BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Rabbi Sergio Bergman, a Jewish leader and Argentinian government official, is fed up with the way the world talks about climate change. Policymakers and concerned citizens get caught up debating emissions standards or new scientific research and don't answer ethical questions about how to better care for the planet and those who live on it.
"It's like holding a conference on thermometers to (measure) people's fevers," he said. "Come on! The problem is we're ill. We're sick."
During this week's G20 Interfaith Forum in Argentina, Rabbi Bergman and other speakers urged faith groups to lead the way to a more meaningful discussion about environmental degradation. People of faith can talk about our moral obligation to protect the environment, replacing facts and figures with the faces of those who are suffering, like farmers in South America or people who live on the flooded coast of Japan.
Climate change impacts "vulnerable groups, groups that cannot decide to move elsewhere, to change regions or go to higher plateaus," said Lorena Echague, a member of Argentina's national justice and peace commission.
Many clergy members have already chosen to present global warming as an ethical crisis, including Pope Francis of the Catholic Church in his 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si', and Patriarch Bartholomew, who leads Eastern Orthodox Christians. This approach helps cut through political divides, uniting conservatives and liberals around a desire to care for God's creation, as the Deseret News reported in 2014.
Faith leaders need to be even more forceful with their ethical messages moving forward, especially when meeting with people in power, Rabbi Bergman said.
"It’s better for us to charge in and have somebody say no than to stay sitting down and wait for an invitation," he said.
Religion and politics
Climate change was one of the main topics discussed at the G20 Interfaith Forum, just as it will be in the spotlight at the secular G20, or Group of 20, meetings between leaders of the world's major economies, which begin in two months. Environmental trends influence global agriculture, immigration patterns and extreme weather events, so politicians and religious leaders alike care about the issue.
In general, political and religious leaders approach the topic quite differently, noted Maria Eugenia Di Paola, who serves as coordinator of the environment and sustainable development program for the United National Development Program.
Politicians typically seek solutions with their own interests in mind, worrying about how new emission-related regulations will affect their country's energy industry. Faith groups, on the other hand, focus on helping the vulnerable populations most affected by climate, rather than helping themselves.
Religious communities recognize "the need to come together and work together," Di Paola said.
Faith leaders also are more concerned about people's attitude toward the environment, although they do share politicians' interests in addressing people's problematic behaviors, too, said Cardinal Pedro Barreto, a Catholic leader and environmental activist based in Peru.
"Faith offers a light that allows us to see with greater quality that (the earth) is our common house, a gift given by God for all men and women," he said.
Religious leaders need to be aware of those different approaches and acknowledge that prayers or statements filled with quotes from religious texts aren't very convincing in the political sphere, noted Rabbi Bergman and others.
Research has shown that even committed believers aren't strongly influenced by faith-based environmental activism. Knowing someone's religious background doesn't tell you as much about their views on climate change than their political interests or ethnicity, according to Pew Research Center.
As participants in the G20 Interfaith Forum pass on their wisdom to the politicians who will attend the secular G20, they need to make a stronger case for inclusive, interdependent and human-focused responses to climate change, Di Paolo said.
"The truth is that, in the global (environmental) crisis, these values are often endangered," she said.
Shared crisis, shared response
This year's G20 gatherings come at a time when crafting a more effective response to environmental climate change is more important than ever before, Cardinal Barreto said.
"Climate change is moving quicker than the human response to it," he said, noting that the United Nations General Secretary recently said we only have two years left to address global warming before it becomes a "runaway" problem.
It's already too late for the hundreds of thousands of coffee growers in Peru who lost their crops and can't repay their loans, as well as for the animal species that have gone extinct, he added.
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Climate change threatens entire ways of life, not just certain types of crops or habitats, Di Paola said. Cities along coastlines, like Osaka, Japan, where summer storms flooded its airport, or communities that thrive next to rivers could disappear.
Climate change represents "a degradation not just of nature, but also of humans, cities and cultures," she said.
In addition to reminding people of what they're called to do for their neighbors, faith groups can offer hope that even small steps undertaken by each of us can add up to powerful protections for the environment, said Cardinal Barreto, who is the vice president of the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network of the Latin American Episcopal Council.
"The flow of the Amazon River, which travels 6,700 kilometers and has several kilometers of width, starts with small rivers," he said. "We can be those small rivers that converge into a big Amazon river."
And we'd better get started flowing, since God didn't give us two earths, Cardinal Barreto added.
"We don’t have a spare house or a holiday apartment. This is it! This is what we have, this is where we’re born, where we live, where we die," he said.