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Religion and Climate Diplomacy in Small Island Developing States

What are the roles of faith leaders and other religious leaders in climate diplomacy? Please join American University and the Wilson Center on July 10 for a forum exploring climate change as a basis for outreach and collaboration in the Caribbean and the Pacific and the added value religious voices might bring to this work.

Date & Time

Jul. 10, 2017
2:00pm – 4:00pm ET


6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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Island states contribute only .03 percent to global emissions, but “nineteen major Caribbean cities are in the bullseye of the climate threat” and Pacific island states such as Kiribati and Tuvalu face an existential threat from sea level rise, said Selwin Hart, Barbados’ ambassador to the Organization of American States and the United States. At the same time, Small Island Developing States (SIDS) in the Pacific and the Caribbean are leading efforts to combat climate change, said experts at the Wilson Center on July 10.

Sitting on the frontlines of climate change, SIDS are in a battle for their survival. But historically, climate efforts by outside NGOs and foreign aid agencies working in SIDS have been largely secular efforts, failing to engage islands’ rich faith traditions. This failure, said Patrick D. Nunn, a researcher in the South Pacific, is an obstacle to progress in the region’s highly religious island communities. 

After Paris: Building a Framework for Transparency

In the aftermath of the Trump Administration’s announcement that the United States will withdraw from the Paris Agreement, world leadership on climate has become more diffuse. “In spite of this isolation, the world is still moving ahead,” said Yamide Dagnet, senior associate at the World Resources Institute.

According to Dagnet, three of the most crucial variables that will determine the Paris Agreement’s success are how it will be implemented, whether it preserves environmental integrity, and whether enough ambition can be raised to meet its commitments.

“At the moment, negotiators are trying to define how we are going to implement the Paris Agreement, to define the way we build trust by having a transparency framework that defines and explains what all countries and actors are doing to fulfill their requirements,” said Dagnet.

“In spite of this isolation, the world is still moving ahead”

The bulk of the Paris Climate Agreement is not legally binding and will depend on its voluntary implementation by each member state, noted Christina Chan, climate resilience director at the World Resources Institute.  “It’s the transparency regime, and what Yamide is calling the rules of the game, that’s legally binding. And it was this transparency regime that was the mechanism to ratchet up this ambition.”

Islands of Faith: Climate Diplomacy and Non-State Actors

In the Caribbean, Ambassador Hart said, “annual losses from climate change are around 2.5-3 percent of GDP; yet one climatic event can destroy an entire economy.” The concerns facing island states have driven  innovation and ambition: It was Malta and Maldives in the 1980s that led the way toward establishing the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). “The 1.5 goal,” said Ambassador Hart, “was a SIDS proposal, if you recall, in Potsdam, in preparation for the Berlin Conference.”  And the High Ambition Coalition, a group of 100 nations who seek to raise expectations for climate action among participating states, was founded by Tony deBrum of the Marshall Islands.

Beyond formal climate diplomacy, the growing current of informal collective action is a sign of hope for SIDS. Non-state actors’ role in climate negotiations was emboldened after the establishment of the Marrakech Partnership in 2016, an outgrowth of the Non-State Actor Zone for Climate Action Platform. “The roles of non-state actors have been enhanced,” said Dagnet. “We heard them playing a more active role in the debate. That momentum needs to be maintained and…mainstreamed even more.”

“We could think more about religious organizations in their capacity as one vital part in the broad spectrum of civil society actors”

“We could think more about religious organizations in their capacity as one vital part in the broad spectrum of civil society actors,” said Richard Albro, research associate professor at American University. The Catholic Church’s recent Papal Encyclical and the Pacific Conference of Churches’ Moana Declaration are key manifestations of religious community’s impact on climate efforts.

Within SIDS, faith communities are a focal point of social organization, especially for youth. In the Caribbean, faith-based groups “have a large footprint on the educational systems in the region.”  “I remember being a teenager in Trinidad. We were very active in our youth group through the church.” said Roger-Mark De Souza, director of population, environmental security, and resilience at the Wilson Center.

Faith communities have been crucial in the region’s efforts to combat the effects of climate change, said McLeod, citing the 2015 Tokatoka Declaration by the Pacific Conference of Churches as one example. The declaration is a call to action by faith leaders based on the direct implications of climate change facing island states, namely sea-level rise and migration.  

Faith communities in SIDS take concrete action to assist with extreme weather events. “Growing up in Barbados churches were not only the center of social life in the region, but they also served as hurricane shelters as well,” said Ambassador Hart. “They also are often the first responders following disaster,” said McLeod.

Despite these roles, “I have been amazed at the lack of appreciation for the extent of conservation-led faith-based action,” said McLeod.

It can be difficult to engage with faith-based communities, said Chan. “It’s hard to break in. It takes money, resources. You need sustained engagement because once you’re inside these conversations it’s inside baseball.”

Despite any challenges, faith-based community engagement in small-island developing states provides a way forward to experiment with new and innovative possibilities for climate action, mitigation, and advocacy.

“Not only does it help to ensure that our efforts are targeted at those who need it most, but it also reminds us to hold onto hope. For many living on small low-lying islands in the Pacific, faith and hope are all that they have left,” said McLeod.

Event Resources:

Written by Antony Martel and edited by Meaghan Parker

Hosted By

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

Global Risk and Resilience Program

The Global Risk and Resilience Program (GRRP) seeks to support the development of inclusive, resilient networks in local communities facing global change. By providing a platform for sharing lessons, mapping knowledge, and linking people and ideas, GRRP and its affiliated programs empower policymakers, practitioners, and community members to participate in the global dialogue on sustainability and resilience. Empowered communities are better able to develop flexible, diverse, and equitable networks of resilience that can improve their health, preserve their natural resources, and build peace between people in a changing world.  Read more

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