Cop26: can faith groups help to influence decisions on the planet’s future?

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COP26, the United Nations climate summit taking place in Glasgow from this weekend, was never going to achieve the “messianic and apocalyptic expectations” put upon it, according to a theologian and lifelong environmental campaigner.

It has been said frequently that Cop26 is the world’s best and last chance to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, preventing catastrophic consequences of climate change.  

But Martin Palmer told a Religion Media Centre media briefing: “It’s not going to achieve things,” and that faith groups would have no impact on the summit, because deals are being brokered behind the scenes.

Nation states, he said, were a joke: “They don’t work. They don’t operate, they’re corrupt, they’re vile, they’re oppressive.” Instead, he suggested an alternative structure of civil society was needed — including faith groups, youth movements, the finance world, and the scientific community. “That’s where the change will come,” Mr Palmer said. “It will not come from governments.”

He warned of “faithwash” where faith groups positioned moral responses to matters being discussed and politicians ignored them, saying that they had to face the realities of politics and business. 

Instead, faith groups should take action despite being ignored, he said. “We’ve got to do that with every asset and strength that we have, and with the fact that we are trusted, more than any government, any UN group, any [non-governmental organisation] in the world. We’ve not capitalised that.”

Mr Palmer is chief executive of FaithInvest, which seeks to leverage financial power to change the future. It wants to empower faith groups to invest in line with their beliefs and values to create a sustainable planet.

He said faith organisations were the fourth-largest investing group in the world.  They held $12-14 trillion of the world’s investment funds and the faithful represented another $20-24 trillion. Faiths could make a vast impact but progress was slow, with $1.5 trillion shifting in two years.

Omar Shaikh, managing director of the Global Ethical Finance Initiative, told the briefing that there had been a recent rise in the number of people talking about profit and purpose, with sustainable development goals and carbon footprint measures. In the 1990s, he said, ethical investment was for “tree-huggers” with scepticism as to whether investments would make money, but now there are “fantastic” risk-adjusted returns while investing in fossil fuels is highly risky.

He and Mr Palmer are bringing together main religious investment groups with the Islamic Development Bank and the World Bank, in an event at Loch Lomond to launch the beginnings of a new religious development fund.

Money is at the heart of much of the campaigning by faith groups with a push towards disinvesting from fossil fuel funds and companies.

James Buchanan, campaign manager of Operation Noah, which works with all churches on climate change issues, announced that 72 faith organisations had committed that very day to disinvest $4.2 billion from fossil fuel companies. 

They included the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Scotland and the Methodist Church, but from the Church of England only the dioceses of Truro and Sodor and Man. He said the Anglicans had further to go and needed to disinvest from oil companies.

Olivia Hanks, of Quakers in Britain, said it was, in 2013, the first church to disinvest from fossil fuels, a decision that was a question of integrity. Quakers believed that fossil fuel activities were “destructive to communities and to the earth” and they wanted no part of that, but to use their money to do good. Today, she said, there was a need to look at a rapid phase-out of fossil fuels and the focus must be kept on the fossil fuel companies at the heart of this problem.

The media briefing included speakers engaged in climate-change lobbying from a faith perspective, who have contributed to events on the fringe of Cop26 and in some cases are attending and speaking.

For them, action on climate change was about pressing the cause of the poor and vulnerable, whose lives and livelihoods were at risk from extreme climate events caused by climate change.

Ms Hanks described the Make Cop Count interfaith movement, which campaigns on the impact of climate change on communities: “The climate crisis isn’t just a matter of science and technology, it’s fundamentally a justice issue. It’s an outcome of our economic and political systems. And that is what needs addressing,” she said.

Shahin Ashraf, of Islamic Relief Worldwide, told stories from southeast Asia where rising sea levels were forcing whole communities to move to urban areas, unable to work and create livelihoods. Nations needed to consider how to remap the world’s population as climate change forced it to migrate. Lobby groups must be at the table when politicians discuss action, ensuring correct forecasting and standing up for the communities at risk.

“We feel the business of being a minority, we feel the business of having an incredibly insecure home and fearing its loss. I think we want to goad. I think we want to challenge. I think we want to bring divergent views to the table.”

– Clive Lawton

The Commonwealth Jewish Council also advocates for the poor, especially in small island nations threatened by rising sea levels, places where there are few Jewish people. Chief executive Clive Lawton said: “We feel the business of being a minority, we feel the business of having an incredibly insecure home and fearing its loss. I think we want to goad. I think we want to challenge. I think we want to bring divergent views to the table.”

But what is the impact of combined messages from faith groups in the noise around a climate change summit?

Alex Kirby, an environmental correspondent for more than 30 years, formerly with the BBC and now the Climate News Network, said: “I think it’s a powerful voice in the corridors of power, in the sense that it gives politicians an excuse.”

He explained that assessing politicians’ actions in a tick-box exercise was not enough: “I wish to goodness, people of faith would say to politicians, ‘You’ve got it wrong. We don’t want to tick boxes. We want to find a new way of thinking, which will lead us to a new way of believing and acting … We’re not going to try to defend you any more in your futile attempts to make a better world’.”

He wished that faith groups would face reality and spell out to politicians how bad things were, telling truth to power.  “I love to think that people of faith could lose that optimism, could face the reality, which is grim, and try in whatever ways they can not to mitigate it — because that is probably a busted flush by now — but to try to reduce it, to adapt, so far as possible, so the succeeding generations have a little more hope.”

Jennifer Morris is under 30. She will arrive in Glasgow with a group representing hundreds of young Christians who have taken part in a relay 1,200-mile pilgrimage from the G7 meeting in Truro to Cop26, a journey that has taken four-and-a-half months. She is in the Young Christian Climate Network, which was set up to bring energy and enthusiasm to the cause, fuelled by the urgent realisation that “half of all emissions ever released have been released in our lifetimes”.

She firmly believes that lobbying governments remains important because they do have the power to affect international aid, fund loss and damage caused by climate change and cancel international debts.

“It’s frustrating, because you feel like you’re shouting into the void, but I do think lobbying has power, especially if there are enough of us being annoying enough for enough time.”

– Jennifer Morris

And as to whether success can be judged by politicians adopting any of the activists’ agendas, Ms Hanks said: “I think I share some of Martin’s scepticism about what Cop is likely to achieve. We’ve been seeing this as an opportunity to build a movement. Although we will be observers on the inside at Cop26, we’re also going to have a presence on the outside because I think that’s at least as important.”

Full recording of the briefing is available below:

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