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The Great Opportunity – Engaging People of Faith

By George Marshall on February 16, 2016

Religious faiths play an immensely important role in people’s lives. They provide core values, community, spiritual enlightenment and a sense of continuity between past, present and the hereafter. Although often distorted by temporal concerns, faiths alone have the capacity to cross the deep divides of class, politics and nationalism.  73% of people in the world identify with one of the five main religions: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism, the largest networks of shared identity. Despite the growth of agnosticism in developed countries, these faiths continue to grow globally, especially in their more radical or evangelical forms.

The climate change movement in general has been curiously slow to recognise the importance of faith groups in building political and social action. While the climate movement still struggles to mobilise thousands for a single event, many campaigners are strangely uninterested in these vast networks that can bring together millions of people week after week in shared worship.

Unlike development or human rights organisations, no major environmental organisation has roots in religious networks. Some staff members may have a personal faith, but, I have heard confidentially, they feel that their beliefs are not honoured by some of their colleagues and they are given no opportunity to bring these insights into their work.

Climate Outreach has always argued that effective climate communications must speak to people’s core values and identity – indeed, that only in doing so can we find sufficient motivation to make the major changes required.  We were delighted to be invited by the multifaith GreenFaith network to develop and test narratives for mobilising people across Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism, in order to inform their OurVoices campaign in the run up to the 2015 Paris climate conference.

In our research, we soon realised that few if any of previous messages for faith-based audiences had been formally tested. The limited communications research that did exist had been almost entirely based within the United States focusing on Christian denominations. It was, we felt, very unwise to apply research from a single culture without wider testing.

Our second observation was that previous research had always focused on each faith in isolation. Our project with GreenFaith is, we believe, the first to test the same language across several faiths and seek the common ground.

Finally, we noted that although there had been a series of high profile interfaith statements on climate change, these were often very formal and hierarchical in tone. What we felt was missing was language that was more accessible and relevant to ordinary people of faith.



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Faith and climate change: talking with people of 5 major faiths

To approach our task, we conducted a series of structured interviews with climate communicators from each of the faiths. We then extracted a number of existing narratives from faith-based communications materials, speeches, and public statements. We also explored new narratives around climate change based on metaphors and images that are found through the teachings of all the faith traditions, exploring polarities around cleanliness and pollution, sleep and wakefulness, light and dark.

We took these proposals to focus groups for each of the five faiths (with separate male and female sessions for Muslims). We were careful to recruit participants from as wide a range of ethnic and political backgrounds as possible. The groups followed the process Climate Outreach has developed for its narrative workshops in previous programmes: an exploration of core values, outlining the key components of each faith identity and their attitudes to environment and climate change, followed by an evaluation and discussion of our trial narratives.  The group discussions were very dynamic and lively, with participants readily rising to the challenge of finding new ways of talking about climate change. We greatly enjoyed listening and learning from people with such varied perspectives. To substantiate the findings from these workshops, we incorporated further input and comments from an international online survey completed by 653 people in over fifty countries.

Some of our findings confirmed existing faith narratives around moral responsibility, respect for the natural world, and the need to express our values through our actions. However, we also found a strong resistance to overly moralistic and judgemental language that allocated blame or threatened punishment. Participants found it difficult to incorporate climate change within the traditional moral framework of their faiths. Many argued that contributing to climate change was not a straightforwardly sinful or immoral act and was more a product of ignorance or lapsed attention. We found that our new language around the need to “wake up” to climate change worked well across the faiths.

Although all faiths incorporate a strong environmental ethos, this is expressed through markedly different language and theology. The Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – believe in a creator God who has entrusted humanity with responsibility to be a caretaker or steward (Muslims prefer the word caliph) for Creation. Hindus and Buddhists regard the natural world as part of a wider cosmological order within which humanity has a responsibility to respect its interdependence with other living things. We found that the only language that consistently worked across all faiths was the concept that the world is a precious “gift” that requires respect.

We also explored the concept – in communications terms we would say the ‘frame‘ – of balance. We found that all faiths strongly endorsed the principle that there is a rightful balance to the world that is being unsettled by climate change. We noted that the word balance appeared spontaneously across all of our discussion groups and in the wider faith declarations on climate change.

We very much hope to continue building on this work in the coming years.

By George Marshall

George is the co-founder of Climate Outreach and now works as an independent consultant. He has 35 years experience at all levels of communications and advocacy – from community level protest movements, to senior positions in Greenpeace and the Rainforest Foundation, to advisory roles for governments, businesses and international agencies. He is an award winning documentary maker and writes regularly on climate change issues including articles for The Guardian, The New Statesman, New Scientist and The Ecologist.

He is also the author of two books, Carbon Detox (Hamlyn Gaia, 2007) and Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, listed by Esquire as one of the ’15 essential books on climate change’. Go to George’s Wikipedia page for more information about him.

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