All around the world, the fossil fuel industry is finding itself the target of faith based groups, most recently in their support for the growing call for a Fossil Fuel Non Proliferation Treaty to halt new oil, coal and gas projects. From the highest echelons of the Roman Catholic papacy, to parishes from Angola to Zambia, faith-based organisations (FBOs) are divesting from fossil fuels at an accelerating pace, and engaging their communities on issues of rapid transition.
Over the last decade, FBOs are increasingly using their platforms and role within communities to pressure governments on more ambitious climate policy and engage their congregations on climate action. Pope Francis, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, recently issued a joint-statement asking their congregations “to listen to the cry of the earth and of people who are poor, examining their behaviour and pledging meaningful sacrifices for the sake of the earth which God has given us”. This joint statement was the first of its kind to bring together the leaders across the Christian world, but follows an array of declarations from the World Council of Churches, Islamic faith leaders, Hindu faith leaders, Buddhist faith leaders, and the launch of Dayenu, a Jewish call to climate action. FBOs around the world are waking up to the need for rapid transition – and this could accelerate climate actions: 84% of humanity identifies as religious, which makes FBOs an immensely influential and trusted force in the fight for a habitable future and a stable climate. In the United States, where global heating has been made into a divisive issue, churches have now become a powerful voice, calling for action across the political spectrum.
The most exciting area of climate action where FBOs are showing decided and targeted action is in the realm of divestment. Fossil fuel divestment attempts to exert social, political, and economic pressure on the fossil fuel industry through the institutional and organisational divestment of assets such as stocks, bonds, pensions and other financial instruments from the firms involved in the extraction, production and sale of fossil fuels. Research by the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative notes that at least 400 faith-based organisations have announced divestments around the world to date, with more and more joining the fight each day.
As a method of direct action, divestment uses the tools of the fossil fuel economy – namely capital and investment flows – to hit fossil fuel firms where it hurts. And it’s working. Fossil Fuel divestment began on the campuses of American universities in 2012, but has since ballooned and by 2015 was believed to be the largest divestment movement in recorded history, outgrowing previous divestment movements around the tobacco industry and South Africa’s apartheid regime. As of this year, the international divestment movement is estimated to be a $14.6 trillion movement with over a thousand major investors, pension plans, and endowments committed.
The acceleration and spread of the divestment movement through and across faith-based organisations is illustrative of the power that communities have in driving rapid transition. It is also evident that in light of the climate crisis, where the habitability of our planet and the security of our collective future are thrown into question, the historical divides between religion and science are no longer relevant. Science and religion stand united in the face of climate breakdown – and in their call for urgent action from governments and their congregations.
The fossil fuel divestment movement has grown from just one institution in 2012, the Unity College in Maine in North America, to over 1,300 organisations today. Of these divesting institutions, 35% are FBOs compared with 15% being educational institutions and 12% being pension funds. As such, faith-based organisations are the largest organisational type involved in the divestment movement – and by a healthy margin too.
The geographical spread of these religious divesters is also telling of the reach and influence of faith-based organisations. From Angola, to Zambia, there are religious leaders and their places of worship announcing the divestment of their funds from fossil fuel companies. The size of these organisations vary too, from the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE), to single churches in places like Swindow in England or Cardiff in Wales. Whatever creed, size or shape an FBO takes, they are increasingly joining the global divestment movement.
But it isn’t just the divestment movement where FBOs are exerting their influence. Faith leaders are also exploring how they can rapidly decarbonise their own operations and those of their congregations. In 2005, over 50 Jewish leaders signed the Jewish Environmental and Energy Imperative, committing to an 83% reduction of greenhouse gases emitted by the Jewish community by 2050. More recently, in 2020, the Church of England ramped up its ambition of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions for its operations, aiming for 2030 instead of 2045.
FBOs, and their leadership, are also using their central and trusted position within the communities they serve to accelerate climate action globally. FBOs like The Bhumi Project, a Hindu assembly, helps members of the Hindu community create long-term sustainable plans for environmental care and trains the youngest members of the congregation in how to become climate leaders, creating further change. Other organisations, such as Green Muslims, help bring together volunteers from Islamic communities around the world to local climate action initiatives, while Green Faith seek to bring sustainable transformation to communities, FBOs and wider society.
Beyond the specific FBOs, some religious teachings have clear affinities with efforts to scale sustainable behaviour change. The ancient Indian religion, Jainism, with approximately 6 million followers worldwide has a variety of teachings that could, if widely adopted, significantly curtail carbon emissions. For instance, the Jainist teaching of ahimsa proclaims the equality of all life forms with a stringent emphasis placed upon nonviolent behaviour, explaining why the majority of Jainists are vegetarian or vegan. Another foundational Jainist teaching, aparigraha, stresses the limiting of one’s material possessions, which means buying less stuff and reducing overconsumption.
In Islamic thought, too, there are clear examples of unity between Islamic scripture and more sustainable lifestyles. Many of the Islamic community are living in countries and regions that are already feeling the impacts of climate breakdown today, with drought, flood and unlivable heat impacting Asia, North Africa and the Middle East. The Islamic teaching of Tawhid refers to the oneness of God where everything in the world flows from this one source of life and is connected to it, including nature. Also, the Islamic teaching of Mizan too encourages balance and harmony within the universe, indicating the interconnectedness of ecosystems and the climate crisis. Of particular relevance to the rapid growth of climate-active FBOs is the Islamic teaching of Maslahah which is interpreted by Islamic environmentalists as a duty of care for future generations. The increasing pertinence of culture, values, and worldviews in galvanising climate action will continue to direct attention to religion and the potential of FBOs.
