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Earth in Hands ;

A divine catalyst for climate action: The founding of the Faith Pavilion at COP28

Uniting to address climate change around the world
Dr Rowan Gard

Lecturer in Human Geography and Sustainability (Education)

01 December 2023

This Sunday at COP28, a first will occur. The Faith Pavilion - the first of its kind - will be inaugurated by His Eminence the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed Al-Tayeb. Dr Rowan Gard, Lecturer in Human Geography and Sustainability (Education), looks at the role that spirituality has in climate-change response and disaster risk management.

Originally, the Faith Pavilion’s historic inauguration ceremony was planned in collaboration with both His Eminence the Grand Imam and His Holiness Pope Francis. However, due to illness His Holiness has recently had to cancel his trip.

This significant launch event, with attendance from more than 300 global faith representatives, and the resulting Faith Pavilion programming scheduled throughout COP28, is the result of a vast interfaith movement that is focused on climate change response, including backing for a Fossil-Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty. For the duration of COP28, the Pavilion will serve as an innovative and inclusive space that nurtures interfaith engagement and cooperation for climate action. For example, more than 60 session are scheduled in the Pavilion with topics ranging from climate justice for indigenous communities, environmental restoration initiatives, loss and damage, feminist and youth leadership in the climate movement, to green finance (you can view the Pavilion’s complete programme here).

So why does the Faith Pavilion and its programming matter? Why, you may ask, should spirituality have any role in climate-change response and disaster risk management, which are ubiquitously understood in secular terms? Perhaps the best answers to these questions can be found in who is doing the understanding and producing the response.

While you may not necessarily think of faith leaders and faith communities as key responders in the face of the climate crisis, I can assure you they are. In my own research I have found a risk-management approach and a wider understanding that integrates both a scientific and spiritual understanding of the natural world in the communities where climate change response is most needed, is critical. Consider that the most religious countries of the world are in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and Latin America, while perhaps unsurprisingly people tend to be less religious in Europe, North America, East Asia and Australia. For example, according to research carried out by the Pew Research Center in Washington D.C., more than 80% of adults in the Global South consider religion to be ‘very important’ to them.

This holds especially true in Oceania, a vast region that covers more than a third of the Earth’s surface, and where I have had the privilege of living and working for more than a third of my life. It is well known and documented that many Pacific Islander communities are suffering as a result of the climate crises, while simultaneously being among the most spiritually engaged in the world. As a result there is much that can be learned from human response to risk and the role of faith, faith-based organisations and the social dynamics associated with climate resilience. For example, the case study of Tropical Cyclone Winston in Fiji—the second strongest superstorm recorded in the world—where I also served as a relief worker with Fiji Red Cross, offers valuable insights into successful and trusted relief responses by faith-based organisations.

Beyond this, my research suggests that one reason for the failure of external, top-down interventions for climate-change adaptation in Pacific Island communities is the completely secular nature of their messages. Among spiritually engaged communities, these secular messages can be met with indifference, misunderstanding or even hostility if they clash with the community’s spiritual agenda. It is also well worth remembering the numerous global and historic examples of profound worldview differences that resulted in disturbing and tragic events, such as in the colonial histories of Africa, Australia and the Americas where colonizers saw the land only through an economic lens, while indigenous inhabitants understood the spiritual value of the land.

For communities in many Global South countries, including in the Pacific Islands, the most powerful and persuasive messages are those that engage with people’s spiritual beliefs, and the most influential communication channels are often those that directly involve faith leaders. My research suggests that this lack of effective engagement with the faith-based communities is a significant shortcoming of both governmental bodies and NGOs in the Global North when engaging with the Global South.

Faith leaders can and do influence practical discussions and actions taken from the individual to the national, and in the context of the COP’s Faith Pavilion, the international as well.

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Rowan Gard

Rowan Gard

Lecturer in Human Geography and Sustainability (Education)

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