2016-06-02 12:57:00

US expert: Religion powerful moral advocate on refugee crisis, climate

(Vatican Radio)  What can interreligious dialogue contribute to combating climate change?  A lot according to the U.S. State Department’s Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs, Shaun Casey.  In Part II of a wide ranging interview with Vatican Radio’s Tracey McClure, Casey recounted his involvement in the 30 November - 12 December 2015 UN Climate Change Conference in Paris, and how his office was intrigued to see the participation of so many religious groups.

“We discovered that across the globe and across the religions, there was this moral imperative to push the world to come together and get as strong a Convention to mitigate climate change as possible,” Casey said.  “So, we conducted a lot of interreligious meetings among religious communities that are trying to support us in reaching the strongest, best climate change convention we could get. 

We discovered all the world’s religions had some form of organization – whether it was the Catholic Church, whether it was Protestants, Orthodox – the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is known as the ‘green’ patriarch because he discovered climate change as a Christian theological issue decades before any leader of his stature discovered that that was a powerful moral issue.

We discovered Sikh, Hindu, Muslim organizations that had made statements on the need to combat climate change.  So, we began to convene interreligious conversations around what that dialogue might look like, what kind of outcomes did we want from Paris, and what we brought to the table was making sure they understood the policy options that were being debated in the lead-up to Paris.  So when they did their public advocacy, they had the best policy and scientific information [available] to make as an informed moral decision as they could.”

Religion: a new ally on global policy issues

“Prior to our work, the State Department had never seen this diverse constellation of faith groups working together as a powerful ally.  But at the time the convention met, the last time in Paris, there were literally hundreds of religious groups around the world essentially singing from the same message sheet or hymnal if you will, in support  of the strongest agreement possible. So that’s just one example where we partnered with a number of religious groups to help get as strong a global outcome as we could on a policy issue.”

Government can learn from Religious communities, often the first responders to crises

Asked what can religions contribute to the debate on climate change, Casey said:

“In many cases, religious communities are first responders to crises, so if the crop fails in your village, the religious leader – be it the imam, be it the Orthodox priest, be it the Pentecostal preacher – is going to see the staggering economic impact” in the faces of his religious community.  “So they feel the pain, they feel the suffering in a way that very few other civil society groups do.  When the scourge of HIV AIDS hits a village, the same is true.  The religious communities feel the pain, they see the suffering in the families and extended families and in the community as well and they’re often motivated out of their own compassion, out of their own theological underpinnings, to address the human need, the human suffering they see. 

So in many ways, religious communities bear firsthand knowledge of human suffering in a way governments only learn about down the road.  So in that sense, they have the power to educate us in government about what we need to be doing to alleviate suffering, to raise the tide of justice around the country.

They bring empathy, the witness of the community, but [also] the moral resources to try to persuade those of us in government to do the right thing, to address those kinds of massive injustices.”

Vatican, Pope can “play huge role”

The Vatican, and the Pope, Casey stressed, “can continue to play a huge role” on the world stage, particularly in advocacy and interfaith dialogue."

“Certainly the Holy Father himself is a world historical figure of just inestimable value.  The fact that he called for this Muslim dialogue over two years ago and he’s beginning to implement that in the Vatican in very powerful ways.  I think another concrete issue I would look at is the refugee crisis which is - some people talk about the ‘European refugee crisis’ – it’s a global refugee crisis.  The powerful moral voice that [the Pope] has used to call governments to live up to their best lights as governments to respond to this outpouring of huge need – at one end of that issue, if you trail it all the way back, we have to look at the root causes so many of the refugees are coming out of Syria and Iraq.  Others are coming out of Africa and we need to think about what are the political changes that need to be made in those two contexts to turn off the flow and on the front end, Europe has had over 1.1 million people show up on its shores since this crisis began. 

In the United States, in the last three years, we’ve accepted 70,000 refugees a year.  The current year we’re in, we’ve upped that to 85,000.  The President has established a goal in 2017 along with Congress, to bump that up to 100,000.  So we’ve grown our capacity in two years by 40%. 

But there’s so much more that needs to be done. And this is where the Vatican can continue to play a huge role.  Can we bring together some of the Muslim countries to contribute more money and perhaps formally join the United Nations Convention on Refugees which was promulgated in 1951?  So the Vatican is in a unique position to continue to call the world to some sense of justice in addressing this set of issues.  The pressures politically that have led to this explosion in refugees are not going to go down in the short run.  The presenting root causes are very, very complicated.  Ironically, climate change is probably going to lead to more, both internally displaced people, but also in actual refugees. But at the end of the day, we’ve got over 20 million refugees and we’ve got 40 million internally displaced people.  We have not seen these kinds of numbers since the end of World War II.  So, we’re facing a planetary, global problem that’s going to require Muslim nations, secular nations, all nations, to find a way to shoulder their part of that burden.  And right now, the trend lines don’t look good.”

Climate Change Convention, Sustainable Development Goals cause for hope

Asked where there is room for hope; Casey pointed to the Climate Change Convention as “a really amazing first step [in the right direction].  If we fulfill all the obligations of that, most scientists say that’s not going to stop the planet from warming but we’re bending the trend line in the right direction.  So I’m actually quite hopeful now that we can begin to address that more effectively.  I think if you look at the trend line on addressing extreme poverty, we’ve actually had a couple of decades of progress there that many people felt was not possible.”

 “Recently again, the world came together to agree last September on the [UN’s] Sustainable development goals – 17 different goals that are going to measure the globe’s progress through 2030 and one of those goals is to eliminate extreme poverty.  And you talk to economists, you talk to ethicists, to development professionals, and there are people who are saying ‘that is actually achievable!’ Think about that.  In fifteen years, we might be able to eliminate extreme poverty around the world.  So I would point to this agreement where the world has come together and held up some very ambitious targets.  We made many of the Millenium Development Goals, the last fifteen years’ worth of monitoring goals, so I’m actually hopeful that this gives us a framework to make a huge dent in one of the truly diabolical issues, that of global poverty around the world.

There are a set of religious and moral voices which have come around endorsing that, and you’re seeing more and more ngos align their strategic goals with fulfilling these sustainable development goals.  So I think this is one of the most hopeful global initiatives I am aware of and religious communities of all kinds are hitching their wagon to those goals so it’s going to be very interesting to see what the next 15 years hold in that space."



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