For many world religions, a respect for nature and a desire to care for our planet lies at the heart of their practices and rituals. In 2015, Pope Francis surprised the world with Laudato Si, a papal encyclical on “care for our common home.” Around the same time, 27 Buddhist and 60 Hindu leaders from across the globe issued or signed statements declaring that we must make transformational changes in our practices around agriculture, animal treatment and resource consumption.
These public, faith-based declarations openly acknowledge the human role in the global climate crisis and draw attention to the relationship between environmental degradation and human activity. They offer a simple message to their believers: We must reexamine our collective habits, and better understand our role as a species on a planet whose resources we have exhausted.
People of diverse faiths constitute a sizable portion of the U.S. population. In 2012, an estimated 69 percent of Americans self-identified as either moderately or very religious, and there are an estimated 350,000 church communities in the United States. For cities, improving engagement and communication strategies with faith communities and working closely with their leaders — who can serve as trusted messengers — could help accelerate both local and federal climate efforts.
In recent years, many new, faith-based groups have emerged to energize both individual and collective climate action among their faithful. Cool Congregations helps congregations reduce energy costs and carbon footprints, and there are countless others including Green Muslims, Evangelical Environmental Network, One Earth Sangha, Young Evangelicals for Climate Action and the Catholic Climate Covenant. There’s even an app for Episcopalians who are responding to the church’s call to action.
Many faith leaders are also actively engaged in advocacy and climate policy. Last year, 51 faith-based organizations expressed written support for Senate Bill 100, (signed into law by California Governor Jerry Brown), that requires the state to get all of its power from renewable sources by 2045. Additionally, ecoAmerica’s “Let’s Lead on Climate” guide features change-makers in Raleigh, North Carolina; Indianapolis, Indiana; and Midway, Kentucky. Faith communities across the globe are making their presence known financially, too – the Fossil Free campaign reports that faith-based institutions worldwide account for more than a quarter of the fossil fuel divestment pie — the highest percentage of all represented sectors.
Realizing that communities of faith can be valuable allies in preparing residents for climate impacts, local governments such as the city of San Antonio and the municipality of Anchorage are working closely with faith-based groups to improve community resilience, emergency preparedness and health outcomes – particularly for more vulnerable residents. In Toronto, Canada, a national, interfaith charitable network called Faith & the Common Good partnered with the city and several local nonprofits to explore and assess how the city’s diverse houses of worship could be better utilized as local service centers during extreme weather emergencies.
For years, the Faith Alliance for Climate Solutions (FACS) has been working closely with city government officials and the county school board in Fairfax County, Virginia, to advance several climate policies over, including championing proposals to install solar on school buildings and creating a county-wide energy dashboard. FACS also hosts public forums with local elected leaders as guests, thus helping build critical community support for both local and state climate efforts.
NLC’s long-time partner, ecoAmerica, is finding pathways to connect the dots between faith-based communities, cities and their leaders. Through their Blessed Tomorrow program, ecoAmerica has formed partnerships with many of the major faith traditions and has developed research-tested guidance on how to have conversations about climate change and encourage others to act.
Here are three clear reasons cities should engage with faith communities to improve community resilience and reduce carbon footprints:
- Caring for the earth, and thus for the climate, has a theological grounding in every major religion. The concepts of stewardship, providing refuge and “bearing witness” apply to both climate issues and climate solutions. The messaging in ecoAmerica’s guides helps faith leaders—and the elected leaders who connect with them—frame the issue in concepts that their communities can understand.
- Faith leaders have traditionally been called upon in crises — responding to climate impacts is no different. They are trained to provide support, refuge, guidance and love when people are suffering from pain and loss. Climate impacts have led to loss of life, property and livelihoods, and faith leaders along with their institutions can serve as vital resources and hubs to communities in need of guidance and solace.
- Faith leaders can be strong climate advocates for communities and elected leaders. Faith leaders are trusted messengers in the community whose words resonate with their own congregations, but who can also work closely with local elected leaders. While the ecoAmerica guides were written with faith leaders in mind, they are also useful for elected leaders who seek to speak about climate change and solutions with truth, compassion and a basic understanding of the science behind it.
Two of ecoAmerica’s resources, “Let’s Talk Faith and Climate,” and “Moving Forward: A Guide to Climate Action For Your Congregation and Community” are free to download and publicly available for use now.
About the Authors: Anna Marandi is a senior associate on the Sustainability Team at the National League of Cities (NLC). Ani Fête Crews is the Director of Blessed Tomorrow. The Hon. Jennifer Roberts is the Director of Path to Positive Communities.