With Ireland on track to become the first country to fully divest from fossil fuels and Dublin having played host to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scoping meeting which prepares for a wide-ranging report to be ready by September 2019, it is an interesting time to ponder on whether the nation’s reinvigorated focus on climate may have had anything to do with faith.
In May 2015 Pope Francis issued Laudato Sí, an encyclical centered around caring for our common home, and nicely timed to be issued shortly before the November COP21 meeting in Paris. The message was sent to those in good conscience, to give the question of climate change the priority it deserves. The pillar supporting the Pope’s letter is creation, of which humans are a part – together with all creatures and plants. As in the canticle of Saint Francis of Assisi, the inspiration of Pope Francis’ “Laudato Sì, o mì Signore”, or “Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us […]”, religious literature can show us the link between humans and mother Earth. Even when conceding that the present epoch is undeniably embedded with the anthropocentric belief that nature should be mastered and ordered by humans, the Pope suggests that faith, and its depiction of stewardship, is more relevant than ever.
Similar faith based arguments can be found in the Islamic Declaration on Climate Change, another timely statement issued in the summer of 2015, in which scholars, teachers and leaders called for the 1.6 billion Muslims to ponder on the fact that “Our species, though selected to be a caretaker or steward (khalifah) on the earth, has been the cause of such corruption and devastation on it that we are in danger [of] ending life as we know it on our planet.“
Neither the Pope’s encyclical letter nor the Islamic Declaration were the first statements by religious leaders calling for more attention to be given to the environment and climate change: the Dalai Lama, the Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope John Paul II, have all called for a responsible stewardship of the environment. There is one leader who went a step further, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, also known as the Green Patriarch, declared that not caring for the animals, trees, water, air and land, isn’t just an act of folly, it is a sin against God and creation. How far-fetched would it be if in confession people talked about sins against the environment? The Green Patriarch often acted as bridge, organising, among other things, symposia with scientists and religious scholars, historically uneasy factions being brought together on a moving ship in search for common ground.
Other religious movements have acted too, with the Quakers taking the lead and becoming the first church in Britain to divest centrally held funds from fossil fuels back in 2013.
The strategic interventions of Islamic leaders and the Pope prior to the opening of COP21, were met by the invigorated and receptive global political leadership of the time and in some form may have contributed to the positive outcomes of the convention. Even since the Paris Agreement, an interfaith climate statement involving as many as 304 eminent faith leaders has been signed, which reiterates the urgent need for action which is felt amongst religious heads. Climatologist John Sweeney, in an opinion article, makes the interesting point that an even more important role can be played by religion through the educational system. In Ireland the Laudato Sì encyclical has had an effect on schools, especially those that are catholic, which Professor Sweeney explains “are uniquely positioned to educate young people” on the message by the Pope that we live in a finite world in which all things are interconnected. This is obviously not only true in Catholic schools, as most religions educate young minds and can similarly teach the importance of living in balance with one’s surroundings.
Whether by influencing world leaders meeting in Paris or through the educational system, it seems clear that the opinions and actions of religious leaders can create ripples of change in receptive geopolitical landscapes. When reading of the recent vote in Ireland that saw the Fossil Fuel Divestment Bill voted 90 to 53 in favour, forcing €8 billion of public money away from coal, oil and gas in the next five years, the connection between the country and religion could not be overlooked.
The decision to divest taken by Ireland is important for different reasons, the risk associated with investments in overvalued fossil fuel assets, the go-to investment picks for institutions and pension funds, is real and so reinvesting the public money entrusted to the Irish government elsewhere will avoid the financial dangers that surround the carbon bubble. It is also important because moving money away from fossil fuels by public institutions or, in this case, a country, sends a message to the 200 publicly-traded companies which hold the vast majority of listed coal, oil and gas reserves, concerning their ethics. Not least it is important on a moral level, as stated by the Independent Deputy Thomas Pringle who introduced the bill in Ireland. Mr Pringle argues that the result is a stand against the actions of global corporations that seek to manipulate climate science and make use of controversial lobby practices to influence power. These actions, he asserts in an interview, are no longer accepted, especially when many in developing countries bear the brunt, “experiencing famine, mass emigration and civil unrest as a result”.
One of the main organisations campaigning for the divestment bill in Ireland, is Trócaire, an Irish charity and the overseas development agency of the Catholic Church in Ireland. With experience of working in close contact with the people Mr Pringle refers to as the main victims of climate change, in countries such as Malawi and Ethiopia, Trócaire can show how hunger and droughts are linked to fossil fuel reliance in developed countries such as Ireland. The same prevailing sense of moral obligation that underlines Pope Francis’ encyclical is used by the charity as a platform for their campaign.
Religion could well be ready to offer leadership on climate change and perhaps, at least partly, has influenced the voting tendencies of Irish politicians. Whatever the reason behind the vote in the Dáil last month, we are in desperate need of leaders and citizens willing to become environmental caretakers. Laudato Sì, my Earth steward.