Religious leaders call for increased collaboration on climate change, inequality

A climate change march with interfaith participants in Vatican City in 2015. Photo by: Mat McDermott / GreenFaith / CC BY-NC-ND

NEW YORK — Hundreds of global religious leaders convened in New York on Wednesday to press for continued collaboration across faiths on some of the world’s toughest development issues, including growing rates of inequality and worsening impacts of climate change.

Members of Religions for Peace International will outline their strategic plan for 2020 in closed-door sessions on Thursday and Friday in New York, ahead of what is expected to be a challenging new year for humanitarian needs, according to recent findings by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

“We hear a lot about how religion is the cause of conflict, which means religions working together are going to have to be part of the solution.”

— Azza Karam, coordinator, U.N. Interagency Task Force on Religion and Development

Faith-based organizations are often the first responders to humanitarian emergencies and also have significant advocacy influence on their constituencies, according to Azza Karam, coordinator for the U.N. Interagency Task Force on Religion and Development and a facilitator of this week’s Religions for Peace International forum.

Religions for Peace, an international network, has six regional and more than 90 national interreligious bodies and engages in direct peace-building work in conflict and post-conflict settings, as well as advocacy work on rainforest preservation and violence against women, among other issues.

“The question should be: What is it that we cannot do? If we argue that 8 out of 10 people claim a particular religious affiliation, that is basically the world. The question becomes: How do you not work with those people?” Karam said during a media briefing.

Religious organizations should continue to amplify policy influence on inequality, climate change, and other challenges, Karam told Devex in a sit-down interview on the sidelines of the forum. She explained that consistent collaboration could help these organizations build their own messages and, in some cases, avoid cases of redundancy in their work.

“Instead of having the Catholic Church work in one country on their issues, and then the Protestant church working on their issues, everyone is working together,” Karam said. “When you bring them together, you are multiplying the impact of this work.”

This collaboration should also extend to more direct connections between large faith-based organizations and local networks, which might all be responding to a similar set of issues but are not collaborating. Linking efforts can help expand these organizations’ “pool of resources,” Karam said.

“It is an effort to amplify and reduce redundancies when they happen but is about amplifying the voice and the services and advocacy to policymakers,” Karam continued.

Responses to climate change and conflict will likely factor heavily into Religions for Peace’s priorities for next year, Karam said during the media briefing. The organization has already engaged in consultations with religious leaders in Syria, Sierra Leone, and other conflict-affected regions.

“What we want to do is safeguard the environment we live in, so environmental sustainability will be a big move. We need to strengthen and build this and ramp up those possibilities of serving not just rainforest, but to take it to the rest of the field of environment,” Karam said during the media briefing.

“Peace-building work will continue to be critical going forward. We hear a lot about how religion is the cause of conflict, which means religions working together are going to have to be part of the solution,” she continued.

Climate change also factored prominently into the speeches during the forum, with U.N. climate advisers and indigenous representatives from Peru and Canada speaking to the need to better engage religious leaders in their work. Din Syamsuddin, an Islamic scholar and chairman of the advisory committee of the Advisory Council of Ulama, spoke of how natural disasters described in the Holy Scriptures are now happening because of “humans’ deed.”

And Laura Vargas, executive secretary of the Interreligious Council of Peru, explained that all of the “very good and very beautiful” things being done to combat climate change are insufficient.

“It is not enough, because the risks are very high for all of us,” Vargas said.

Religious engagement in climate change through advocacy, awareness-building, and engagement with faith-based constituencies is needed to “turn the tide,” said Charles McNeill, senior adviser on forests and climate for the U.N. Environment Programme.

“We all know that nature is essential for human existence … But as the secretary-general has said, ‘We are either going to sleepwalk past the point of no return or turn this around,’” McNeill said during the forum.

Several religious leaders, including Ela Gandhi — co-president of Religions for Peace and granddaughter of Mohandas K. Gandhi, also known as Mahatma Gandhi — reflected on how difficult it is to duplicate the multifaith collaboration present at the Manhattan forum into a broader context.

“What is in this room is what the world should look like. But out there, there is a different world altogether. There are a lot of challenges to be taken on,” Gandhi told Devex.

All scriptures address concepts of respect and forgiveness, but these values often do not carry through to everyday life, she said.

“We talk about it, we read it, we sermonize, but do we practice them?” Gandhi said.

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.