The case has long been made that all the world’s major religions have teachings about the need to respect the natural world. A meeting in Assisi, Italy, in 1986, for example, led to the creation of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, whose work triggered some of the early activism on investment by faiths.
If you were to just look at North America or Europe, however, you may think that the observance of religion and attending service at a FBO is in terminal decline. But on a global scale, religion is almost ubiquitous, with 84% of humanity identifying as religious. When it comes to rapid transition, the sheer scale of religion and FBOs influence within and across communities cannot be underestimated. Indeed, religions often shape the worldviews and moral attitudes of their adherents, and will therefore have a marked impact on how they approach nature and the climate crisis. This is a fact that the political right have been acutely aware of for decades and have used to mobilise support for climate delay or even outright denial. One of the most exotic examples included the claim that human-induced climate change goes against the idea of God’s omnipotence, and therefore cannot be real.
At the same time, FBOs seek to serve their congregations and represent their views, providing guidance on the social, political and spiritual dilemmas of the time. Climate breakdown is as much a spiritual crisis as it is an existential one, challenging the understanding of our place in the world and our duties to people and planet. It is no surprise then that FBOs and faith-leaders are stepping up both their rhetoric on climate and their action. They are closer on the ground to the communities they serve and will be seeing both the rising concerns around the climate crisis and the frequency of impacts first-hand. In fact, faith-based organisations and charities like Christian Aid and CAFOD work at the forefront of climate adaptation, helping communities around the world build the resilience they need in the face of climate impacts.
And by being on the ground, closer to communities and intertwined with their everyday lives, faith-leaders and the organisations they represent often enjoy high credibility among their congregations and wider society. As anyone who works in climate communications will tell you, the medium is often just as important as the message. So, by having a trusted messenger on a key issue, faith-leaders can change hearts and win minds. This credibility also provides FBOs with an important voice on pivotal public issues which can be used to influence political decision-making through their various networks. And, to further their sphere of influence, FBOs are often backed by immense financial and organisational resources, from media networks to local schools, that they can use to stimulate rapid transition. This financial heft can be put to use too, as the divestment movement shows.
When it comes to garnering support for divestment, communicating the urgency of action required to address the climate crisis or helping their congregations adopt more sustainable behaviours, faith-leaders and FBOs have a distinct advantage. Through both the scripture their teachings rely on and the space in which they operate, faith-leaders and FBOs can lean heavily on story-telling techniques. The climate crisis is often framed as a technological issue and communications efforts sometimes reinforce this with the persistent use of statistics, graphs, budgets and timeframes. Yet, in terms of effective communication, relying on empirics and statistics as a foundation of climate communications can elicit low engagement, even among those who are concerned. Instead, stories can facilitate experiential learning, heighten engagement and pull on our heart strings, ultimately galvanising us to take action and change our behaviours. Faith-leaders know this, with religious organisations using stories and oral histories for millennia to deepen engagement with their congregations and followers on how to act in the face of the myriad challenges societies face.
Stimulating rapid transition, and deepening wider societies’ engagement with social transformation, requires a shift in the public conversation. Politicians and the media frequently seek to do this in order to shape public opinion before key political moments, but the results are often mixed. Due to the high credibility that faith-leaders have amongst their congregations and wider society, their ability to change the conversation is enough to turn politicians green with envy. A large-scale study in America, conducted shortly after the signing of the Paris Agreement in 2015, explored the impact of Pope Francis’ numerous interventions on climate change on public perceptions and declared a clear Francis Effect. The researchers found that over a period of six months, Americans (and not just Catholic Americans), became much more engaged with the climate crisis and concerned about its impacts, concluding that the Pope’s teachings and stories around the need and responsibility of humanity to step up in the fight against climate breakdown increased public engagement and shifted the conversation – no small feat given how politicised climate action has become in the USA. Pope Francis recently urged humanity to continue divesting from fossil fuels and ‘companies that do not meet the parameters of integral ecology’.
The recent success of the divestment movement within FBOs, and the rapid proliferation of divestment pledges and announcements around the world, may have been driven in part by FBOs ability to embed climate action in their congregations’ values, cultures and worldviews. By translating the vast existential challenges that humanity faces into stories and narratives that reflect the congregations’ culture, worldview and values, FBOs become vital conduits for disseminating information about the challenges posed by the climate crisis as well as enticing action and engagement with the solutions to it. A focus on values, culture and worldviews is essential for building a public basis for action, by developing the self-justification and self-persuasion required so that followers know how and when to act. Many of the values preached by faith-leaders are the ones that need to be scaled up to adequately address the current crisis. Values like justice and fairness, as well as the need to help others, must be at the heart of rapid and just transitions. Through this ability to translate and communicate to broader audiences, and garner their trust, FBOs have been able to drive the divestment movement globally, piling the pressure on the fossil fuel industry and the governments that prop it up.