Religious leaders came together in prayer Monday at the chapel of the Church Center for the United Nations to affirm the sanctity of the Earth. In a joint statement, they urged heads of state to ratify and implement the Paris climate change agreement negotiated in December.
The interfaith statement was signed by 250 faith leaders from around the world, including the Dalai Lama; South African social rights activist and retired Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu; the former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Haifa; and Argentine Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Vatican's Pontifical Academies of Sciences and Social Sciences. Nearly 5,000 individuals and 90 groups worldwide also signed the statement.
The event occurred days before Earth Day, on Friday, when there will be a signing ceremony for the Paris agreement at U.N. headquarters.
Earth is 'a gift'
Episcopal minister Fletcher Harper, executive director of GreenFaith, an interfaith coalition that helped organize the event, said the statement "reflects that we must regard the Earth as a gift, not just as a commodity that can be bought or sold, but as a gift that must be cherished and protected not only for the short-term economic gain, but for long-term protection of life. These are fundamental moral and religious values that are shared by traditions across the world."
The statement said Earth "has already passed safe levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere," and the signatories called for a swift phase-out of subsides for fossil fuels and rapid adoption of renewable energy to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius compared with pre-industrial times.
"We risk creating irreversible impacts putting hundreds of millions of lives, of all species, at severe risk," unless these measures are taken, the statement warned.
In the U.N. chapel, faith leaders stepped forward to express solidarity with the climate statement and renewed commitment to put the Paris agreement in force.
Among them was Kiran Bali, global chairperson for the United Religions Initiative, the largest global interfaith organization, which is active in 94 countries. She called the worsening droughts, food shortages and species extinction made worse by climate change a human and spiritual failure.
"I’m here to ask for everybody to unite, to come together as people of faith who believe in the values of oneness, respect and environmental stewardship, and really save our planet, save our Earth," she said.
More than 80 percent of the world's population identifies with a religious tradition, according to a study by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. GreenFaith's Harper said that fact puts religious groups in a unique position to help push a climate change agenda.
"By mobilizing the support and the commitment of those communities on climate change," he said, "we have a chance to transform the cultures of the world, and by transforming the cultures, transform politics so that government leaders understand that they absolutely must take dramatic action on climate change now."
The Interfaith Climate Statement was handed to U.N. General Assembly President Mogens Lykketoft, who promised to deliver it to member states.
The Paris climate agreement will go into force once 55 countries, representing areas that emit at least 55 percent of total global greenhouse emissions, have ratified it.
The event ended with Sikh singers and drummers joining in song and praying for a planet in peril.