International Islamic Climate Change symposium: opening speech


Istanbul: It is a great pleasure to have the opportunity to address you here, in Istanbul, and witness the commitment of a community and a culture coming together to deliver a strong message to world leaders and to its own people to fight climate change, one of the greatest challenges of our time.

Let me start by sharing a story: Aisha is an orphan who lost her mother at the age of seven and never knew her father. In one moment, she turned from a young girl into a head of a family of three. While some relatives are always nearby for support and care, she has taken responsibility for her grandmother and for her two-year old brother, whose birth was the cause of her mother's passing.

The land her parents spent their short lives on is seriously degraded; the water she drinks is not safe. Luckily, she can still catch some fish from the stream and the three cows she has inherited from her parents produce some milk. While she enjoys great solidarity from neighbours and relatives, Aisha's life is precarious. She witnesses changing conditions of her environment, which affect the productivity of her land. Though she had heard people speak about climate change, she had no clue that activities undertaken by fellow Humans, thousands of kilometres away from her village would affect her life.

Stewardship of the environment is by no means a modern concept. It is an idea enshrined in spiritual beliefs around the world. Major religious and spiritual movements have historically placed emphasis on themes that have now been adapted by environmentalists seeking to protect the Earth's ecosystems.

In Islam, Allah's wisdom has ordained stewardship - khilafa - of the Earth on human beings. The Hindu religion accepts the presence of the divine within nature. The Talmud asserts that simply seeing the creatures of the world causes humans to seek out God. This year Pope Francis unequivocally stated in his historical encyclical that environmental conservation is a religious duty.

These are values we all share. There is a common thread that binds us in the understanding that we are not the inheritors of the Earth's natural resources, but rather their custodians.

Despite these teachings, we are using up the Earth's natural resources at an alarming rate and degrading the very ecosystems that support our existence and determine our collective future prosperity. According to the Global Footprint Network, Earth Overshoot Day - the date when humanity's demand on nature exceeds what the Earth can regenerate in that year - arrived on 13 August this year, four months earlier than it did in 1987.

The costs of this ecological overspending are more and more evident by the day: deforestation, drought, water scarcity, soil erosion, biodiversity loss and carbon dioxide build-up in the atmosphere are all on the rise and worsening.

At the same time, economies must grow and lift people out of poverty. The New Climate Economy Report estimates that the next 15 years will see the global economy grow by more than half, around 1 billion more people living in cities, and around US$90 trillion being invested in the world's urban, land use and energy infrastructure.

How these investments are made will have a profound impact on the world's environment and on whether the world can prevent global average temperatures increasing by more than 2 degrees Celsius, the threshold of 'dangerous' climate change that the international community has agreed not to cross as part of the UN's ongoing climate change negotiations.

As individuals and communities we need to respond to a different set of realities and responsibilities. 250 years of consumption have magnified, not reduced, inequality. We need to correct the irrationality of valuing economic growth and material wealth over happiness, security and wellbeing.

A consistent theme in environmentalism is to use what we have in a sustainable manner and promote sustainable lifestyles. If just a quarter of food currently lost or wasted globally could be saved, it would feed 870 million hungry people - not to mention the energy wasted on that food's production. This is a direct parallel with passages in the Quran saying Allah does not love wasters. And it would be a hard challenge to find a community, of any background, that celebrated waste in a time of want.

The massive diversity of the world is still not fully documented; species we have not even discovered yet may be facing destruction from actions taken thousands of kilometres away. At a moment in the Earth's history, when the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List estimates that more than 22,000 species are at risk of extinction, millions read the Quran, which counsels against the unnecessary destruction of creatures, warning that even a single sparrow, killed for no reason, has the right to justice. Jewish and Christian texts argue against taking all the family of any animal in a single day. Hindus see other species in the context of reincarnation.

Environmental action also urges positive actions, a vision of the entire Earth as our family, a need to act together, to be generous, compassionate and to see others' welfare as part of our responsibility.

From the earliest times, human communities have praised those who take care of the sick or poor and those who encourage others to give a portion of their income, time or resources to the less fortunate. Islam insists on compassion to orphans as well as Sadaqaat and Zakaat to the poor.

Yet it is the poor who are most affected by the destruction of the world's ecosystems. Close to 1.6 billion people - equivalent to the entire Muslim world's population - rely on forest resources for their livelihoods and most of them use trees on farms to generate food and cash. Many developing countries draw on wood to meet as much as 90 percent of energy requirements. Afforestation directly addresses the needs of the poor. Prophet Mohammed was known as encouraging the planting of trees.

More than anything, the environmental movement and religious thought are aligned in their call to think as a community, about what benefits the whole.

