VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis and dozens of religious leaders on Monday signed a joint appeal to governments to commit to ambitious targets at the upcoming U.N. climate conference, while promising to do their own part to lead their faithful into more sustainable behavior.
“We have inherited a garden; we must not leave a desert to our children,” said the appeal, which was signed at a formal ceremony in the Apostolic Palace before being handed over to the head of the COP26 conference, Alok Sharma.
For the religious leaders, care for the environment is a moral imperative to preserve God’s creation for future generations and to support communities most vulnerable to climate change.
It’s an argument Francis has made repeatedly and most comprehensively in a 2015 encyclical, “Praised Be” and was echoed Monday by imams, rabbis, patriarchs and reverends who shared how their faith traditions interpreted the call, many of them insisting that faith and science must listen to each other to save the planet.
“Faith and Science: An Appeal for COP26” is the latest initiative to rally momentum and outrage ahead of the Oct. 31-Nov. 12 summit in Glasgow, Scotland that experts say is a make-or-break chance to curb greenhouse gas emissions. It follows a youth climate summit in Milan last week and an earlier appeal by three Christian leaders: Francis, the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I.
They were joined Monday by leaders of other major faith groups representing Sunni and Shiite Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Jainism, Sikhism and more.
Conspicuously absent was the Dalai Lama. The Vatican has excluded the Tibetan spiritual leader from interfaith events for years to not antagonize China, and an appeal seeking to be heard by a top polluter like Beijing is no exception.
The Glasgow summit aims to secure more ambitious commitments to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius with a goal of keeping it to 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. The event also is focused on mobilizing financing and protecting vulnerable communities and natural habitats.
Pope Francis is widely expected to attend, though the Vatican hasn’t yet confirmed his presence.
The Vatican event was jointly organized by the Holy See and the two countries leading the push ahead of the Glasgow summit: host Britain and Italy, which currently heads the Group of 20. The appeal was crafted over months of discussions among religious leaders and scientists.
Bishop Frederick Shoo, president of the Lutheran Church of Tanzania, quoted Martin Luther in describing his vocation to plant trees on Mount Kilimanjaro that has earned him the nickname of the “tree bishop.”
“Even if I knew I would die tomorrow ... I would plant a tree today,” Shoo said, paraphrasing the 16th century Luther who broke away from the Catholic Church.
Francis arrived in the Hall of Blessings with Bartholomew at his side, and then greeted each of the delegates as a string quartet played Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” Usually Francis goes maskless inside the Vatican, but he donned a face mask Monday, as did the other delegates.
He had been scheduled to read a lengthy speech but gave just a brief welcome and then left the floor to others, starting off with Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayyeb, the imam of the Al-Azhar center for Sunni learning in Cairo. Al-Tayyeb urged young Muslims and religious scholars to “carry out their religious duty” by taking responsibility for the crisis.
The event was a global gathering of faith leaders, almost all of them male, including some who rarely are in the same room because of longstanding theological differences. But there was the Istanbul patriarch, Bartholomew, calling for continued dialogue as he signed a joint appeal alongside Patriarch Hilarion of the Russian Orthodox Church, who used his two-minute speech to call for repentance for all the damage already done.
“It shall be remembered that the current ecological situation has been caused, among other factors, by the desire of some to profit at the expense of others as well as by the desire of unjust enrichment,” Hilarion said.
In the appeal, the leaders begged political leaders to adopt measures to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius and for countries that are most responsible for greenhouse gas emissions to provide “substantial financial support” to most vulnerable communities.
For their own part, they vowed to promote environmentally aware educational and cultural initiatives and to urge their faithful to lead more sustainable lifestyles.
In his speech, Welby said over the past 100 years, humanity had “declared war” on creation and must now repent by not only to building a green economy but by bringing justice to the global south.
“I have run out of time,” Welby said at the end of his speech. “The world has just enough time to get this right.”