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Ziglab Lake, Jordan, 2009 Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos

Climate change: A warning from Islam

On August 19, a convocation of some sixty leading Muslim clerics and religious scholars from around the planet, spurred by the growing siege of climate disasters affecting the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, issued an Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change. It was far shorter than Pope Francis’s much discussed encyclical issued early in the summer, but it arrived in much the same spirit:

Our species, though selected to be a caretaker or steward [khalifah] on the earth, has been the cause of such corruption and devastation on it that we are in danger of ending life as we know it on our planet. This current rate of climate change cannot be sustained, and the earth’s fine equilibrium [mīzān] may soon be lost.

The signers of the statement include the grand muftis of Uganda and Lebanon, scholars from leading universities, and several leaders of the main Islamic disaster relief charities. It cites Koranic chapter and verse, as well as hadith, or sayings, of the Prophet. And from them it constructs a series of postulates at least as provocative as Francis’s. Like the pope, these scholars are dubious about “the relentless pursuit of economic growth and consumption,” and believe that “an urgent and radical reappraisal is called for.” In fact, on particular points of current political controversy they offer more direct recommendations. To wit:

  • They express “alarm” at “the multi-national scramble now taking place for more fossil fuel deposits under the dissolving ice caps in the arctic regions,” noting correctly that “we are accelerating our own destruction through these processes.” (A warning that comes the week before President Obama heads to Alaska, where he will presumably try to offer some justification for allowing Shell to drill in the Chukchi Sea.)
  • They insist that world leaders meet the two-degree Celsius target for limiting temperature increases, or “preferably 1.5 degrees.” (These recommendations come as climate scientists led by Jim Hansen warn that a two-degree increase would in fact doom the planet to a dangerous rise in sea level—and as early pledges for December’s Paris climate talks indicate that the world’s governments are still on track to raise the mercury three or four degrees Celsius.)
  • These Muslim scholars call for “divestment” from fossil fuels (and in so doing join the Church of England, the Unitarians, the United Church of Christ, and the World Council of Churches, as well as universities like Oxford and Stanford, and philanthropies like the Rockefeller heirs, in opposition to the mightiest industrial companies of the planet).

By itself this declaration will not lead to much. Islam, for better and for worse, lacks a central governing body; there is no pope. And even the pope’s words are only words—happily he has no governing authority beyond the walls of the Vatican. But what they signal is an ongoing shift in the zeitgeist, to the point where most thinking people in our civilization realize that we have to take dramatic, even “radical,” action to blunt an emerging crisis. This is new. Ten or twenty years ago there was no significant religious environmental movement. Conservative religious leaders viewed concern about the environment as pagan, and liberal ones saw it as secondary to the battles against their traditional foes: hunger, poverty, war. Mostly it went ignored.

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