Humankind stands at the edge of the abyss and yet we inch forward. Neither government policies nor people’s collective behaviour reflect the real and present danger facing us today. The temperature rise we are witnessing is not the beginning of a gradual, linear increase, but an early stage on what is basically an exponential curve.[i] Furthermore, we know there are tipping points at which abrupt drastic change is precipitated.[ii] We just don’t know how soon those tipping points will be reached.
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By calling our present situation a “climate emergency”, what we are calling for is the rapid transformation required to stop the problem getting worse and mitigate the real risks we are facing. This requires a new mindset, especially at a political leadership level, but also in faith communities and society as a whole. When you are in a burning building, you don’t “get around to” evacuating!
Declaring an emergency allows for the mobilization needed to respond. It gives a social signal to move from ordinary mode into emergency mode. It is allows a shift from dealing with lots of competing priorities to effective and urgent action with a single focus and our full engagement. Suddenly, everything becomes possible to meet our focus. It is this ability to shift into emergency mode that that has allowed our species to survive and flourish.
The nature of humans is such that, when we sense danger, we look around for cues about the seriousness of the threat and respond if we see others mobilizing. Declaring an emergency enables urgent mobilization of government, community and personal effort and resources to act for the common good. This is nothing new: we do it for other emergencies like bushfires, floods and war. When we know it is an emergency, we can move into emergency mode – and it brings out in us courage, generosity, heroism, vision and innovation. It also brings people together as we work with unity of purpose for the common good.
To be credible, a declaration of emergency must have a time limit and it must be followed through with substance: commitment of resources commensurate with the priority. In this case, the time limit is “until a safe climate is restored”. For communities and people of faith, it means that those actions that we might be thinking to undertake sometime in the future, we should organise to do them now.
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How is this the responsibility of faith communities?
Our political and business leaders have been cautious about the potential economic disruption of the transformative change required by science. For example, the action plans entailed in the Paris Accord, if delivered, will still lead to increases of between 2.7°C and 3°C degrees warming by the end of this century.[iii] The implicit assumption in the details of the Paris Accord is that we can have multi-decade transition scenarios to save the earth from catastrophic climate disruption. The truth is that there is no such time.
And, just as we need to tell the truth about the science of global warming and its impacts, we also need to tell the truth about the solutions. The technology and know-how are available to enable the needed economic transformation to occur and these would offer numerous benefits to human well-being. They would not only result in reductions in loss of life and the protection of eco-systems, they would mean more moderate consumption and healthier lifestyles. Each of the religious traditions hold that human well-being is not compatible with greed, materialism, growth-without-limits and the frenetic pace which is characteristic of the current economic order. It is about a compassionate, respectful relationship with each other and with the earth and, for most of us, a humble, joyful acknowledgement of our dependence on a Supreme Being. The religious traditions offer models for new ways of living that a more honouring of these relationships.
The world needs religious leaders to fully step up to their role as moral leaders and call for the rapid action needed to restore the earth’s natural balance. Faith communities and religious leaders generally believe that we have a responsibility to protect the earth, and now is the time to translate this into real action.
Action can no longer be postponed. The time to act is now.
Various official statements attest to this, so they are worth mentioning:
Pope Francis in Laudato Si’: “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony and disdain.” (Para. 161)
Indigenous Elders and Medicine Peoples Council Statement to the UN, 2015: “All that is Sacred in Life is vanishing because of our actions. The truth is we have moved beyond climate change to survival.”
Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change, 2015: “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.”
COP22 Interfaith Climate Statement: “If we continue to damage our vital support system through over-exploitation, contamination and destruction of the climate that protects us, the life-giving minerals, soil that feeds us, the oceans and freshwater sources that sustain us, we do so at our own peril. We must take swift action, guided by our faiths and work in service together as a global Earth community.”
Statement form the Interfaith Summit in New York, September 2014: “Climate change is indeed a threat to life.”
Federation of Australian Buddhist Councils, 2015: “In the face of overwhelming scientific consensus, urgent action is needed to avoid the catastrophic damage to the earth that climate change will bring if not halted.”
Hindu Declaration on Climate Change, 2015 and 2009: “Rapacious exploitation of the planet [has] caught up with us. A radical change in our relationship with nature is no longer an option. It is a matter of survival. We cannot destroy nature without destroying ourselves.”
A Rabbinic Letter on the Climate Crisis, 2015: “Human behavior that overworks the Earth – especially the over-burning of fossil fuels -- crests in a systemic planetary response that endangers human communities and many other life-forms as well.”
The business community, politicians, scientists, innovators and civil society have not yet been able to tip the balance in favour of an effective response to the climate crisis. Faith communities are arguably the largest social institutions in the world and have traditionally taken a role moral leadership, even if they have often faltered. Faith communities have played a central role in movements for progressive change, and it is hard to imagine how humanity could generate sufficient momentum for change without our being fully involved.[iv]
This urgent issue is also an opportunity. It calls for increased global unity of purpose, to which the large and diverse faith communities can make an important contribution. Having a long-standing commitment to the common good, people of faith could help transform society so it is more sustainable and, at the same time, fairer and safer for all, with better distribution and a careful use of our remaining resources.
