Elliott is a senior director at Laudato Si’ Movement and a fellow of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication with The Op-Ed Project.
Leaders have been gathering at the United Nations climate summit for the past few weeks, shaping crucial decisions for all humanity. The negotiators in past U.N. climate summits have lacked the courage of their convictions. But this year, Pope Francis, who planned to attend in person, sent an important message to participants. Negotiators should learn from faith leaders like him because they are making the hard choices to implement real climate solutions.
The talks, known as COP28, are the 28th time that countries will try to reduce greenhouse gas pollution while the problem grows – greenhouse gas pollution is now about 50 percent higher than it was 28 years ago.
This has been taking place eight years after the signing of the Paris Agreement, a climate accord that raised hopes for humanity’s ability to dream of a better future together. The signatures on that document represented a commitment to protecting the Earth, our common home, for the benefit of all.
With this in mind, it is a surprising fact that the phrase “fossil fuels” is not mentioned anywhere in the Paris Agreement. This seems like a puzzling oversight, given that there is no question that fossil fuels are a signficant factor in driving the climate crisis. Reducing the impact of fossil fuels is the only way to prevent the worst of the hunger, sickness, conflict and forced migration that climate change brings.
As countries try once again to turn the arc of greenhouse gas pollution downward, they should look to an unexpected source of inspiration. For many years now, leaders in the faith community have been speaking out about the climate crisis and making the difficult decisions needed to implement real solutions.
Pope Francis recently released a high-level statement on the climate crisis, saying “the necessary transition towards clean energy sources such as wind and solar energy, and the abandonment of fossil fuels, is not progressing at the necessary speed.”
Through the Vatican’s sustainability program, over 8,000 institutions and individuals have committed to creating comprehensive plans for action, including making the switch to clean energy. In response to both guidance from Rome and decades of Catholic teaching on climate change, more than 350 Catholic institutions have divested from fossil fuels, making the hard decision to align their financial practices with their values.
Ambitious action is being taken by Catholics in the United States. Dominican Sisters have invested $46 million in a Climate Solutions Fund to support projects in sustainability. A nationwide effort to install solar panels on Catholic facilities has resulted in clean energy powering parishes.
Beyond the Catholic faith, Muslims are embracing clean energy and have issued a prohibition against investments in fossil fuels. Synagogues are installing solar panels and Jewish leaders are developing climate action plans.
Each of these decisions involved months or even years, of deliberation, including challenging conversations with community members, financial advisors and facilities managers. Yet despite the challenges, faith leaders didn’t let the challenges stop them because they know that the urgent need to protect our brothers and sisters from the climate crisis is imperative.
National leaders face far more complex challenges but the science remains the same. Either we stop climate change, or climate change will stop us. Now is the time for action.