Faith, atheism and climate justice: Climate Conversations IV

Floods on the Ganges River, submerge a statue of the Hindu god Shiva. Rishikesh, India June 16-17, 2013
Floods on the Ganges River, submerge a statue of the Hindu god Shiva. Rishikesh, India June 16-17, 2013

As an atheist (albeit with a recent curiosity for Buddhism), I approached the fourth in the series of Climate Conversations – Prophetic Voices – with some trepidation. Though the main two NGOs involved – Trócaire and Christian Aid – are overtly faith-based organisations, Climate Conversations has so far focused squarely on the practical and empirical challenges of climate change, with only a brief and rather esoteric homily early in the first session. I have a lot of admiration for Christian Aid and Trócaire in tackling global poverty and inequality. While they are motivated by Christian beliefs, they don’t seek to impose those beliefs and they conduct their development work responsibly and equitably. But what concerned me about this session of Climate Conversations – introduced as a “reflective space” ahead of the final call to action – was its explicit focus on the place of faith in addressing climate change.

I had two fears. First, that the pragmatic, down-to-earth approach of previous sessions would give way to vague and nebulous idealism. Second, that what thusfar had been an all-encompassing and inclusive process would be effectively ringfenced for the religious, with the non-religious nominally welcome but tacitly excluded. My hope, however, was that the discussion would be more philosophical than explicitly religious – that the reflection would focus on our moral and ethical responsibilities to act, rather than on divine expectations or imperatives; that it would envision a common human endeavour that transcended the divisions of different faiths. In the end, I got perhaps the best that could have been expected – an uneasy balance between what I hoped and what I feared.

A geological order of magnitude

The keynote speech by Fr Seán McDonagh, a Columban ‘eco-theologian’, was an encouraging start. “Any spiritual or moral reflection on climate change,” he began, “has to start with the science of what’s happening, not on these other disputed questions.” The scientific evidence is overwhelming that human activity is causing rapid changes to the climate system, and the reality is that the disruption is evident, before we have even reached a 1°C increase on pre-industrial times. “It is of an extraordinary order of magnitude and needs to be addressed extraordinarily quickly,” he said.

Having worked in the Philippines, Fr McDonagh spoke of the the impact of climate change on those people who are the most vulnerable to it – and the least responsible for it. He told of the devastation of Super-typhoon Haiyan on the city of Tacloban eighteen months ago. He spoke of the millions in Bangladesh and other low-lying regions under threat from even modest sea-level rise, and of the impacts on food production in Africa and Asia. He pointed out that as the world’s population is climbing, the world’s ability to feed that population is falling. Changes to ecosystems that took millions of years to happen naturally are now happening within a century, due to our overuse of carbon over the last 150 years. Unless we adopt “a new way of living on our planet,” Fr McDonagh warned, “we will have moved not just a historical or cultural sense, but in a geological order of magnitude.”

Tacloban, Philippines in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, Nov 2013. Image: http://www.correctphilippines.org

The old ethical frameworks of many religious traditions, he said, are “not wide enough at all today”. We need to act out of concern for the common good, for intergenerational justice and in solidarity – but it is no longer enough to think of these things simply with regard to humankind. The common good must incorporate the ecosystems in which humanity is embedded. Our responsibilities for justice and solidarity are to the entire natural world and to generations to come. “We must begin,” he said, “to be more sensitive to the impact of what we are doing. We must begin to advocate for the structures that will allow us to change across the whole area of our lives.” The place of faith groups in this effort, for Fr McDonagh, is to play a role in mobilising and motivating their followers, in connecting the discourse to action. That is a strategy, even as an atheist, I can get wholeheartedly behind.

Because we are human

Other speakers, however, simply put a climate change spin on evangelising their own doctrines – often with rhetoric that seemed to assume everyone shared their perspective. Some called on Jesus, Allah or the Holy Spirit for deliverance from climate change. Others saw our duty to act arising simply out of duty to God and his creation. At these times, not only did I feel excluded from the conversation, I felt the reality of the issue was being watered down – that our role in creating the problem and our sole responsibility for addressing it were being sidelined by vague and quixotic whimsy.

In her reflection, which included a lengthy digression on the Resurrection, actor Melanie Clark Pullen spoke of her young daughter’s mantra of “it’s not fair.” She imagined a future in which her daughter might tell her it wasn’t fair that – because of climate change – people in Bolivia had to flee in their millions from the flooding Amazon, that people in Ethiopia had to walk eight hours a day for water, or that chaotic weather patterns hit struggling people hardest. And she imagined that her response to her daughter would be: “No, it wasn’t fair. So, because we were Christians…  we took action.”

I don’t doubt it was meant with sincerity, but that one statement embodied the very worst of what I’d feared coming into the session. The ethical urge and conviction to take action, to fight for climate justice, to work in solidarity for the global common good, is not the sole preserve of Christians – or of the religious faithful of any stripe. As someone in the audience commented – to half-hearted and awkward applause – “It is okay to be an atheist and an environmentalist as well.”

I believe it is a good thing if religious people are motivated by their faith to act on climate change. It is a good thing if religious communities and groups can engage and marshal their followers to take action. But it is not “because we are Christians” that we take action on climate change. Nor because we are Muslims or Buddhists, Hindus, Jews or druids, Bahá’í, Rastafari or Jedi that we take action on climate change. It is because we are human: all of us, regardless of which faith – if any – we subscribe to.

