The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Working with Faith Representatives to Address Climate Change: The Two Wings of Ethos and Ethics

By Rollosson, Natabara | Cross Currents, September 2010 | Go to article overview

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Working with Faith Representatives to Address Climate Change: The Two Wings of Ethos and Ethics


Rollosson, Natabara, Cross Currents


On November 3rd, 2009 at Windsor Castle in the United Kingdom, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) cohosted a summit that gathered religious and secular leaders from around the world to announce their action-based commitments to protecting the environment and addressing climate change. Religious participants included representatives from numerous traditions from within nine major faiths: Baha'ism, Buddhism, Christianity, Daoism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Sikhism, and Shintoism.

Engaging substantively with the faiths on environment and climate change issues was new to UNDP's work. Even though over the years UNDP had engaged in development projects on different issues that have involved faith-based organizations (FBOs) as partners, it was not until the direct interaction at Windsor that the opportunities of working on climate change with FBOs came into focus.

Instead of bringing religions together to agree upon one collective statement on climate change, the Windsor gathering encouraged each of the faith representatives to develop respective action plans to address environmental issues in their own unique way. As the faiths shared their different approaches, some faiths took note of other plans and openly acknowledged their desire to replicate certain elements of other faiths' action templates. The overall theme of the gathering was a "celebration" of diverse action plans and appreciation for the natural environment, with some faiths inspired to spontaneously transcend and expand their originally conceived commitments.

A month later, in December, a stark contrast played out on the world stage. This time, the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change brought governments together in Copenhagen. However, delegates came with a notable difference in approach, and one that has plagued nations for decades. The history of climate change negotiations can be characterized as a mentality of scarcity: governments generally wanting to do as little as possible while pushing others to do as much as possible.

In an interesting contrast of philosophies, the FBOs came together with an entirely different mentality of abundance, saying in effect: "this is what we can offer; this is what we are going to do." They did not say "we'll only do this if another faith does this, or if the government does this."

It was during preliminary religious events and gatherings leading up to Windsor that UN Assistant Secretary-General and UNDP Assistant Administrator Olav Kjorven first noticed the dichotomy of the abundance and scarcity mentalities. Kjorven hypothesized the world's faiths--joined together--could possibly become the planet's largest civil society movement for change: "[W]ith their unparalleled presence throughout the world, the world's religions could be the decisive force that helps tip the scales in favor of a world of climate safety and justice for future generations."

One of UNDP's non-governmental partners, the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC), a secular organization based in the United Kingdom, played the key role in leading on, harnessing, and encouraging the abundance mentality. Prior to the summit, ARC set out to consult directly with faith representatives to support them in building their own action plans, incorporating a methodology that addressed their internal structures and highlighted the inherent strengths of each faith.

Alliance of Religions and Conservation approached the faith representatives with a guide to creating multi-year plans that emphasized seven key areas, through which many of the world's major faith traditions can have significant impact on environmental action through their own resources, traditions, and beliefs. These were as follows:

1. Faith-consistent use of assets: land and forests; construction and buildings; investments (including micro-finance); water; food and hospitality; purchasing and property. …

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