Keeping Faith in Forests

If climate change is the defining challenge for human society, preserving tropical forests is essential – and faith can help

An aerial view shows the Amazon rainforest at the Bom Futuro National Forest near Rio Pardo in Porto Velho, Rondonia State, Brazil, September 3, 2015. orcing the law in remote corners like Rio Pardo is far from easy. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

(by Frances Seymour | World Resources Institute) I grew up as the minister’s daughter in a Baptist church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a college town in the southern US. I witnessed first-hand how organized and energized faith communities took on the cause of racial justice in the early 1960s, as church leaders and lay members pushed to integrate the public school system, restaurants, and even the University of North Carolina basketball team.

Fifty years on, climate change has emerged as the defining challenge for human society around the globe, and conservation of the world’s tropical forests is essential to stabilizing the atmosphere. Standing forests provide safe-keeping for the carbon embodied in leaves, branches, trunks, roots, and soil.

Forests are also the only technology for carbon capture and storage to date that is safe, natural, proven, and cheap. Tropical forests alone capture 1.4 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, almost as much as the combined emissions from France, Germany, and the United Kingdom in 2015.

And just like in my youth, religious communities are now mobilizing the faithful, helping world leaders include forest conservation—and the rights of indigenous peoples, stewards of these forests—in climate change strategies. The most well known statement was issued two years ago when Pope Francis published his encyclicalLaudato Si. This widely quoted thesis singled out tropical deforestation early and often as a threat to many values of importance to the world’s religions.

But the Pope is not alone in his advocacy. He is joined by clergy and lay people from many faiths, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism, all of which share messages of respect and stewardship for the natural world, as well as a moral obligation to help the poor. Over the last 30 years, these leaders have participated in a growing movement to focus religious attention on environmental challenges, leading to a summit in June that formally launched an Interfaith Rainforest Initiative.

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