Cop28 failings is not how the story ends. People of faith must redouble efforts to halt climate change

Pic: NASA ESA Public domain

By Ruth Peacock

Faith organisations have a key role in moving forward progress on climate change, according to speakers at a Religion Media Centre briefing.

Endless discussions at Cop meetings, where nation states try to protect and maximise their national interest, mean that the problem only gets worse, year on year, according to Rabbi Yonatan Neril, founder and current director of the Interfaith Centre for Sustainable Development, based in Jerusalem.

“It’s not all about fossil fuels and decarbonisation,” he said. “There’s actually something deeper happening on Planet Earth, which is … that the climate crisis has deeper roots, including materialism, greed, short-term thinking and finding our pleasure and fulfilment in the physical world.

“It’s not about trying to maximise our narrow national interests. It’s about how do we, as a collective, as humanity on one ship, come together to solve this crisis through an awareness of interdependence, interconnected action, love for God’s creation, humility, simplicity, modesty.”

Rabbi Neril was one of the leaders of the Faith Pavilion, which met in parallel with the main Cop28 meetings in Dubai and was the largest interfaith climate event in history. It was, he said, an attempt to shift the narrative.

With 85 per cent of the world’s people claiming affiliation to a religious tradition, he said: “Until religion gets fully on board in curbing climate change, we’re not going to see a solution to the problem, because it has spiritual roots and spiritual solutions.”

Dr Lorna Gold, chief executive of FaithInvest, said the Faith Pavilion made a significant difference in modelling the collaboration required to tackle climate change, in the way it had planned, organised and led the event.

It had also been at the vanguard of moves to phase out fossil fuels, with discussions and speakers on the subject included in its 70 sessions. More than 2,000 faith leaders signed an open letter calling for the need to phase out fossil fuels.

Pope Francis, in his opening address, delivered by video link, called for the elimination of fossil fuels, a speech that Dr Gold said was “almost like a jolt of electricity around the Cop on the first day”.

The 2015 Paris agreement to limit the increase in the global average temperature to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, made no mention of fossil fuels. They were first formally debated at Cop26 in Glasgow in 2021, with a commitment to “phase down” the use of coal.

Last year in Sharm el-Shaikh, Cop27 failed to expand the category to include oil and gas and it failed to agree a reduction in overall fossil fuel. This year at Cop28 a draft agreement that replaced “phased out” with “reduce consumption of fossil fuels in an orderly manner”, was met with outrage for its lack of ambition or intent.

Dr Gold told the briefing: “My reading is that the fossil fuel genie is out of the bottle and it won’t be put back in.”

The panellists were asked by the host, Rosie Dawson, how much influence the faith leaders were having on parallel political discussions. Did they ever meet?

Dr Gold said the Vatican had played a very active role in the Cop negotiations and lay Catholics involved in the discussions had been “shuttling back and forward” from the Faith Pavilion to the main negotiators.

Rabbi Neril said several government ministers had spoken at pavilion events and national delegates met religious figures: “I think that the religious community in general upped its game in terms of trying to have an impact at a broader level.”

Carlos Zepeda, from the Laudato Si’ Research Institute at the Vatican, believed the solutions lay in a return to core religious values. He told the briefing that faith communities could be transformative and create change in environmental governance through appeal to their core principles.

Dr Fachruddin Mangunjaya, from the Centre for Islamic Studies Universitas Nasional in Indonesia, agreed, saying that morality was important. “We are guardians of creation. Eighty-five per cent believe there is a creator of this planet and we have a commitment. Religion is bringing science to the heart and the mind of the people. We can mobilise our followers,” he said.

But for Farwah Gulamali Khataw, from Faith for Our Planet, and who is based in Pakistan, one of the key obstacles to engaging people of faith was the lack of information and knowledge among the public. She said in Pakistan there were many communities with no basic understanding of the problem and there were several stages to go through before a discussion on spiritual or moral obligations to act.

The question was asked: Does religious belief gets in the way of progress? This was highlighted in a session at the Pavilion on exploring religious resistance to climate change.

The sentiment exists in Pakistan that “Allah is going to take care of it”, a genuine belief held alongside no basic knowledge of the challenge, Ms Khataw said.

Rabbi Neril gave details of surveys suggesting the percentage of religious people who considered climate change to be a crisis, has declined in the United States, with only 8 per cent of white evangelicals believing this and most Christians agreeing. There was a lot of work to do in religious communities where climate change was not regarded as a religious issue, leaving it instead to scientists to find the solution.

One of the key messages from the faith representatives was the detail of climate change impact at local level. Allen Ottaro, founder executive of the Catholic Youth Network for Environmental Sustainability in Africa, said there was a disconnect between the negotiations in Dubai and events across the world.

During Cop28, a serious mudslide in northern Tanzania killed at least 47 people as well as destroying livelihoods and homes. In Zimbabwe, a storm destroyed schools. Mr Ottaro was looking to the politicians to have a finger on the pulse of what was happening and being aware of their responsibility to come up with ambitious resolutions.

Ms Khataw said there had to be a basic recognition from every government to commit strongly to a programme, especially because of the climate vulnerability in the global south which faced repeated disasters. “It’s the young people who are increasingly frustrated because this is their world to inherit,” she said.

As the panel ended its discussion, negotiations were continuing in Dubai and predicted to go into the night. The panel was asked how they would like to see the world change its approach to discussing and agreeing action on climate change, as the Cop summits have proved so hard to make progress.

Ms Khataw said there needed to be a long hard look at the structure of Cop gatherings where the overriding view was: “You started the problem, now you find the solution.” She said: “The power in the room is very much in the same space and represented by the same sort of patriarchal corporate power that put us into this situation in the first place.”

Carlos Zepeda added: “We need to go beyond Cops — we’re just banging on the same wall every time. We need to have more local, structured participation. A lot of the money that’s been invested in Cops needs to be flowing into the root communities that couldn’t be in this space and into dialogue that is more meaningful for the communities — faith, women, youth, indigenous — representing the whole of humanity.”

Dr Gold was pessimistic. “I really couldn’t bear the thought of going to another Cop that does not agree to phase out fossil fuel,” she said. But although this looked like a serious setback, she added: “I think we have to continue stubbornly to reinforce that this is not how the story ends. This is a really serious setback in the journey. But as people of faith, as people who care about the future, we’re going to redouble our efforts.”

Dr Doliwura Zakaria, chairman of the steering committee for the African Union Interfaith Dialogue Forum, said even having a Faith Pavilion is a significant achievement and he remains ever optimistic. “We should not be swayed with the few countries who are making things difficult for us not to get to that level [of fossil fuel agreement],” he said.

“I’m very hopeful that we should go beyond Cop. We should move as faith leaders, accessible in every community and hamlet, with the structures able to do the advocacy, training and capacity building of our people. And I think that if we do this, it will go a long way to be the game-changer, to bring everybody on board to understand that we have no option but to take action.

“Sincerely, I hope that there will be something at the end of Cop28.”


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