Greenwich: Religion and science come together to tackle climate change

Greenwich photo


By: Ellen Teague

Representatives of various faiths working on environmental issues in and around Kent joined a dialogue with engineers and scientists on Saturday to examine ‘Environment, Climate Change and Sustainability’.
The Chatham Campus of Greenwich University hosted the unique one-day conference on 13 October, organised by Medway Inter Faith Action, in partnership with the Institute of Mechanical Engineers and the University of Greenwich.
The conference explored the relationship between ethical and spiritual principals and the practical actions of individuals and communities facing global environmental change. It was fascinating to hear opening prayers from different faiths that could have been from any one of them.

Representing a Jewish perspective was Dr David Herling, a Senior Lecturer at London University and a noted figure in the world of arboriculture. He reflected that “Judaism is obsessed by trees” and pointed out the frequent mention of trees in the Bible, such as the Tree of Life in Genesis and the Cedars of Lebanon. He talked about small locally-based projects to plant trees, improve soil, and try out drought-resistant crops. Dr Nigel Jollands represented the Baha’i perspective, and he works on Energy Efficiency and Climate Change at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. He felt climate change is symptomatic of spiritual problems, such as defining prosperity purely in terms of material wealth, and tolerating extremes of poverty and wealth in our society. He felt his faith called him towards seeing the interconnectedness of elements of creation and humility towards nature. He questioned the notion of “green growth” where “you can have your cake and eat it” saying the consumption of physical resources, particularly those creating greenhouse gases, must be reduced.

This was echoed in the Christian perspective, offered by Ellen Teague of the Columban JPIC team. In her talk she highlighted the call in the 2015 Laudato Si’ Encyclical of Pope Francis “to hear the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor” and to work towards “ecological conversion”. She showed photos of the huge faith lobby and petition at the Paris Climate talks which contributed towards an agreement on limiting greenhouse gas emissions. Examples of live simply parishes, Justice and Peace education work, Pax Christi peace gardens in schools and the ‘Global Healing’ initiative of the bishops of England and Wales were highlighted.

An Islamic perspective was offered by Dr Muzammal Hussain, who has an MA in Environment, Development & Policy. In his talk ‘Healing the Earth’ he underlined the interconnection of creation issues and justice for the marginalised. It is poor communities who are suffering the worst impacts of climate change. He called for a shift away from seeing money as wealth and instead seeing our real wealth as being the gift of the natural world. Islam promotes “awe and wonder” in humanity’s relationship with the environment and emphasises the importance of community in its broadest sense.

The views of the engineers were remarkably similar to faith speakers. Roger Middleton of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers Energy, Environment and Sustainability group said, “as an engineer I can’t hold out any hope of the technical solution to the climate change problem”. He lamented that human society is not seriously preparing for the worst impacts of climate change even though scientists have warned about them for at least two decades. Dr AK Rahman, an aerospace engineer and a Muslim, described the environmental crisis as “the canary in the mineshaft of modern society” and suggested that there “must be a philosophical basis of engagement”.
In his view environmental ethics aims to define the best moral behaviour for humans to live without destroying their environment. The term “environmental ethics” is used in the Royal Charter of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. Since the world’s major faiths comprise 85% of the global population, they can have a major impact on respect for nature, assigning a status to animals and challenging selfish anthropocentrism. Self denial – such as fasting – and the notion of sacrifice were raised by him as areas pertinent to an adequate climate change response.

The chairman of Medway Interfaith Action, Faran Forghani, underlined at the end the importance of dialogue and cooperation between different faiths and disciplines in order to tackle the climate crisis. Kent Area of Southwark Archdiocese for Justice and Peace is an active member. It was clear that simpler lifestyles and consumer action need to be complimented by fundamental work tackling the structural causes of climate instability. It was suggested that systemic change will involve holding governments to account for action in line with the Paris Agreement, and also challenging the destructive activities of large corporations, particularly oil companies, for their greenhouse gas pollution. Advocacy and protest will form a component of tackling climate change.