Averting climate change will need help from faith-based organizations, says UN official

In Brief: 
  • There is still time to reduce greenhouse gases and meet international targets that would help limit global warming, said Christiana Figueres of the UNFCCC, speaking at the Bahá’í International Community offices.
  • One key group to be enlisted are faith-based organizations, who understand the moral dilemma of climate change and its impacts on the poor and others who already produce fewer greenhouse gases.

NEW YORK—The world will need an enormous push from the private sector and civil society—including religious organizations—if humanity is to make the transition to a low carbon future and prevent the catastrophic effects of global warming, a top UN official has said.

Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), said civil society and, in particular, religious groups have a key role to play in such a transition, because of the moral dimensions of the climate issue.

“Moral leadership is truly a scarce resource these days,” said Ms. Figueres during an interview after a talk on 20 September 2013 at the offices of the Bahá’í International Community. “But there is a moral necessity to stand up…and assume responsibility. And I would hope that the faith-based community would be even more active than it is right now in calling for that moral leadership.”

Ms. Figueres said the main moral dilemma in the climate issue is the discrepancy between those who caused the emissions that are responsible for climate change and those who will feel the main impact of its effects.

“It is no secret that those at the bottom of the pyramid, independently of what country they live in, are the least responsible for having caused greenhouse gas emissions in the past,” she said. “And yet those at the bottom of the pyramid are the ones that are already getting it the worst, and certainly will continue to be hit the worst.”

“So that is a moral imperative,” said Ms. Figueres. “We cannot look ourselves in the mirror and be untouched by the fact that those of us who enjoy the privileges of modern comfort are doing so at the expense of the quality of life of those at the bottom of the pyramid.”

During her talk at a breakfast dialogue on the post-2015 development agenda, Ms. Figueres warned that there will be catastrophic effects if the international community does not do more to limit the production of greenhouse gases, which many scientists say have already caused global warming.

“This is a challenge that has economic consequences, poverty consequences, security consequences, transportation consequences—you name it—the list is long,” said Ms. Figueres. “There is hardly a human endeavor that is not touched by climate change,” she said.

In that light, she said, the issue of climate change cannot be separated from the current discussions at the United Nations on the post-2015 development agenda, which seeks to devise new goals for poverty eradication and sustainability to replace the highly regarded Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which expire in 2015.

“You cannot continue to push forward with development without addressing climate change because climate [change] does have the capacity to wipe out everything that we have been able to achieve in development in the past 20 years,” she said.

Post-2015 context

If climate change is adequately addressed, she said, it will help solve many of the issues being discussed as part of the post-2015 agenda, whether over energy, poverty, health, security, or biodiversity, among other issues.

“Real people do not experience climate change as two separate processes,” she said, referring to the twin tracks at the UN on climate negotiations and post-2015 discussions. “This is only an artificial construct that we have created in order to deal with these issues almost from a theoretical point of view. But the fact is no human being experiences any of the thematic areas or climate separately because this is all part of their lives.”

Ms. Figueres said there is still time to reduce emissions and meet an international target of preventing global average temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees centigrade.

“Many reports say that we actually no longer have the possibility of being able to decrease emission to the point where we might enjoy a planet of 2 degrees temperature rise—that we are heading towards a planet with a 3 or 4 or 6 degree temperature rise,” she said.

“...in fact, we still have a window of opportunity in which we could, if all efforts are really brought to their maximum, that we could stay within the two degree limit,” she said, noting that the two degree limit has already been agreed to by 195 nations.

“But the longer we delay, the more costly the two degree limit will be. Because the more we invest in high carbon technology, the more we are locking ourselves into technologies that will make adaptation and resilience and the transformation more and more costly,” said Ms. Figueres.

The breakfast dialogue meeting at which Ms. Figueres spoke was the 13th in a series of such dialogues on the post-2015 development agenda sponsored by the Bahá’í International Community and the International Movement ATD Fourth World.