Religious leaders as climate activists: Saving planet is moral duty


Pope Francis was commended and criticized in June when he warned that the earth “is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” He isn’t the only religious leader saying that people of faith must fight for the environment.

Pope Francis has said it more bluntly, but leaders of other religions have made similar calls ahead of the Paris climate summit: Saving the planet is not just a political duty, but also a moral one.

“It is good for humanity and the world at large when we believers better recognize the ecological commitments which stem from our convictions,” Francis, leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, wrote in the Laudato Si encyclical in June.

The document, which tackles the issue of climate change from a theological point of view, insists that while the Book of Genesis says God granted humankind “dominion” over the earth, this does not translate into a licence to ride roughshod over it.

“We must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures,” Francis said. “We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us.”

The pope – who is named for Saint Francis of Assisi, considered the church’s first true eco-warrior – argued in his letter that poor countries are hit hardest by the effects of climate change and that everyone must play their part in protecting creation.

“With this topic, the pope also wants to realize the church’s role as advocate of the poor,” religious expert Marianne Heimbach-Steins, a professor in Christian Social Science at Muenster University in Germany, told dpa at the time.

“The pope’s voice is listened to worldwide,” said Heimbach-Steins.

The topic is not new for the Vatican or popes – Francis’ predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI campaigned for environmental protection and guardianship of creation. But this was the first time that a whole encyclical was devoted to the subject.

“When the leader of more than 1 billion Catholics worldwide makes guardianship of creation and especially the protection of the Earth’s atmosphere the focus of an encyclical, then that is of course a powerful signal,” said Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, in an earlier interview.

Francis’ encyclical inspired seven American rabbis to issue a Rabbinic Letter on the Climate Crisis addressed to the global Jewish community. As of late October, 425 rabbis from the United States and Canada had signed up to it.

“As Jews, we ask the question whether the sources of traditional Jewish wisdom can offer guidance to our political efforts to prevent disaster and heal our relationship with the Earth,” the letter says.

Signatories urge “a new sense of eco-social justice,” warn that Israel is particularly vulnerable to climate change, and condemn a 200-year-old drive to “overwork Earth – precisely what our Torah teaches us we must not do.”

Academics, religious leaders and activists issued a similar message in an Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change adopted at a conference in Istanbul in August.

“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 ending life as we know it on our planet,” it said.

“Excessive pollution from fossil fuels threatens to destroy the gifts bestowed on us by God, whom we know as Allah – gifts such as a functioning climate, healthy air to breathe, regular seasons, and living oceans,” the declaration warned.

The Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhism’s highest spiritual leader, said last month that manmade environmental problems cannot be solved by divine intervention – but only through collective engagement.

“We ourselves have created these problems but we rely on praying to God or to Buddha, for solution. This I think is little bit illogical. These problems are our creation, so we cannot seek solution to these problems from above,” he said.

Representatives of other major religions have been less forthcoming in recent months. But the 2009 Hindu Declaration on Climate Change said that while cycles of creation and destruction are part of God’s design, “Hindus still know we must do all that is humanly possible to protect the Earth and her resources for the present as well as future generations.”

In Japan, the Association of Shinto Shrines has not issued any specific climate statement, but preaches ecological responsibility: “In Shinto, we believe that both humans and nature are children of kami, and live together as members of the same family.”