In this pivotal year, when the international community takes key decisions on how to bring about sustainable development and tackle climate change (in New York and Paris respectively), it is heartening to see growing consensus among the faiths that humanity's development trajectory needs to be fundamentally altered in line with our moral and spiritual values.

Earlier this year Pope Francis released a historic encyclical "Laudato Si". In it, he states clearly what is at stake "A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system" (...). Humanity is called to recognise the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it."

Across the world, people of all faiths and cultures welcomed the encyclical and seeing you here today is a confirmation of the commitment to uphold these common and shared moral and spiritual values across all communities.

Shifting to more sustainable lifestyles is not only a 'label', found in the UN jargon, it is about our daily lives: the buildings we live in, the shopping we do, the food we have on our plates, the waste we generate every day, the clothes we wear, the light above our heads and what we teach our children. To make the kind of transformation that is needed to stay within planetary boundaries, we all have a responsibility to make this our own issue.

The entire economy relies to some extent on services flowing from ecological infrastructure: from the clean air we breathe or clean water we drink, to the food produced on fertile lands. Maintaining and securing this ecological infrastructure is a moral obligation (khilafa) as much as it is an economic imperative.

Today, managing waste, for example, is one the biggest challenges faced by countries. Solid waste, electronic waste, wastewater. The wealthier we get, the more rubbish we generate! Up to 90 per cent of wastewater generated in developing countries goes untreated to suffocate rivers, lakes, and coastal zones, threatening health, food security and access to safe drinking water. Up to 6 out of 10 hospital beds in the developing world are filled with people affected by water-related diseases! For every tonne of municipal solid waste generated, more than 70 tonnes are produced from mining, manufacturing and product distribution.

The challenge however is not even about producing waste. The big issue we must address is that "we waste the waste we create". We must realise that wastewater can be used for irrigation, especially in arid lands, and that our landfills are mines we should not undermine.

We live in a world, where up to a third of the food we produce is wasted, not consumed. A large proportion is lost post harvest, especially in the developing world. A little less than a billion people suffer from malnutrition and hunger, while another billion suffer from obesity. Yet, only 43 per cent of the cereals we produce are eaten by humans, the rest is either lost, used for animal feed, or as biofuel.

Allah has called upon human beings to be conscious about this source of all being. We have a moral obligation to reduce pollution and to care for our Planet. It is "Haram" to waste food and the Prophet's teachings oblige us to care for the poor and the most vulnerable people. The Muslim world should speak out clearly and loudly in favour of sustainable production and consumption. Indeed, Quran calls for use with moderation, not with excess.

With the challenges ahead of us we have to enter a new era of partnerships. Over the last 10 to 15 years, leaders in the political, environmental, scientific, and economic fields have recognized that environment and climate change will require cooperation across disciplines, and that the solutions are not only technical but also connect to our morality and values.

The importance of engaging with faith-based organizations in addressing climate change and environmental concerns has become even clearer - as has the importance of faith-based organizations taking a prominent leadership role in influencing policy, education, and action in those areas.

This is a moment of great opportunity to engage in producing the shift to a new, low carbon pathway that benefits all.

There is an unprecedented wave of interest in environmental sustainability and climate change among diverse religious communities. Faith- and other community-based non-profit institutions are in the unique position of serving as visible examples to the community. They can exert a powerful influence when they practice good environmental stewardship and teach about conservation as a moral value. They also have a special concern for the well-being of the poor, including programmes to help the poor cope with the consequences that climate change brings.

In addition, faith- and community-based organizations can play an important role of facilitating inclusive, collaborative planning processes that will address climate change impacts, especially on low-income and vulnerable populations. Faith- and community-based groups around the world have first-hand experience in working with the most vulnerable populations, and knowledge of the struggles they are facing because of climate change. They have the capacity, the knowledge, and the networks that can be set in motion in support of climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts.

It is evident that we need to change the way we do business. States, international organizations and the public sector in general are expected to push commitments and show political will to help countries affected by climate change - carrying forward agendas and policies that preserve our environment, create jobs and leave no one behind.

We need leaders and champions, and it is by working together that we will achieve our sustainable development and climate action goals.

This, Ladies and Gentlemen, is why we are here today. We may or may not know this, but Aisha and her poor family place high hopes in this meeting. Aisha prays that the declaration to be made by Muslim leaders, calling on the world's estimated 1.6 billion adherents to Islam to tackle climate change as an inherent part of their religious duty, brings increased momentum to efforts to address the greatest challenge facing humanity today.

  • The International Islamic Climate Change Symposium website can be accessed here