‘The biggest NGO in the world’: What role can religious leaders and faith groups play at COP28?

COP28 President Dr Sultan Al Jaber met with Pope Francis last month to discuss the crucial role of faith leaders in advancing the climate agenda.
COP28 President Dr Sultan Al Jaber met with Pope Francis last month to discuss the crucial role of faith leaders in advancing the climate agenda. Copyright COP 28 Presidency/Supplied
By Lottie Limb
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The Pope can no longer attend, but there will be hundreds of religious delegates at COP with a unique influence over the negotiations.

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In June 2015, months before world leaders met in Paris to agree on the strongest terms yet to tackle climate change, the Pope wrote a letter. Laudato Si (Praise Be To You), subtitled ‘on care for our common home’, was a rallying cry in the direction of the UN climate conference later that year.

“The Pope’s encyclical, along with mobilisation by many other faith groups across the globe, provided a clear moral imperative for taking climate action, supporting the Paris Climate Change Agreement,” according to Christiana Figueres, an architect for the landmark deal to limit global heating to 1.5C.

The two documents sit together at the UNFCCC exhibition in Bonn - a ‘living gallery’ of humanity’s response to the climate crisis.

Last month, a second major papal exhortation came in the form of Laudate Deum (Praise God). In it, Pope Francis expresses hope that COP28 in Dubai will “move beyond the mentality of appearing to be concerned but not having the courage needed to produce substantial changes.”

“Sometimes people need wake up calls in terms of where we’ve got to with the process on climate,” Neil Thorns, head of advocacy at the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD), tells Euronews Green.

One of the key discussion points at COP this year is the ‘Global Stocktake’ - a five-year assessment of progress under the Paris Agreement. “Laudate Deum is the Vatican saying this is our global stocktake on it: it’s just not good enough,” according to Thorns.

The 86-year-old pontiff had been due to attend the climate summit for the first time, addressing world leaders on 2 December. But he has sadly had to cancel his trip due to ill health. Another first is going ahead, however: there will be a Faith Pavilion inside the venue - a platform for religious figures to speak and try to influence the negotiations.

140 different faith-based organisations have partnered with the pavilion, and could (in theory) be sending up to 10 delegates each to the conference.

With cracks showing well ahead of this COP - particularly over a phase out or phase down of fossil fuels - few expect such an ambitious, unanimous agreement as eight years ago. But you’d be unwise to underestimate the role that faith leaders can play on the global stage.

What do religious leaders think about climate change?

The climate crisis is a crisis of proliferating proportions: an omni-crisis of health, gender inequality, migration and much more, touching on virtually all aspects of our lives.

For religious leaders, this crisis is at root a spiritual one. “It’s not just about fossil fuels and carbon in the atmosphere; it’s also about how we live as spiritual beings in a physical reality,” says Rabbi Yonatan Neril.

“There are deeper issues underlying this crisis - including short term thinking, greed, arrogance and materialism. And there are spiritual solutions like long term thinking, humility, caring for other people, and caring for other creatures, which I think need to underpin humanity’s approach to curbing climate change.”

Based in Jerusalem, Neril founded the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development (ICSD) in 2010, a non-profit that campaigns at the intersection of religion and ecology.

Rabbi Yonatan Neril (second from left) during the Global Faith Leaders Summit in Abu Dhabi, 9 November.

Neril, who has published four books on Judaism and ecology, including two volumes of an Eco Bible, recalls a lesson learned from his years at Stanford University in the US. His roommate was a Muslim man from Saudi who would wake around 4am to pray, followed by Neril at 6am, also to pray. “I realised, wow, we have a lot in common. Even though we’re from different religious traditions, we’re both living a similar, religious lifestyle.”

The common ground of religion formed the basis for a pre-COP gathering of faith leaders on 6 and 7 November in Abu Dhabi. Neril attended the event, organised by the Muslim Council of Elders with the COP28 Presidency and United Nations Environment Programme, alongside around 200 others religious participants.

What happened at the Global Faith Leaders Summit?

“To see 200 people from many faiths and religious leaders and clergy coming together, especially in these turbulent times, is not something we can take for granted,” says Neril. “And it is a counterpoint to the conflict taking place elsewhere in the Middle East.”

The ‘Confluence of Conscience’ culminated with 28 high-level faith leaders signing a statement in support of urgent action. The Interfaith Statement on Climate Action Towards COP28 was backed by leaders representing Anglicans, Bahá’is, Bohras, Buddhists, Catholics, Coptic Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, Evangelicals, Hindus, Jains, Jewish peoples, Mahikaris, Mandaeans, Protestants, Shia Muslims, Sikhs, and Sunni Muslims.

“We need the moral voice and spiritual authority of faith leaders globally to summon the conscience of world leaders, awaken their ambition, and inspire them to do what is needed,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres told those gathered via video message.

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28 high-level faith leaders from over 19 faiths and denominations united to sign a statement seeking urgent climate action ahead of COP28.
28 high-level faith leaders from over 19 faiths and denominations united to sign a statement seeking urgent climate action ahead of COP28.Supplied

“This summit is a historic opportunity for us religious and spiritual leaders to do as the great Indigenous Lakota Chief Sitting Bull said in his infinite wisdom, ‘Let us put our hearts, minds, and spirit together to see what life we will give to our children’,” said Grandmother Mona Polacca, Indigenous Leader from the Colorado River Indian Tribe.

In a potent gesture, the declaration was passed to a young girl from the UAE, symbolising the future generations whose lives depend on climate action. Another meaningful occasion for Neril: a visit to the Abrahamic Family in Abu Dhabi. Opened last year, it encompasses a mosque, a church and a synagogue, all three in equal proportion.

