Saturday, December 19, 2015

Historic Paris Climate Agreement Reflects Years of Advocacy by Religious People -- Sightings (Sarah Fredericks)

Although not everyone is on board, there are clear signs that the earth is experiencing significant climate change. It also seems clear to most scientists that we humans are major contributors to this change. Last week a major climate summit ended with a historic agreement that commits the nations of the world to addressing this important problem. Climate change is a difficult concept to understand, because it's difficult to pinpoint its effects. Is the fact that it is unusually warm this December a sign?  Or, better, are changing migratory patterns of birds a sign? Sarah Fredericks reflects on the issue by showing how religious people have been at the forefront of advocating on this issue. I invite you to read and perhaps offer your thoughts on the question of what we can do as people of faith to make a difference?

Historic Paris Climate Agreement Reflects Years of Advocacy by Religious People
Credit: lexaarts /
Last Saturday, world leaders from 196 nations who had gathered in Paris adopted a historic agreement about climate change

Millions of religious people and their secular partners around the world have worked for years to make this agreement possible.

While religious people care about climate change for a host of reasons, many consider it to be the most significant social justice issue that human civilization has faced.

People are already feeling the effects of climate change. More extreme weather events around the globe disrupt agriculture, damage homes and kill people. The government of Kiribati, a South Pacific nation, has preemptively bought land in Fiji (from the Church of England) so that its population can emigrate to escape rising seas.

Climate change will have the largest impact on people who lack the resources to sufficiently respond. Additionally, those experiencing the worst of climate change generally contributed least to the problem. Thus, climate change is an issue of justice.

Religious people have worked for decades to convince their fellow believers that climate change is important using sermons, prayers, rituals, and educational materials.

Formal statements have also drawn attention to climate change. Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si’, calls upon Catholics and “all people of goodwill” to take action. Similarly, the global Islamic Climate Change Declaration issued in August articulates the religious dimensions of climate change and urgesd leaders meeting in Paris to “an urgent and radical reappraisal” of existing policies and quick decisive action.

Religious Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) focused on poverty, social justice, women’s rights, and children increasingly recognize that climate change affects their work and advocate, educate, and fund projects accordingly.

In Paris, members of religious NGOs, and religious people motivated by their consciences but acting in secular leadership roles have played an active role in the climate discussions. The Global Catholic Climate Movement, the ACT Alliance, Religions for Peace, and Our Voices combined efforts to present a petition for climate justice with 1,833,973 signatures to Christiana Figueres, the top climate official at the UN, who was “visibly moved.”

Demonstrations were limited due to heightened French security but ecumenical prayer services at Notre Dame, a “Fast for Climate,” and, of course, advocacy work continued. Religious NGOs and their secular partners did incredible work online to educate people about the talks and help them maintain pressure on climate negotiators.

What did the Paris talks achieve?

World leaders agreed to “hold[ing] the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2° C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5° C above pre-industrial” temperatures. Compared to earlier international discussions, this statement better recognizes the needs of the most vulnerable for whom even 1.5° C will be catastrophic.

Nations also pledged individual targets for greenhouse gas emissions reductions. Understanding that, if met, current emissions pledges will only halt global temperature rise at approximately 2.7° C, the agreement sets up a framework to have nations review their emissions levels every five years and periodically adopt more stringent emissions targets.

The agreement also provides for financial and technological assistance to developing nations to deal with climate change. The Green Climate Fund, a mechanism set up before the Paris talks, is a prime method of funding to aid those who need it most; Secretary of State John Kerry pledged in Paris to double US contributions.

How did people respond?

Paul Cook, Advocacy Director of Tearfund, an international Christian group focused on poverty alleviation, responded as religious people with insight into the negotiations did:

“We welcome the agreement brokered at these crucial climate talks. This is a good step forward, but let’s not be complacent. This doesn’t give us everything we need—nations will need to go further in reducing their emissions over the next few years to ensure the global temperature does not rise by more than 1.5 degrees to avoid the worst impacts of climate change” (See Ria Voorhar’s press release for in “Resources” below).

Indeed, within hours of the agreement, many nongovernmental organizations already had updated their websites to reflect the new aims of their advocacy work: to ensure that promises made in Paris are kept and, hopefully, exceeded as is necessary to ensure justice for the most vulnerable.


Brown, Stephen. "UN Climate Chief Thanks Pilgrims for 'Every Single Step' to Climate Justice." World Council of Churches, November 30, 2015.

Caramel, Laurence, “Besieged by the Rising Tides of Climate Change, Kiribati Buys Land in Fiji.” The Guardian, June 30, 2014.

Chan, Sewell, and Melissa Eddy. "Leaders Move to Convert Paris Climate Pledges into Action." The New York Times, December 14, 2015.

Climate Action Tracker. "Climate Pledges Will Bring 2.7° C of Warming, Potential for More Action." December 8, 2015.

Conference of the Parties Twenty-First Session. "Paris Agreement." Paris: United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 2015.

Forum on Religion and Ecology. "Climate Change Statements from World Religions."

The Green Climate Fund. "The Green Climate Fund Mission." December 15, 2015.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. "Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report: Summary for Policymakers." Geneva, Switzerland: IPCC, 2014.

"Islamic Declaration on Climate Change." Istanbul, Turkey: International Islamic Climate Change Symposium, 2015.

Kerry, John. "Remarks on Cop21 and Action Beyond Paris." Presentation at the Conference of Parties Twenty-First Meeting, Paris, France, December 9, 2015.

Kim, Grace Ji-Sun. "Religious Leaders at Cop21 Issue Urgent Plea for Care of Creation." Sojourners, December 7 2015.

Pope Francis. "Laudato Si’—on Care for Our Common Home." Vatican: Vatican, 2015.

Voorhaar, Ria. "Civil Society Responds as Final Paris Climate Agreement Released." News release, December 12, 2015.

Image Credit: lexaarts /

To comment: Email the Managing Editor, Myriam Renaud, at To request that your comment appear with this article on the Marty Center's website, provide your full name in the body of your email and indicate in the subject line: POST COMMENT TO [title of Sightings piece].
Author, Sarah E. Fredericks, (Ph.D. Boston University) is Assistant Professor of Environmental Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Her research focuses on the ethics of international environmental policy documents, interreligious collaboration on environmental issues, sustainability, environmental guilt and shame, and environmental justice. She is the author of Measuring and Evaluating Sustainability: Ethics in Sustainability Indexes (Routledge, 2013).
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