OVER falafel at a central-London church last week, climate-change activists of various faiths and none debated how to shift public sentiment and build coalitions for change.
"We see the need for action on climate change transcending all other boundaries,” said Canon Giles Goddard, whose church, St John’s, Waterloo, hosted the event.
The first ever Interfaith Climate Symposium was organised by the Faith for the Climate Network, a group run by Canon Goddard, in partnership with Rabbi Natan Levy and Maiya Rahman from Islamic Relief.
Before the crowd of about 100 campaigners tucked into their vegan, halal, or kosher falafel, they heard from the Bishop of Salisbury, the Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam, who leads the Church of England’s work on the environment.
He echoed Canon Goddard’s words: “There is no planet B. This need for climate justice is so pressing . . . we are in danger of stealing [our children’s] futures. It relativises all the other differences between us.”
Over dinner, Canon Goddard explained why working together across faith lines was so important. “The people who are suffering most are the poorest, and they are poor regardless of faith background.
”Many of the countries where climate change is hitting hardest are non-Christian countries as well. It’s a necessary way of us linking across faith traditions, regardless of our own disagreements this is something that is bigger than all of us.”
Later, the chief executive of humanitarian charity Global One, Dr Husna Ahmad, described climate change as the “greatest threat of our age”. But first she told the audience that Islamophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment was growing across the world.
”Why speak about this at a symposium on climate change? The only way we are going to tackle climate change is by working together for peace.
”I need my brothers, Canon Giles Goddard and Rabbi Natan Levy, for the right to practise my religion and to have my voice heard,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion as she ushered Canon Goddard and Rabbi Levy up to the front to stand either side of her in a public show of solidarity.
”Only when we speak as one humanity can we save this planet. It’s the work of faith communities that will continue, because it is written in our souls.”
But, notwithstanding the show of unity, the barriers to stopping runaway and destructive climate change remained high, the conference heard.
George Marshall, a veteran climate activist, explained how his research showed that human psychology encouraged people to avoid addressing climate issues. “Facts and figures are not strong motivators for people. People select the facts that support the view they already have,” he said.
Furthermore, the argument that urged action on the environment because it was the poorest who suffered most from climate change was divisive, he said.
Although it was brought out a number of times during the evening, a recent survey by Mr Marshall’s organisation had found that it put off as many conservatives as it persuaded left-wingers.
Given that climate-change activists were almost universally left-wing, the language of climate justice for the poor should be avoided, as real change required reaching across political divides, he said.
Instead, focus on motivating people’s shared values, identity, and the “joy of belonging”, Mr Marshall suggested. “The same thing which makes people attend a church or a synagogue or a mosque, or support a football team.”
And the task of finding the right language to persuade people of every faith tradition and every political position was presented as an urgent one: the Foreign Secretary’s special representative on climate change, Sir David King, gave a presentation that spelled out the calamities that the earth faced if climate change was not stopped.
Not only had each of the past 15 months been, in turn, the hottest ever month on record: the much-heralded Paris agreement would only limit temperature rises to about 4°C more than pre-industrial averages, he said.
To explain how disastrous that would be, Sir David said that up to 70,000 people had died during the 2003 summer heatwave in Europe. “By the time we get to mid-century, the average summer temperature will be the same as that 2003 summer,” he said.
Whether it was the danger of the Greenland ice sheets’ melting and drowning every coastal city under six metres of water, or the failure of the entire rice crop in China, climate change was a mind-boggling danger to every nation on the planet, he said.
”These aren’t empty threats,” Sir David said. “These are very real risks that humanity is facing.”
With his warnings ringing in their ears, the activists split into smaller groups to discuss different issues in a series of workshops.
The topics included disinvesting to move to a low-carbon economy, ways to engage congregations on green issues, and ways to fund local interfaith climate projects, among others. One of them was simply titled “Faithful non-violent direct action”. If that stark suggestion seemed excessive at the start of the evening, no one questioned the need for it by the end.