The technology for using energy from renewable sources has been commercially available for some time, it is cheaper by the year, inherently decentralised and non-polluting. Improving energy efficiency can save costs and reduce demand for energy. Investment in low carbon technologies would lead to innovation and more people employed, while leaving us with a much better quality of life. Society could be more united by common purpose.
According to the Lancet commission, by moving quickly away from burning fossil fuels we will significantly improve the health of people through cleaner air and water and avoid the potentially disastrous health impacts of a warming world.[v]
It is all possible. Indeed the shift to low carbon technology is already happening, just not fast enough.
So, too, we have knowledge of how to provide food, shelter and other needs without destroying the ability of the earth to sustain life as we know it. And we know some ways of drawing excess CO2 out of the atmosphere in a way that restores the earth’s natural cycles and balances, although more research is needed.
What the world lacks is the political will. Religious leaders can have a positive influence on people of faith and thus help build the political will needed to make the needed transformation.
Next possible steps
- Sign the petition calling for declaration of a climate emergency.
- Encourage leaders and members of your faith community to sign the petition.
- Use whatever influence you have to persuade your faith community to switch to green power and/or install solar panels. Make the switch yourself.
- Make the lifestyle changes you imagined might be necessary in five or ten years’ time. Make them now. Buy less. Sell your extra freezer. Compost food scraps. Travel less, especially by plane. Walk or ride a bike. Eat less meat. Get politically active. Avoid disposables
- Move your investments out of fossil fuel extraction and infrastructure and into renewable and low carbon technology.
- Add #ClimateEmergency to your social media communications – tag MPs, Senators and parties as appropriate
- Write hard copy letters to, and/or meet with, your MP and Senators, with an initial focus on back benchers.
- Talk about the need for action with others in your faith community. Break the silence around this subject. Note that this may bring out climate change deniers but have courage. Their (often) angry disagreement has been silencing us for far too long and given the excessive power that has stifled action.
Scientific basis for “emergency” mode
2016 was the warmest year on record, which was warmer than 2015 which had been warmest year until then. [vi]
More and more scientists are concurring with Professor Stefan Rahmstorf of Germany’s Potsdam University, who says that we are “in a kind of climate emergency” and that at least 1.5°C is locked in. “It is becoming more and more urgent. Time has almost run out to get emissions down. That’s the real emergency.”[vii]
We are starting to observe the impacts that indicate that the earth has already reached dangerous conditions. We are starting to see the collapse of the very ecological systems on which we depend – and its effects. Climate change amplifies many of the issues with which humanity is already struggling, such as diseases, conflict, poverty, food and water security, a fairer distribution of resources; it is a threat multiplier.
Rising average temperatures globally means unpredictable weather patterns and therefore food insecurity for people reliant on agriculture. It means more frequent, more intense droughts, but also more intense rainfall events leading to floods. Higher temperatures means higher water temperatures and changed ocean currents leading to an increase in the severity of tropical storms, such as cyclones. It means more frequent heatwaves and changed disease patterns. It means loss of species diversity when they cannot adapt to disrupted climatic conditions.
Many misjudge the level of risk we face because they confuse observable weather conditions with climate. Climatology is an incredibly complex science. While average temperature rise is around 1.2°C compared with pre-industrial levels, further temperature rise is “locked in” for hundreds of years. This is because there’s a lag effect between greenhouse gas emissions entering the atmosphere and their impact on temperatures. We are experiencing now the warming impact of pollution which entered the atmosphere decades ago, and global emissions have continued to increase. It will be years before the earth experiences the impact of greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere now. We can expect many metres of sea level rise to continue for decades to come, even if we stop all emissions today. There is no “carbon budget” to use.
Global warming is a near-term threat. We are experiencing some of its impacts now. The best path is an emergency-scale mobilisation to get to global net zero emissions as fast as possible (by 2026) and then move to negative net emissions as fast as possible. The transition to renewable energy is happening, but it is not happening quickly enough to avoid a high risk of catastrophic impacts. The time for faith communities to put our considerable weight behind this mobilisation is now.
“Climate Reality Check: After Paris, counting the cost.” http://www.climatealliance.org.au/blog/2016/climate-reality-check-after-paris-counting-the-cost-david-spratt
Humanity at the Crossroads, a letter from the Multi-Faith Association of South Australia http://religionsforpeaceaustralia.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Appeal_for_Spiritual_Leadership.pdf
[i] Professor Thomas Lovejoy, George Mason University, Virginia, USA
[ii] Professor Sybren Drijfhout, University of Southampton, UK
[iv] George Marshall, “Communicating with religious Communities: Research overview and emergent narratives.”
[v] The Lancet 2009; Vol.373 May 16 “Managing the Health Impacts of Climate Change 2014”; 348 26.3.2014 “Climate Change and Human Survival”