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Faith and Science: towards COP26

Alison Hilliard, Programme Director
Alison Hilliard, Programme Director

Monday was not a usual day for me.

I hadn’t travelled during the pandemic and here I was in the Vatican in the Palazzo Apostolico, overlooking St Peter’s Square, sitting a heartbeat from the balcony that Popes have addressed the world from for centuries.

The location was grand, steeped in history. The Sistine Chapel was next door. But there was urgency in the room, a sense that this was a unique moment of opportunity.

40 faith leaders from around the world- from the Grand Imam of al-Azhar to the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, to the Archbishop of Canterbury along with leading figures from 10 different faith traditions who together represent the 84 percent of the world’s population who identify with a faith – had gathered to launch a joint Appeal calling on world leaders to raise their ambition and reach net zero carbon emissions as soon as possible.

Faith leader group photo
Alison planting an olive tree

They were hosted by Pope Francis who humbly waited in line to sign the Joint Appeal and then helped plant an olive tree as a sign of commitment to bringing about a change of heart among members of the faithful in the way they related to the Earth and to other people. It was now, they said, their moral obligation to do everything in their power to stop climate change, “future generations will never forgive them if they miss this opportunity to protect our common home”.

Alison holding the appeal

The Appeal grew out of months of online meetings between the faith leaders and eminent scientists. I was privileged to facilitate these meetings throughout 2021 on behalf of the British and Italian Embassies to the Holy See and the Vatican. There was agreement from the outset. Agreement that everything in our world is connected, profoundly interrelated and interdependent. Agreement that action is urgent and that the time for talking is over. Agreement that at no other time in the history of humankind is the role of faith leaders so critical in lending a voice to ways of tackling climate change. Agreement that faiths can and must lead the way, supported by science- science that tells us that a child born today risks an uninhabitable world by the time they reach 60.

Alok Sharma, COP26 President Designate, recognised that when he accepted the Appeal from Pope Francis on Monday. It showed, he said, how we can and will turn the tide in climate change. And how the head and the heart can work together to do just that, religion and science on the same page.

Alison chairing a session at the Vatican

The discussion I chaired with the faith leaders and scientists after the official launch of the Appeal was called ‘an emergency meeting’ on how to move forward and how to mobilise the faith’s networks of influence- influence that politicians can only dream of.

The job in hand was presenting a vision of a new way of doing things, a new way to behave, a new way to live with each other – and “in harmony with and not exploiting nature, respecting creation, respecting our neighbour, ourselves and the Creator”, as Pope Francis put it.

According to Archbishop Justin Welby that means a pilgrimage to a clean economy, a new financial architecture that can be a foundation for a green global economy and a partnership to equip the Global South as partners and drivers of environmental change.

Alison with faith leaders

I was left inspired by a sense of purpose, commitment and above all a sense of hope. These leaders mean business. The Catholics have a new effort to take climate action to scale across the entire Catholic Church, the Laudate Si Action Platform. The Sikhs are planting a million trees in their Guru Nanak Sacred Forests Project. The World Evangelical Alliance promises 20 percent of the global evangelical footprint will be powered by clean renewable energy by 2025. Greening faith buildings, investments, land and assets will follow.

The Appeal will now go to COP26 in Glasgow in November. But then the hard work will begin – the small steps of change that will follow in temples, mosques, churches, synagogues, in schools, universities, homes and hearts. Change there will make Monday the 4th October a day not to be forgotten. (Though I won’t be deleting my pictures at the Pope’s balcony and in the Sistine Chapel.)