Climate Change: A Warning from Islam

Ziglab Lake.jpg
Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos
Ziglab Lake, Jordan, 2009

On August 19, a convocation of some sixty leading Muslim clerics and religious scholars from around the planet, spurred by the growing siege of climate disasters affecting the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, issued an Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change. It was far shorter than Pope Francis’s much discussed encyclical issued early in the summer, but it arrived in much the same spirit:

Our species, though selected to be a caretaker or steward [*khalifah*] on the earth, has been the cause of such corruption and devastation on it that we are in danger of ending life as we know it on our planet. This current rate of climate change cannot be sustained, and the earth’s fine equilibrium [*mīzān*] may soon be lost.

The signers of the statement include the grand muftis of Uganda and Lebanon, scholars from leading universities, and several leaders of the main Islamic disaster relief charities. It cites Koranic chapter and verse, as well as hadith, or sayings, of the Prophet. And from them it constructs a series of postulates at least as provocative as Francis’s. Like the pope, these scholars are dubious about “the relentless pursuit of economic growth and consumption,” and believe that “an urgent and radical reappraisal is called for.” In fact, on particular points of current political controversy they offer more direct recommendations. To wit:

• They express “alarm” at “the multi-national scramble now taking place for more fossil fuel deposits under the dissolving ice caps in the arctic regions,” noting correctly that “we are accelerating our own destruction through these processes.” (A warning that comes the week before President Obama heads to Alaska, where he will presumably try to offer some justification for allowing Shell to drill in the Chukchi Sea.)

• They insist that world leaders meet the two-degree Celsius target for limiting temperature increases, or “preferably 1.5 degrees.” (These recommendations come as climate scientists led by Jim Hansen warn that a two-degree increase would in fact doom the planet to a dangerous rise in sea level—and as early pledges for December’s Paris climate talks indicate that the world’s governments are still on track to raise the mercury three or four degrees Celsius.)

• These Muslim scholars call for “divestment” from fossil fuels (and in so doing join the Church of England, the Unitarians, the United Church of Christ, and the World Council of Churches, as well as universities like Oxford and Stanford, and philanthropies like the Rockefeller heirs, in opposition to the mightiest industrial companies of the planet).

By itself this declaration will not lead to much. Islam, for better and for worse, lacks a central governing body; there is no pope. And even the pope’s words are only words—happily he has no governing authority beyond the walls of the Vatican. But what they signal is an ongoing shift in the zeitgeist, to the point where most thinking people in our civilization realize that we have to take dramatic, even “radical,” action to blunt an emerging crisis. This is new. Ten or twenty years ago there was no significant religious environmental movement. Conservative religious leaders viewed concern about the environment as pagan, and liberal ones saw it as secondary to the battles against their traditional foes: hunger, poverty, war. Mostly it went ignored.

But as the reality of climate change has grown steadily more apparent, all the thoughtful branches of humanity have begun to recognize that their philosophies and theologies need to be reconsidered in light of this new fact. Religion may be particularly prone to this rethinking: an understanding of God as all powerful and beneficent badly needs squaring with the reality that we are systematically dismantling our planet. The only ways out of this hole are to deny that it is happening, to insist that if it is happening God will intervene to prevent it, or to realize that as agents with free will we must take steps to rein ourselves in. The latter is obviously the mature course, and one that religious leaders across a variety of traditions are adopting.

That adoption matters, at least in part because it throws into ever sharper relief the irresponsibility of the fossil fuel industry, which refuses to take seriously the climate challenge or to change its ways in any meaningful fashion. Oil executives may say that climate change is real, but their willingness to keep seeking out more hydrocarbons to burn exposes their true priorities. (If you thought climate change was an existential threat you would not go drill for oil in the Arctic, full stop.) Religious leaders (or scientists, or artists, or philosophers, or young people, or any of the other groups that have taken up this fight) may not yet have the power to break the fossil fuel companies’ political strength, but their insistence on reality provides a setting for possible quick change in the years ahead. Given the plummeting cost of solar power, for instance, the Muslim leaders’ call for 100 percent renewable energy need no longer be consigned to the distant future.

One of the things that makes this particular document so interesting is the fact that a large share of the world’s hydrocarbons lie beneath Muslim nations, be it Mideast oil or Indonesian coal. One doesn’t expect the Saudis to shut down the Ghazar oil field as a result, but in the past they’ve played an obstructionist part in international negotiations. Now that the Islamic Declaration calls on world leaders to commit concretely to a zero-emissions strategy, pressure may begin to grow on the Saudi monarchy, and the upcoming Paris summit will show if it is starting to soften. Already Abu Dhabi plays host to the UN’s renewable research center, and even Riyadh started signaling earlier this year that the age of oil may soon be past (replaced with sunlight, a commodity that the Gulf nations also have in quantity). The head of Indonesia’s Ulema Council, which represents the 210 million Muslims in the world’s most populous Muslim country, said he welcomed the declaration and was “committed to implementing all its recommendations,” potentially a big deal since his nation has some of the planet’s largest undeveloped coal reserves.

The real effect of documents like these, though, is less immediate policy shifts than a change in the emotional climate. Most of us identify with one or several groups—Islam or Christendom, our alma mater or our union. As these begin to emphasize an issue, it becomes easier to make it part of our mental furniture. (This is also why it matters when celebrities engage with political issues.) It’s not necessarily that we take what the pope says as Gospel, or decide that because our university sold its fossil fuel stocks we will do likewise; it’s that these things normalize action, moving it from the category of “something that activists want” to “something obvious.” That’s the phase we’re reaching right now in the climate fight.

The twofold question is, how long will the active opposition of the fossil fuel industry head off this remaking of our politics, and how long does physics intend to allow us? Given that July was just listed as the hottest month in recorded history, and given the clouds of smoke spewing from the parched and overheated west, it appears our civilization is cutting it close.