A Faith-Based Case for Climate Restoration | Opinion

In these anxious times, there's a bright spot, though it's sometimes hard to see: our attitudes about climate change are shifting and converging, including among people of faith. Three quarters of Americans including people of all faiths—white Evangelicals and Black Protestants, Jews, Catholics and people of all other religions—believe climate change is real and is caused by humans.

This is part of an ongoing shift in religious awareness, "a greening of faith," that has been underway for some time. Christians' understanding of the Biblical term "dominion" has evolved from our God-given right to dominate and exploit the Earth to our God-given responsibility to care for creation.

Climate awareness now also suffuses the Hebrew shalom, the right order that allows all to flourish, and tikkun olam, repair of the world. Remarkably, even in a politically divided America, people of faith, whether a part of the Evangelical "care movement" or the emerging "eco-right," are increasingly in agreement with left-leaning activists and climate scientists that humans are changing the climate for the worse.

The operative question now is, what must we do about it?

A United Nations Environment Programme report found that religious organizations have a key role in fighting climate change and reversing environmental degradation, partly because they control a significant portion of the Earth's habitable land, forests and financial institutions. Many religious organizations are planting trees, conserving biodiversity and deploying renewable energy in response.

Those are important, necessary steps, but they are not sufficient. No matter how many trees we plant, species we save, or solar panels we bring online—and we must do our utmost on all these fronts—it won't be nearly enough.

The reason is simple and inexorable: 95 percent of the atmospheric carbon causing climate change is "legacy carbon," meaning it has been accumulating since the Industrial Revolution. Without intervention, this accumulation will persist for up to a thousand years. Unless we remove this legacy carbon from the atmosphere, climate change will continue to accelerate and damage the ecosystems on which humans and all life on Earth depend.

We certainly have an obligation to plant trees and adopt renewables. But if we're being honest about the reckoning we now face, we are also obligated to recognize that such mitigation measures, while needed, will not save creation by themselves. To do that, we would need to restore the earthly conditions which allowed life and civilization to develop and thrive. As His Holiness Pope Francis stated last year, "Climate restoration is of utmost importance, since we are in the midst of a climate emergency."

hillsides and pastures near Santa Ynez
The hillsides and pastures near Santa Ynez, California. George Rose/Getty Images

In scientific terms, restoring the climate requires rapidly reducing atmospheric carbon levels below 300 parts per million in this century and hopefully by mid-century. To get there by 2050, we would need to remove about 50 gigatons of carbon every year for 20 years.

People of faith should understand clearly that this is feasible, and we have a sacred obligation to do it. Besides planting trees, we can also plant kelp forests in the oceans in order to restore fisheries and enhance the oceans' function as a carbon sink. In addition to deploying more renewables and putting less greenhouse gases (GHG) into the atmosphere, we can also remove more of the CO2 that's already in it and bond it to minerals to sequester it permanently. Such interventions could take 50 gigatons of carbon a year out of the atmosphere, rolling back legacy carbon levels and restoring the climate in as little as two decades.

Some faith groups have called such interventions "playing God." They worry that what they see as geoengineering could get out of control. They express dismay that we now must contemplate intervening in natural processes in order to stave off catastrophic warming.

But we don't have to resort to invasive geoengineering techniques when we can imitate and amplify natural processes that capture and sequester carbon—processes that humans disrupted in the first place. In fact, not only should we not dismiss such "biomimicry" interventions to enhance carbon sequestration as hubristic, we should also ask ourselves whether we aren't morally and spiritually obligated to undertake them.

It is encouraging to see an ever-increasing number of faith-based initiatives committed to protecting and healing the planet. It is equally heartening to see religious leaders play a key role in creating the conditions for bold and courageous climate action, responding to the climate emergency and promoting care for creation for the sake of generations to come. On Oct. 4, some of these leaders will gather at the Vatican for a meeting on "Faith and Science," where they will formulate a message for the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), held in November.

The standard of care for creation that we must now meet requires more than mitigating or adapting to climate damage—it requires climate restoration. In Christian terms, disturbing the balance of creation was a sin. Restoring it for future generations is an act of repentance, reconciliation and love. People of faith are now called upon to "repair the world" and restore the climate.

In 2000, the Earth Charter was inaugurated at the Peace Palace in The Hague. It expressed an appeal to take universal action beyond national self-interest: "Let ours be a time remembered for the awakening of a new reverence for life, the firm resolve to achieve sustainability, the quickening of the struggle for justice and peace, and the joyful celebration of life."

A revolutionary change in mind and heart is taking shape. The world's interfaith community is increasingly standing up to the challenges of our times, from World Unity Week to the upcoming meeting at the Vatican. Urged not by fear for destruction, but by the love for our children's children, together we will sanctify the time ahead.

Rabbi Awraham Soetendorp is a leading figure in European Judaism and interreligious dialog.

Dr. Erica Dodds is the CEO of the nonprofit Foundation for Climate Restoration.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.