Transforming Intercultural Dialogue Into a Hub for Green Alternatives

Arsalan Suleman
Acting U.S. Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation 
Keynote Remarks for Summit of Conscience Plenary Session
Fez, Morocco
November 3, 2016

As prepared for delivery

Excellencies, honorable religious leaders, ladies and gentlemen, Assalamualaikum. I would like to thank the Economic, Social and Environmental Council of the Kingdom of Morocco and the Rabita Mohammedia of the Ulema for their efforts to convene this important Summit. Gatherings like this Summit of Conscience are critical for ensuring that we build a world for future generations grounded in the positive values and practices of our diverse religious and cultural traditions.

When people hear that we in government are engaging religious leaders on climate change, there is often a pause, even a puzzled look, followed by an enthusiastic embrace of the idea: Yes, they say—we need all religious leaders to pray for divine intervention to stop climate change!

I can understand that reaction given the formidable task we face in slowing the pace and mitigating the impact of climate change. But the value of religious leadership on this issue goes beyond the spiritual realm -- it signals the great potential of religious traditions to guide needed policy changes, and the power of religious leaders and communities to move societies to confront this global challenge.

In my role as Acting U.S. Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, I work as part of the Office of Religion and Global Affairs, which was launched by Secretary of State John Kerry in 2013. We work to strengthen and institutionalize cooperation between the Department of State, multilateral organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), academia, and religious actors on diverse cross-cutting, global issues, including climate change.

A core principle of our approach to the intersection of religion and foreign policy has been to engage with religious actors on all priority areas, including those not conventionally viewed as connected to religion.

Climate change is one such issue, one that has not always been recognized as having immediate linkages with religion or religious actors. But since the earliest days after Secretary Kerry chartered this Office, global environmental issues—climate change in particular—have figured centrally in our efforts to articulate the policy benefits of engaging religious actors.

Among an audience like this one, the threat we face from climate change is well understood. There is a clear scientific consensus, reflected in statements from virtually every national and international scientific academy and professional organization, that human-caused climate change is already producing significant impacts with significant costs and extraordinary future risks to society and its natural systems.

Many of these impacts—such as more-frequent droughts and deluges that profoundly disrupt food and water supplies, and rising sea levels that flood low-lying communities with greater frequency—disproportionately impact the world’s poorest and most vulnerable communities. These impacts in turn trigger migration and displacement, exacerbating stresses on fragile government institutions.

Though scientists have been effective in sounding the alarm about climate change, the problem is no longer simply a scientific or technical problem. It is a political, economic, and social challenge, and above all, a moral issue. This underscores the critical role of the world’s religious communities in providing a moral compass with which to comprehend, and ultimately to act on, this grand global challenge.

Tomorrow, the Paris Agreement will enter into force, remarkably, just six months after its signing. This rapid timeline demonstrates the widespread recognition of the urgency at hand, and is a testament to the continued determination to act on the social, economic, and moral imperative to combat the dangerous impacts of climate change.

Religious leaders and organizations—many of whom are represented here today—played a critical role in mobilizing around COP 21 in Paris last year, advancing the international effort to generate an ambitious, consensus-driven agreement about how to reduce global carbon emissions and expedite the transition towards a low-carbon future.

Last year, a series of powerful statements by international leaders, including Pope Francis’s LaudatoSi’, the Buddhist Declaration on Climate Change, and the Islamic Declaration on Climate Change, cited the physical damage being done by climate change to our forests, our oceans, our polar regions, and the economic harm to those who depend for a living on agriculture and marine resources. Religious leaders from a wide range of traditions urge us to pursue the common good, which today requires a revolution in energy production and consumption that can preserve our environment and create millions of new jobs.

Religiously-affiliated organizations contribute substantively to the fight against climate change in many other ways as well. In terms of disaster response, religious groups and organizations are usually on the ground and active before disaster strikes, during the worst of it, and in the difficult recovery period following a disaster. As a native of New Orleans, I’m grateful for the humanitarian work of religiously-affiliated organizations following Hurricane Katrina. Such groups are among the first to respond to disasters in the United States and around the world.

Governments can strengthen their responses to climate change by partnering with religious groups and organizations. In the year leading up to COP21, our office hosted a series of briefings and consultations with religious stakeholders that helped substantially advance the conversation about religious engagement with climate change policy.

This work began early last year, when we launched this series of dialogues with a roundtable event that brought together State Department officials with representatives of both secular environmental NGOs and a diverse array of religiously-affiliated environmental groups.

