Just before this week’s opening of the 17th U.N. Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa, Pope Benedict XVI issued a plea for solidarity among international leaders to reach a responsible deal in Durban that accounts for the needs of the poorest communities and future generations. From the Vatican, Pope Benedict—dubbed the “Green Pope” for his commitment to environmental concerns—urged conference delegates to “reach agreement on a responsible, credible response” to the “complex” and “disturbing” effects of climate change.
His charge came shortly after a letter published by the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference, which affirmed the “general consensus that human activities make [climate change] happen much faster,” and underscored the threat of climate change to “our beloved world and the entire creation that God has given us.” This letter launched the African bishops’ appeal to the government of South Africa to support resolutions that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, require industrialized countries with high levels of emissions to fund programs aimed at helping developing countries lower their emissions, and commit to the production of renewal energy.
Faith groups from around the world have registered their concerns over the disastrous effects of climate change and the rising risk to the world’s most vulnerable people. The African group We Have Faith – Act Now for Climate Justice organized a highly publicized pre-summit rally in Durban this past Sunday with religious leaders, musical guests, and celebrities in attendance. Nearly 2,000 rally attendees presented a global petition to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres, who accepted the document on behalf of the 17th Conference of Parties with tears in her eyes.
“We have heard your voice and your prayers,” Figueres said of the petition. It calls for “neighbors to treat the earth with respect, resist disorder, (and) live in peace with each other including embracing a legally binding climate change treaty."
More than 40,948 people signed the “We Have Faith” petition, almost four times the number of registered conference attendees. And faith groups are planning a Global Day of Action march and a multifaith prayer service for early December to keep the religious pressure on global leaders to deliver a vision and strategy for dealing with climate change.
At Sunday’s rally, Archbishop Desmond Tutu likened climate change to the battle against apartheid. “Now we are facing another huge, huge enemy, and no one nation can face this particular enemy on its own,” he said. Like apartheid, he added, climate change “cannot be defeated in isolation.”
Other religious leaders sent their support from abroad. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams shared a video of support, saying, “It’s no time for despair—but it’s certainly no time for complacency either. The moral crisis is as real as ever. And we need as never before real moral leadership from the international community. We need to know that governments will fulfill the pledges that have been given by the richer countries, to provide $100 billion by 2020.”
U.S. ecumenical organizations, including Church World Service and the National Council of Churches of Christ, have sent letters to President Barack Obama urging him to do all he can toward committing to a concrete source of climate finance, supporting progress on a second Kyoto Protocol, and reaching “a fair, ambitious and binding agreement that sets forth a truly moral response to climate change.” The National Council of Churches is also sending Methodist, Episcopal, and Presbyterian representatives to participate in the faith actions in Durban.
Though not present at this year’s summit, Pope Benedict regularly expresses his concern for environmental stewardship and responsible leadership on climate change. His charge on Sunday, and the ongoing interfaith engagement in Durban, further indicates a shift across religious traditions toward greater concern—and action—in order to protect God’s creation.
Catherine Woodiwiss is Special Assistant for Faith and Progressive Policy at American Progress. For more on this initiative, please see its project page.