Got Climate Angst? At the U.N. Summit, There’s a Quiet, Spiritual Place.


Among the hubs for climate scientists, activists and fossil fuel lobbyists at the United Nations climate summit is a new addition this year: a place to pray.

The first-ever Faith Pavilion, inaugurated by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed Al-Tayeb, in a video message on Sunday, offers a space for meditation, daily prayers and even a chanting session led by the Indian mystic and yogi Jaggi Vasudev, who goes by Sadhguru.

The pavilion is also a place for pastors, imams, rabbis and other spiritual leaders to exchange ideas about how to guide people through the effects of climate change.

The Rev. James Bhagwan, the general secretary of the Pacific Conference of Churches, spoke on a panel on Monday in Dubai about how to comfort people in the Pacific islands who have been displaced from their ancestral and spiritual homelands because of rising sea levels and climate disasters.

Mr. Bhagwan cited Psalm 137, “How do I sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”, and emphasized the importance of faith-based support for displaced people who face challenges in adjusting to their new homes. Parts of some low-lying island nations in the Pacific, like Tuvalu, are already being swallowed by rising seas.

All religions are based in a recognition that nature is an act of divinity, according to the U.N. Environment Program. In the Baha’i faith, nature reflects both the divine and the oneness of humanity. In Buddhism, karma involves taking responsibility for future generations. According to the Shinto faith in Japan, spirits correspond to wind, rocks and water, and forests are sacred.

More than 300 religious leaders representing Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Unitarian Universalism and Indigenous faiths are expected to participate in discussions at the pavilion during the two-week climate summit.

The pavilion is not just a space for faith leaders to share ideas. They are offering their counseling services to any of the tens of thousands of attendees from nearly 200 nations at the climate talks, known as COP28.

On several mornings and evenings over the coming week, spiritual leaders from different faiths are scheduled to lead sessions of moral support.

So far, the initial sessions have been sparsely attended. But more people may start to trickle in soon: Climate negotiations, which are on ongoing, are hitting roadblocks over how to determine whether countries are meeting the shared goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, according to two negotiators.

More broadly, failures at past summits to address climate change at a fast enough pace have brewed resentment and distrust among some participants. As world leaders made pledges about their commitment to curbing global emissions, fossil fuel company representatives, attending the summit in record numbers this year, have been lobbying to advance oil and gas interests.

For religious leaders and followers alike, the Faith Pavilion offers a refuge from those tensions.

The messages of a pavilion dedicated to spirituality stood in contrast to the atmosphere of a summit where the host country, the United Arab Emirates, has welcomed corporate interests, particularly the fossil fuel industry.

“In the climate negotiations, when we come here to COP28, it’s all about money, money, profit, profit,” said Athena Peralta, a program executive at the World Council of Churches. “But the climate emergency is, at root, a moral crisis and a spiritual crisis.”

Compared with neighboring Saudi Arabia, there is a higher degree of tolerance in the Emirates for the practice of religion by foreigners, with a limited number of state-sanctioned Hindu temples, churches and synagogues.

But the government nevertheless maintains strict oversight over the official religion, Islam, including content for Friday sermons delivered by mosque leaders. Emirati officials say those restrictions are necessary to prevent extremism.

The experiment taking place in the Faith Pavilion is unusual for the Emirates and other countries where there is tight political control.

“There is nothing that scares governments and even corporations like interfaith action,” said Meryne Warah, the global organizing director of GreenFaith, an environmental group, said at a panel discussion on Monday. “When they see faith communities united for the same cause, they get shook.”

Ms. Peralta said she turned to prayer for strength and for hope, two qualities sorely needed in climate change negotiations. “This is where we derive the energy to carry on,” she said. “It’s especially needed at the COPs.” But, she added, “prayer without action does not work.”

Vivian Nereim contributed reporting from Dubai.


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