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In our opinion: Faith groups can be the moral compass on climate change

Climate politics will always be politics. Where faith groups excel is in their ability to remove the discussion from the political arena and push it to principle.

Nanditha Krishna, author and historian, poses in a sacred grove at the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation campus in Chennai, India. Terracotta horses are placed in the grove as offerings to the mother goddess.
Courtesy Nanditha Krishna

Can religion save the planet from environmental destruction?

To both the religion and the climate change skeptics, that may seem an absurd question, but it’s not. Faith groups are perfectly poised to play a part in reversing environmental degradation and lifting the world’s population out of harm’s way.

For too long politics and political actors have been a drag on any substantial attempt to address a changing climate. The landmark U.N. climate report released last fall, for instance, admits dropping the global temperature to pre-industrial levels is a technical possibility but one that is unlikely given the present political environment. Reelection bids all but ensure some lawmakers sidestep politically volatile environmental bills to avoid jeopardizing their shot at another term.

Unfortunately, those debates typically take on a toxic tone that disseminates through the public. Loyalty to partisan politics distracts from the mountains of research produced and duplicated across the scientific community that points to the dangers of increased greenhouse gas emissions.

Fortunately, public opinion seems to be swinging in the right direction. Over the past decade, support for environmental solutions has been improving. As of this year, a majority of Americans say protecting the environment should be a top priority for the president and Congress, according to Pew Research Center.

That’s a positive trend, but politics will still be politics. Where faith groups excel is in their ability to remove the discussion from the political arena and push it to principle. They give the climate debate a moral tone and energize worshippers to make individual choices out of respect for the earth, not out of political fidelity.

Nearly all the world’s religions espouse doctrines that affirm the sanctity of the planet and admonish adherents to act accordingly. Religions give humanity to the victims of drought and flooding, treating them not as numbers on a spreadsheet but as humans with divine worth.

They preach principles of stewardship and acknowledge Mother Earth is not ours to abuse. One faith leader, Cardinal Pedro Barreto, remarked at the 2018 G20 Interfaith Forum, “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.”

That is the tone climate discussions must adopt if policy ideas are going to transform into tangible outcomes, which is why faith leaders are starting to galvanize support and be “the moral compass” of the issue, as the Deseret News’ Erica Evans reports.

Faith groups have another stake in the issue, though this one is more practical. Religious organizations are often the first at the scene of natural disasters, offering their resources, manpower and aid to victims around the globe. But higher concentrations of greenhouse gases could lead to larger and more erratic weather events, constricting already-tight budgets. National governments need these faith groups in times of crisis, but without concerted effort to dial back the decay, there may come a time when charitable aid can’t keep up with demand.

Taken together, those motivated by religious principles have a tremendous opportunity to lead out in combating climate change, and governments would be foolish to dismiss the chance to work with them. It’s clear the current political trajectory isn’t leading toward a better climate. Why not give faith a fighting chance?