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Sacredness of creation

James Bhagwan
Wednesday, September 13, 2017

At the opening of the Climate Action Pacific Partnership conference in Suva in July this year, Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama affirmed the particular perspective Pacific Islanders bring to discussions around climate change based on personal experience and the experience of Pacific communities.

"There is certainly nothing wrong with having differences of emphasis and even differences of opinion about the best way forward. What's important, given the immensity of the challenge we face to persuade the world to act on climate change, is to stick together. Because we are going to be far more effective if we speak with one voice — the voice of the Pacific, the voice of the some of the most vulnerable, demanding action and demanding to be heard."

A month later, Pacific Church Leaders, representing about 20 Pacific churches and national councils of churches issued statement in support of the Pacific through Fiji taking over the presidency of the COP23 and as a build up to the pre and post 23rd Conference of Parties (COP23).

This support by Pacific Churches, including three Fiji-based Churches — the Anglican Diocese of Polynesia, the Methodist Church in Fiji and St Andrews Presbyterian Church as well as the Fiji Council of Churches, is an affirmation of the significance for the Pacific and vulnerable countries of Fiji's presidency of COP23.

At the same time it is more than that. It is part of the exercising of exercise their "prophetic voice as churches and believers of the faith to amplify the cries of our people and Moana who are directly or indirectly affected by climate change and encourage the spirit of stewardship among ourselves as custodians of God's creation".

For the past decade and a half, the churches of the Pacific have been working to be the voices of the voiceless in the issue of climate change; bringing together the scientific evidence raised by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the experiences of vulnerable Pacific Island communities.

The World Council of Churches have been involved in the issue of climate change since the very first Conference of Parties in Berlin, Germany in 1995.

Year after year, the World Council of Churches have spoken on behalf of hundreds of churches, church based organisations, ecumenical movements, and faith based movements throughout the world, that work daily with communities whose lives and livelihoods are severely affected by climate change.

The Pacific churches' first major consultation on climate change took place on March 6-11, 2004, in Tarawa, Kiribati.

The consultation resulted in the Otin tai (iKiribati for "sunrise") Declaration which focused on:

* care for the earth as our response to God's love for creation;

* urgency of the threat of human-induced climate change to the lives, livelihoods, societies, cultures and ecosystems of the Pacific Islands;

* engaging in education and action;

* ecumenical collaboration among our churches and with other religious and secular bodies; and

* and for churches in the highly-industrialised nations, to act in solidarity to reduce the causes of human-induced climate change.

The Pacific Churches' Moana (the Polynesian name for ocean, not the movie) Declaration of 2009 called for a new consciousness on climate change and our call to action, addressing:

* resettlement because of climate change;

* respect and protection for climate refugees as well as as host or receiving communities;

* accompaniment and solidarity (pastoral care); and

* Mitigation and adaptation.

But why is the role of churches and faith communities so important in addressing climate change and affecting meaningful change other key issues in the Pacific?

In a recent article titled, "Sidelining God: Why secular climate projects in the Pacific Islands are failing", Australian academic Professor Patrick Nunn says he's seen foreign agencies consistently fail to have any effective impact when it comes to changing attitudes and knowledge among Pacific communities about climate change.

He writes, "Why, they ask, should spirituality have any role in a problem like climate-change adaptation or disaster risk management, which is so clearly framed in human, secular terms?"

It's a rhetorical question, as Prof Nunn suggests the answer, "lies in who does the framing.

Far fewer people in most donor programs are spiritually engaged than in the Pacific" with significantly higher "connectedness to nature" among educated Pacific Islanders than among people in richer countries, as well as deep concerns about climate change and what it might mean for their future and that of their descendants.

The fact is that a deep spirituality permeates the communities of the Pacific and is at the heart of the Pacific people's relationship with each other and the environment, which is acknowledge as sacred.

This spirituality is enhanced by (Christianity and) the many faith traditions of the world which have grown roots in our diverse Pacific communities. These faith traditions are shared with the vast majority of those who share this planet.

It underlines cultures which affirm the sacredness of the land and the sea, and even the sky and challenges cultures of exploitation and degradation .

In the Pacific, just as it does for many communities across the earth, this faith-formed spirituality is integral to the way we interpret, understand and interact with one another, and with the natural world.

The significance of such an integral spirituality requires a faith-based approach to any conversation about something as critical as the future of our planet, if it is to not only engage with but also to benefit from the unique and valuable contribution of people of faith as we seek the path to a sustainable future together.

Pacific church leaders meeting statement for COP23 and beyond, quotes the Epistle of James, chapter 2, verse 26: "For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also".

Emphasising the urgency of processing the Paris Agreement as a legally binding agreement limiting global temperature rise and aimed to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty, the Pacific churches call on governments and international institutions to:

* Increase pledges to reduce emissions in line with keeping the global temperature rise to 1.5C above pre-industrial level;

* Advance the National Determined Contribution and long term strategies in line with the 1.5C limit of global average temperature increase;

* Clearly outline and implement National Adaptation Plans in full accordance with the Paris;

* Agreements and recognising the needs and the basic human rights of the most vulnerable groups;

* Insist on the rapid phase out of all fossil fuel subsidies and transition from fossil fuels to 100 per cent renewable energy by 2050;

* Undertake immediate measures to close the remaining gaps between international, national and in particularly local level action, hindering community based climate adaptation and risk management approaches fostering resilience and overcoming poverty; and

* Provide means of implementation required, to shift relevant financial flows towards transformational climate resilient zero carbon pathways, and to fulfill the commitment of developed countries to provide at least $US100 billion ($F201.59b) annually to developing countries for climate mitigation, adaptation, and resettlement of populations, risk reduction, risk transfer and climate induced loss and damage.

"The churches recognise the existing local knowledge and community strengths as an important factor to consider in building a more sustainable and climate resilient Pacific.

"We, therefore, call for full consultation and due participation of our communities in national climate adaptation planning processes from inception, to fully take into account their potential, and to create a new culture of proactive rather than reactive risk management, improving efficiency, protecting lives and livelihoods, and reducing economic and non-economic losses and damage.

"The engagements of members of community includes the participation of all sub-groups of the community namely the women, youth, children, people living with disability and other minority groups."

As the nations of the world gather for COP23 under the presidency of Fiji, it is the common hope and constant prayer, as people of faith, that the reflections and discernment and life-affirming responses of such spirituality remain as critically important as scientific and political conversations in the decision-making processes during COP23.

Acknowledging and embracing the significance and centrality of such life-affirming spirituality has the potential to not only underpin the negotiations of COP23 but mobilise billions of like-hearted people as allies in the challenge to address climate change, providing an important catalyst for grass roots action.

* Reverend James Bhagwan is a regular contributor to this column.

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