Though our primary aim in these conversations was to help raise awareness about the UNFCCC process and to provide information about the Obama Administration’s approach to the negotiations to a wide array of religiously-affiliated groups, we also wanted to assess whether and what gaps existed between the secular and religious environmental advocacy communities.

These groups were aware of each other’s unique contributions, but treated one another with mutual suspicion. Representatives from the larger environmental NGOs expressed skepticism about the approach of the religious organizations and were lukewarm to the idea of partnering with such groups. Conversely, representatives from religiously-affiliated organizations were mindful of their distinct character and were hesitant to embrace the secular approach of environmental NGOs. Many of the religious groups also had not worked together on the climate change issue.

However, both religiously-affiliated organizations and NGOs were united in their determination to see a strong agreement in Paris. And religious advocates in particular were emboldened and empowered by their access to policymakers.

Conversations like these throughout the course of 2015 helped build a robust dialogue among these stakeholders. There is now strong collaboration among these groups. Looking back on what we achieved in this and subsequent meetings, we're proud of the degree to which our leading climate policymakers, including the U.S. Special Envoy on Climate Change, value their engagement with religious groups.

Last November, on the eve of COP21, we hosted a Symposium on Religion and Climate Change at the State Department and at Georgetown University. This two-day event drew from a wide circle of expertise, including theological perspectives, scholarly voices, representation from religiously-affiliated organizations, and high-level representatives from a wide swath of U.S. federal government agencies. Many months of effort, culminating in the Symposium, helped ensure that religious leaders had the information about climate policy necessary for their many contributions to the success of COP21.

The Paris Agreement gives us reason for optimism, but it by no means resolves the myriad challenges produced by a warming, increasingly unstable global climate. The framework of the Paris Agreement requires that the international community maintain its resolve and offer increasingly ambitious mitigation and adaptation targets every five years going forward. And critical gaps remain, for example, regarding the impact of climate change on international waters. Continued efforts by religious leaders and organizations will be essential as the international community searches for ways to build on the ambition of the Paris Agreement.

In next week’s gathering in Marrakesh and onwards, policy makers are working to identify ways to implement and achieve the promises made at COP21. For many of the U.S.-based organizations with which we work, the Green Climate Fund has emerged as a critical resource.

The fund, managed through an independent secretariat, serves as the “fiscal plumbing” through which the United States shows leadership on climate change. With $10 billion (USD) in pledged contributions, the Green Climate Fund can be a powerfully impactful source of financing for under-resourced nations pursuing low-carbon development strategies and working to adapt to rapidly changing environmental conditions.

Given the effective work that many religiously-affiliated organizations do at the grassroots level, where they serve as critical providers of humanitarian relief and development assistance, engagement with the Green Climate Fund is a logical step for many such organizations.

The Office of Religion and Global Affairs has, over the past year, regularly convened religious groups for briefings on the Green Climate Fund, which have helped various religious networks support the Fund and enhance its efficacy. In keeping with our mission to serve as a point of access for religious communities, we have sought to provide space for these organizations to orient themselves to a complex, and still evolving policy apparatus.

Religious organizations are also important to the effort to reduce carbon emissions. In the United States there are several groups working to make houses of worship more sustainable, including Interfaith Power and Light, which has developed a network of almost 20,000 congregations to share information about greening their communities. Other organizations, like GreenFaith, have created programs to train religious leaders -- this is important because studies show clearly that people are much more likely to act on climate change if they have heard about it from their own religious leader.

These efforts are spreading internationally too. The Green Mosques project, the result of a partnership between the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development and the Moroccan Ministry for Energy, Mines, Water and Environment, is a remarkable example. The U.S.-Morocco Green Growth Climate Change Program is similarly open to partnerships with religious stakeholders. We have the opportunity throughout the day today to hear about the great work being done on this issue around the world.

These examples underscore the importance of partnership across different sectors of society and indeed among stakeholders motivated by diverse cultural traditions. We don’t live in an age of competing or clashing civilizations developing mostly separate from each other. That time, if it ever truly existed, ended ages ago. We live in a single, interconnected and interdependent global civilization, one in which scientific and technological advances from one part of the world build upon each other. And more than any other issue, climate change underscores this global interconnectedness.

The world is blessed with a wide diversity of cultures, and different cultures place varying emphases on competing values. Reasonable people can disagree on which values to prioritize in organizing their lives. But at the end of the day, there is more that unites us than divides us.

Global interconnectedness ensures that we all participate in a global marketplace of ideas, inventions and progress. These are powerful forces that, if we embrace them, can reinforce international efforts to address climate change and help build a world grounded in the positive values and practices that shape our diverse religious and cultural traditions.

Let us take up this challenge, hand in hand.

Thank you.