact” but “matters of concern” through sharing ‘climate stories’ from the Global North and Global South and engaging in dialogue with policy-makers, NGO representatives, experts and faith representatives. Faith communities may offer hope for change across varies domains including deep, personal motivations and paradigms, practical and financial resources needed to mitigate and adapt to climate change, and individual behaviours of citizens around the world. As we outline in a recent research article , the potential of faith to connect individual, community, and international level responses is particularly needed in the context of complex sustainability challenges. The need for new solutions and new climate coalitions is urgent – faith for the future is needed more than ever.

Chris Ives

Dr Chris Ives is Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Social Sciences

Additional resources

Further reading

COP26: the greatest challenge of our time

Christopher D. Ives & Jeremy Kidwell, 2019. Religion and social values for sustainability.

UNEP, 2020. Faith for Earth: A Call for Action.

Read more about the Festival of Social Science 2021 here

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