By Arthur Lyon Dahl – International Environment Forum, IF20 Environment Working Group.
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Climate change is widely recognized, including by faith traditions and interfaith groups, as an existential threat to human wellbeing at a planetary scale. At the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) to the Framework Convention on Climate Change in November 2021, States are expected to ratchet up their Voluntary National Commitments to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases, with the goal of keeping global heating well below 2°C and preferably approaching 1.5°C, which scientists say may keep damage from climate change to a manageable level.
Damage already occurring from extreme weather events, droughts, floods and sea level rise mostly impacts the poor who have little resilience, while it is our dependence on fossil fuel energy, and the excessive consumption and extravagant lifestyles of the affluent, that are the primary causes. This raises issues of climate justice where faith traditions have much to say about respect for nature, solidarity, generosity, human dignity, and simplicity in material needs.
Unfortunately general appeals to ethical behaviour and climate justice are not easily translated into behaviour change, especially for those in affluent countries and cities inundated by the marketing pressures of a materialistic consumer society.
A Need for Indicators
We use indicators like body temperature to signal our state of health, and calorie intake to judge if we have a reasonable diet. At the national level, an indicator like GDP is unfortunately the most common measure of an economy, even though it has no correlation with human wellbeing.
Given the urgency of a rapid response to the climate emergency—requiring a fundamental transformation in our energy systems, transportation, industries, food production, human habitats and all other factors of modern civilization—we need indicators of climate justice that will signal to everyone, rich and poor, urban and rural, North and South, East and West, of all faiths and no faith, what they need to change to move towards climate neutrality. These indicators will also help them measure their progress so that everyone can join in the necessary effort to reduce present suffering and to preserve a habitable planet for future generations.
Linking Climate Justice to Spiritual Values
Since faith communities can probably reach out to the largest percentage of the world population, indicators that would link actions for climate justice to core spiritual values and ethical principles could have special impact. Interfaith groups could collaborate on developing a set of indicators such as engaging for climate justice, actions to ensure a better world for youth, living a simple life, building community solidarity and resilience, gardening or planting trees, adopting a plant-based diet, discussing climate change with friends and family, and showing solidarity with the poor at home or abroad.
One can imagine educational campaigns around relevant indicators such as: “Mohammed dressed simply and ate low on the food chain. Use these indicators to follow His example,” “The Pope, in Laudato Si’, calls for ‘moderation and the capacity to be happy with little’. Here are some indicators to see if you are living a Christian lifestyle,” “Bahá’u’lláh said we should ‘be content with little, and freed from all inordinate desire’. These indicators measure if you are following a spiritual path.”
A Time for Implementation
The adoption by countries of more ambitious goals at COP26 is critical, but so is implementing them, which will require broad public support and cooperation.
Faith communities and interfaith organizations can do their part by identifying relevant indicators that add a spiritual motivation to the educational efforts of others, and thus contribute to the fundamental transformation in the economy and society necessary to respond to the climate crisis now threatening us around the world.
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Arthur Lyon Dahl is President of the International Environment Forum, and a retired Deputy Assistant Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), with 50 years’ international experience in environment and sustainability. His most recent focus has been on global governance and UN reform.