Guest Article #15

It's Heating Up: The Planet's Largest Civil Society Movement for Change

Politicians and world leaders cannot tackle climate change alone. The fight to save the world's ecosystems -and the lives of those who depend on them - must become a central focus of mass mainstream movements of communities throughout the world. As we look towards the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen in December of this year, we need to keep this firmly in mind. During a recent visit to China, I participated in what will surely be one of the most memorable moments of my career: Daoist masters from all over China gathered to agree on a seven-year plan for climate change action. At this meeting, the overall strength and sustainability of all religions was immediately apparent to me. Ancient religious symbols and wisdom combined with modern scientific understanding proved to be a potent mixture inspiring and energizing masters and lay believers alike to take unprecedented action. Do religious and faith-based groups have the potential to take the fight against climate change to the mainstream? Quite possibly.

The reach of religious and faith-based groups is unparalleled. The world's major faiths between them own outright at least 7% of the habitable surface of the planet; they have founded, run or contribute to 54% of all schools; are the third largest category of investors in the world; produce more weekly magazines and newspapers than the whole of the secular press in the EU; and print over a billion books a year. And perhaps most importantly, for a large proportion of the world's people, religions serve as core custodians of values and cultural traditions.

So what religions do or do not do, what they say or do not say about climate change, and how they address climate change through their worship and rituals matters a great deal.

To date, most faiths have not said much one way or another on climate change and their deeds have largely escaped their own moral or theological scrutiny when it comes to climate impact. However, all of that is about to change. Over the coming years, the Daoists will implement a wide range of climate change actions, joining similar activities across a dozen or so other religions.

Building on this momentum, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC), a UK-based NGO, have come together to launch a new project which has already witnessed an exciting surge of commitment across the spectrum of major faiths for ambitious actions to fight climate change. Each of the world's major religions is tasked with developing a comprehensive, seven-year plan in which they address seven key areas where they could have a significant influence, including: carrying out sustainable investments; greening the management of assets such as land, forests and hospitals; introducing green curriculum into faith-run schools; helping vulnerable communities to adapt to climate change through pastoral care; and using faith-based media and advocacy networks to lobby governments to be more sustainable.

The Catholic Church in the US, for example, recently adopted a Catholic Climate Covenant and is embarking on their comprehensive seven-year plan, which encourages Catholics to tread lightly and act boldly. The Jesuit Order is adopting a similar approach worldwide. There is also an emerging view of the Amazon rainforest as a central cause from a Catholic theological and moral perspective given that the entire basin is within a largely Catholic region.

This project is not only far-reaching - it is most timely. In anticipation of the Copenhagen climate conference in December, people from across the globe will gather at sacred sites this November to commit to their faith's seven year plans. At the same time, the world's religious leaders will meet along with others at Windsor Castle in the UK, in an event supported by UNDP, where the commitments of the various faiths to tackling climate change will be celebrated and transmitted to the world's political leaders.  This event, to be broadcast live on-air by BBC and online by Google, will be one for the history books.

The world's faiths joined together in this cause - if viewed in terms of sheer numbers of people - could become the planet's largest civil society movement for change. With their unparalleled presence throughout the world, the world's religions could be the decisive force that helps top the scales in favor of a world of climate safety and justice for future generations.

The author was the Assistant Secretary-General and Director of Bureau for Development Policy at the United Nations Development Programme when he contributed this article.