February 26, 2024

IIt was another catastrophic climate year: record-breaking wildfires across Canada scorched an area the size of North Dakota, unprecedented rainfall in Libya left thousands dead and displaced, while heat deaths increased in Arizona and severe drought in the Amazon threatens Indigenous communities and ecosystems.

The science is clear: we must phase out fossil fuels – fast. But time is running out, and as the climate crisis, biodiversity loss and environmental degradation worsen, there is increasing recognition that our political and industry leaders are failing us.

If science is not enough, what role can – or should – faith leaders play in tackling the climate crisis? After all, it is also a spiritual and moral crisis that threatens God’s creation, according to many religious teachings.

Globally, 6 billion people – about 80% of the world’s population – identify with a faith or religion, while half of all schools and 40% of health facilities in some countries are owned or operated by faith groups. In addition, faith-related institutions own almost 8% of the total habitable land area – and form the world’s third largest group of financial investors.

How faith and religious communities withstand or respond to the climate crisis is crucial, meaning faith leaders and leaders with faith have great potential to educate and mobilize their members towards – or away from – sustainable living and environmental activism, according to Mitota Omolere, a sustainability expert and writer at Earth.org.

A 2022 poll found that most American adults, including a large majority of Christians and people who identify with other religions – consider the Earth sacred and believe that God has given humans a duty to care for it. But the poll also found that the most religious are the least concerned about the climate crisis — largely because they are more likely to align with the Republican party, which has a long history of climate denial and limiting climate action.

Globally, political allegiance is a major driver of people’s climate beliefs, yet a growing number of spiritual and religious leaders – including Pope Francis – support collaboration across faiths and with scientists to pressure governments through advocacy.

In the run-up to the recent UN climate talks in Dubai, faith and spiritual leaders representing Anglicans, Bohras, Buddhists, Jains, Jews, Mahikaris, Sikhs and Sunni and Shia Muslims urged politicians, businesses and financiers for a swift , just transition away from fossil fuels. “As we stand at the precipice of history, considering the gravity of the challenges we collectively face, we remain mindful of the legacy we will leave behind for generations to come,” they said.

Rabbi David Rosen, international president of Religions for Peace, added: “As leaders and representatives of world religions, our role gives us a platform and a position to encourage, influence and motivate people, and thereby a responsibility to to help guide our communities in how to restore, protect and live in harmony with the natural world.”

At Cop28, Ugandan climate justice activist and born-again Evangelical Christian Vanessa Nakate said: “I have personally faced a lot of criticism every time I speak about the role of faith in climate activism. Some came from the religious side, and some came from the climate movement itself. But when I receive that resistance, I consider myself lucky. It is the heart of Christ that works in me to do the work that I do now.”

So what does faith-based climate action look like on the ground in communities already reeling from excruciating storms, floods, droughts and deadly heat?

A nun and a priest look into the camera.

In New Orleans, one of America’s most climate-vulnerable cities, praise leaders work across historic racial and religious divides to lead the way sustainable climate action.

ALicia Costa is Mother Superior of the Sisters of the Holy Family, one of the earliest religious orders for women of color, founded in 1842. Costa, 72, has long been interested in green issues such as reducing plastic waste, but the teachings of her climate hero, Pope Francis, have inspired her to do more. “He teaches us that as stewards of God’s Earth, we have a moral obligation to get off fossil fuels and switch to renewable energy, to help end the suffering in our communities. Pope Francis uses science and Scripture to make his point – he is just phenomenal.”

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Under Costa’s leadership, the Sisters of the Holy Family joined Together New Orleans (TNO), a network of interfaith and non-profit institutions pushing to transform the city’s fossil fuel-dependent electric grid. In September, Costa was among TNO representatives granted an audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican, and she used her 45 seconds to tell him about their efforts to promote solar energy to cut emissions and help low-income residents reduce their utility bills. “He gave us the thumbs up, and encouraged us to keep building solidarity,” said Costa.

Just a few weeks later, Costa helped TNO overturn a five-year-old city council rule which had made subscription community solar economically unviable – a major victory against the fossil fuel-friendly utility. The religious order has 22 acres of land it plans to convert into a community solar farm and a resilience hub, as part of a statewide effort to create solar-powered community lighthouses to help vulnerable residents survive power outages.

Every evening, Costa and her fellow sisters read and discuss a passage from Pope Francis’s latest document on the climate crisis, the 15-page Laudate Deum (Praise God), which is a severe rebuke of those sowing confusion and blocking climate action in pursuit of profits. Costa said: “My crusade is to educate people on the climate crisis, and reduce our carbon footprint so we lead by example.”

Gregory Manning is a Lutheran pastor at the Broadmoor community church in New Orleans, part of the conservative, predominantly white and Republican-leaning Missouri synod, which now has around 2 million members in the US. Only 70 of the 9,000 clergy are Black. Manning’s congregation is composed of mostly low-income Black residents who are facing multiple interconnected challenges including gun violence, poverty and environmental hazards such as air pollution, extreme heat and power outages. At a recent Sunday service, Manning weaved in rising utility bills, peace in the Middle East and a triple homicide to a sermon on managing “dual citizenship” in two kingdoms, one spiritual and the other earthly. “In seminary, we were taught to only preach Christ and not talk about social issues. But Jesus lived in a context, and we have to present the Bible in the current context where climate change is causing people to suffer.”

Pastor Gregory Manning gives a sermon at Broadmoor community church in New Orleans, Louisiana, on 21 October 2023.
Pastor Gregory Manning gives a sermon at Broadmoor community church in New Orleans, Louisiana, on 21 October 2023. Photograph: Giancarlo D’Agostaro/The Guardian

Manning has helped communities across the state organize against power plants and petrochemical factories, and Broadmoor was the first community lighthouse in the city. His climate and social justice work has, on occasion, led to friction with some colleagues. “The climate crisis is not on the Lutheran radar – the synod is largely made up of climate deniers uninterested in environmental or social justice. But fossil fuels are killing people, especially Black and Indigenous communities, and we pastors need to be on the frontline. Those who call themselves people of faith and yet do nothing to help is inexcusable.”

Abel Thompson shows Kai Freeman the smartphone app that tracks the solar panels input and output. Broadmoor Community Church in New Orleans, La October 21, 2023
The Broadmoor community church in New Orleans uses a smartphone app to track its solar panels. Photograph: Giancarlo D’Agostaro/The Guardian

In 2019, Manning founded the Greater New Orleans Interfaith Climate Coalition, which includes Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, Hare Krishna and Christian leaders drawn together, they say, by a reverence for the sacredness of nature and a willingness to put religious differences aside to promote care of the Earth and climate justice. “We might not agree theologically but we agree that the climate crisis is an existential threat,” he said.

In September, they were among 70,000 people at the New York City climate march calling on President Biden to stop fossil fuel expansion and to declare a climate emergency. “The reckless expansion of [liquid natural gas] terminal in Louisiana an example of our captive economy, and our reckless greed and selfishness as Americans. It is our responsibility as God's stewards of the earth to care for and preserve what we have for future generations," Manning said.


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