Doing something is better than doing nothing

Thankfully, most of the conversation focused less on sermonising and more on the constructive roles groups can play in motivating and mobilising action towards the wider common good. Gunnela Hahn, of the Church of Sweden spoke (by video) of the ethical and financial benefits of their divestment from fossil-fuel companies. Natasha Harty of EcoQuakers and Eco-Congregation Ireland talked about setting an example through sustainable living, market gardening and producing Biochar (a carbon-sequestering fertiliser made from ground-up charcoal). Having learned mediation at the Dublin Buddhist Centre, I felt some small measure of representation when Triratna Buddhist Liz Evers urged people to stop and think, to take time to concentrate on the issue, to “create the mental space” required for facing a challenge of such a scale.

The most powerful moment of all however, came from the one person who made no mention of faith. Seventeen-year-old student Amy Colgan talked about studying “the intricacies and interconnectivity” of climate change with ECO-UNESCO, and then recounted a simulation of a climate crisis at Trócaire’s Climate Change Challenge Weekend.

“It’s not a game” – Flooding in Manila, Philippines, Aug 2012 Image: The News International, Pakistan.

At first, she found it “a really interesting game” to play the role of climate migrants and refugees. But then, she said, she had “a horrifying moment of realisation… that somewhere else in the world, this very moment… someone else is going through [that] and it’s not a game. They don’t get to say, ‘I’m sorry. This is too much for me right now. Can I take a break?’”

Early on, Trócaire’s Lorna Gold had referred to the “state of paralysis” many people feel when faced with the scale of the climate change. Amy displayed anything but paralysis: “When it comes to being active in the fight for climate justice,” she said, “doing something is better than doing nothing.”

Common human endeavour

My hope going into this session of Climate Conversations had been that it would envision a common human endeavour that transcended the divisions of different faiths. Towards the end of the session, Quaker representative Fiona Murdoch read from a joint statement of Quaker groups worldwide. Though it came from one faith group, the passage must surely have voiced the sentiments of everyone present. For me, it voiced exactly the attitude and approach I had hoped for from Climate Conversations as a whole.

We seek to nurture a global human society that prioritizes the well-being of people over profit, and lives in right relationship with our Earth; a peaceful world with fulfilling employment, clean air and water, renewable energy, and healthy thriving communities and ecosystems. As members of this beautiful human family, we seek meaningful commitments from our leaders and ourselves, to address climate change for our shared future, the Earth and all species, and the generations to come. We see this Earth as a stunning gift that supports life. It is our only home. Let us care for it together. – Facing the Challenge of Climate Change: A shared statement by Quaker groups (January 2015)

This Sunday, Climate Conversations will reach its conclusion with “A Call to New Horizons.” Again, I feel some measure of trepidation and can only hope that we can refocus on the common challenge and on how to tackle it collaboratively. Whatever drives us to take action on climate change – whether we think we owe it to God, to ourselves, to our children and theirs, to each other, to the most vulnerable of us or to the ecosystems that we live in and rely on – it doesn’t really matter. We simply need to act and act together. That, I believe, is the ultimate objective of Climate Conversations. That, I believe, is the sort of ethic that drives the work of Trócaire and Christian Aid. Regardless of what tradition we come from, regardless of what we believe, agree, or disagree about the how and why of our existence and our world, the fundamental issue is that we exist and that our world can continue to sustain us. That is in our common global interest and that much, surely, we can all come together on.


Climate Conversations Session V: A Call To New Horizons takes place on Sunday 10th May at 7pm in The Abbey Theatre. Register to attend here. Watch the live webcast here.

Contributors will include: Dorothy Cross (artist); Mark Patrick Hederman (Abbot of Glenstal Abbey); Michael Gibbons (Archaeologist); Tommy Tiernan (comedian).

Climate Conversations is a series of conversations hosted by The Climate Gathering in partnership with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Ibec, Christian Aid, The Environmental Pillar and Trócaire. More info at http://www.climategathering.org/

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4 thoughts on “Faith, atheism and climate justice: Climate Conversations IV

  1. Interesting that the Quaker wording is key to this and as getting more involved with Quaker faith and practice myself I understand that most Quaker wording comes from a very deep place of reflection, silence. And need to act in the World for equality and peace. From your point of view I can understand the concern of the statements of acting because of being Christian but that should be the basis for any Christian in my mind. It may seem to exclude others but it shouldn’t as most Christisns and other faith groups must know that goodness and justice are not just for their own. These are our human values and I am glad that now the more small c conservatism of religious practice is understanding the environmental crisis we are heading towards. Oh, my husband is more a non theist and a Quaker. Perhaps Quaker ideas and acceptance of different views can take this on board!

    1. Thanks so much for your comment. It’s a good perspective, and I absolutely agree that these are human values that we can all share. It’s great if people’s faith helps them to appreciate and act on those universal values – and see that others of different beliefs share equally them too. I often feel, however, that some people believe those values belong especially to their faith. That’s where others can be excluded. When it comes to climate change (and other things) we all need to be included. Climate change is a universal issue, and I hope that we can all partner up that universal challenge, whatever religion we practise (or don’t!).

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