We need the moral voice and spiritual authority of faith leaders globally to summon the conscience of world leaders, awaken their ambition, and inspire them to do what is needed.
António Guterres
UN Secretary-General

The statement “urge[s] businesses and policymakers to adopt a rapid, just transition away from fossil fuels,” not an explicit phase out. “I think people somehow had an expectation that [the summit] was going to come out with a hugely radical manifesto,” says Thorns. “I don’t think that’s the role of those kinds of groups.”

But with 84 per cent of the world’s population having a faith, the prioritisation of climate by these leaders is hugely influential. It serves as a reminder of individual agency and collective power to push governments to act.

And it helps pave the way for a united front at COP28 - embodied in the Faith Pavilion, which is set to host around 60 sessions by faith and climate groups. 140 different faith-based organisations have partnered with the pavilion, and could (in theory) be sending up to 10 delegates to the conference.

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How can religious groups leverage their influence for climate action?

Religion moves in myriad ways. “Religious institutions are the biggest NGO in the world,” says Neril, “and they are really the only force that can promote the behavioural changes that will be required of humanity if we’re going to live sustainably on this planet.”

Altogether, these organisations own more than eight per cent of Earth’s habitable land; five per cent of all commercial forests; own or operate half of schools; and are the world’s third largest investor, commanding trillions worth of capital.

Faith leaders can talk about it from much more of a moral point of view.
Neil Thorns
Director of Advocacy and Communications, CAFOD

From a climate negotiations point of view, “Faith leaders can talk about [climate change] from much more of a moral point of view,” says Thorns. Given their far-reaching involvement in global aid, they know whereof they speak.

CAFOD is part of Caritas Internationalis, a confederation of 162 Catholic relief and development agencies working in more than 200 countries and territories. It’s the world’s second largest humanitarian network after the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, and is deeply trusted to help those on the frontlines of the climate crisis.

Agency workers are witnessing increasingly intense humanitarian disasters caused by extreme weather events, says Thorn, including famine-like conditions across East Africa. In northern Kenya, many pastoralist communities have lost all of their livestock, with no sense of how they’re going to regain their livelihoods or hold their families together. Translated back into UN climate language, it’s the point at which the possibility of adapting to climate change tips into irrecoverable loss and damage territory.

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A new loss and damage fund is set to be finalised at COP28. And it’s on this kind of issue - as well as food systems - that Thorns sees faith groups as being especially authoritative.

“It’s not just an economic question, it’s not just a social question, but it’s also about that sense of cultural heritage, people’s spiritual heartland being washed away - if you’re a small island state - or your language being lost.” Damage assessments that “see the person as a whole,” speak into a faith space, he says.

What can the Vatican do at COP28?

The Vatican (or Holy See) is an observer of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) treaty, and so has an official seat at the table.

The government of Vatican City is there as a state, not a faith, explains Thorns, who has previously attended with its delegation as an advisor. Since they don’t really have an economy to consider, “they can sometimes cut through and say things which need saying,” Thorns thinks.

Encouraging people to move away from their red lines is a prerogative of faith leaders. Though the Pope is no longer attending in person, Thorns says: “We hope that countries at COP28 will live up to Pope Francis’ urgent call for greater ambition on addressing the climate crisis, and for politicians to leave a legacy they can be proud of.

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“We hope he recovers soon and will continue to encourage leaders from Rome.”

COP28 President Sultan Al Jaber welcomed Pope Francis’s Laudate Deum when it was released last month, calling it “truly inspiring”.

“Without a doubt, your intervention and advocacy for action will inspire millions and will help us raise the ambition at COP28 that we urgently need to course correct,” he said.

How will delegates bring their faith into COP28?

If Thorns were a betting man, he’d wager that the majority of people who attend COP, and are involved in the negotiations process, have some faith.

Like climate activists travelling to Dubai - many of whom also have faith - religious delegates will be drawing on the solidarity and courage of their convictions during an intense fortnight.

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“It’s important for people to be able to take stock and think about their faith,” says Thorns. And consider “how am I doing this not just as a politician, but someone who has a belief and believes in the common good and therefore believes that the poorest should be at the heart of these conversations.”

For Neril, who has written extensively about the spiritual interconnections between ecological degradation and war, there is an urgent religious imperative to act on climate change.

Research suggests that people become more violent when temperatures are high - a phenomenon that the rabbi sees implicated in “the current violence in the Middle East.”

This was the hottest summer in history, on Earth. And at the end of that, the current conflict began. And I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
Rabbi Yonatan Neril

“This was the hottest summer in history, on Earth. And at the end of that, the current conflict began. And I don’t think that’s a coincidence,” he says. “This also underscores the urgency of curbing climate change, that it’s not just that the planet will be hotter. It’s that people will be fighting with each other across the Earth if we don’t enable the Earth to be in balance.”

Quoting one of the Jewish sages from ancient times, he says, “If not now, when?”

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Another religious quote he holds close, and used at the start of volume one of Eco Bible (which provides ecological commentary on scripture) is from former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

“Hope is a human virtue, but one with religious underpinnings. At its ultimate it is the belief … [that God] is mindful of our aspirations, with us in our fumbling efforts, that He has given us the means to save us from ourselves; that we are not wrong to dream, wish and work for a better world,” Sacks wrote.

“Hope is the knowledge that we can choose; that we can learn from our mistakes and act differently next time.”

It’s an inspiring perspective for people of all faiths and none, putting the emphasis on human agency.

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