Through religious lens: combating climate change
By Hind Al-Abadleh
(December 10, 2009) – As world leaders gather in Copenhagen this week (Dec 7-18, 2009) to negotiate reductions in emissions of gases causing climate change, citizens of the world should continue the task of examining their value systems that define their relationship with the Natural world. For Muslims who derive their value system from the Quran and traditions of Prophet Mohammed, peace be on him, climate change should be a priority of high importance along with social justice and fighting illiteracy, poverty, and disease.
An issue like climate change is backed up by thousands of scientific studies on the causes and potential impacts on the planet and the species that inhabit it. Hence, such a global issue should occupy some of our daily thoughts, especially the role that we should play as responsible and scientifically-literate citizens in reducing emissions from our lifestyles.
As a Muslim scientist who is involved in teaching and research in atmospheric chemistry, I contemplate the following question: With all the science behind climate change, is there room for religion to say anything about it?
I think to answer the question, one has to understand the type of knowledge that scientific studies are providing regarding the contribution of human activities to climate change, and the religious teachings that shed light on the relationship between humans and the natural world.
Global climate science is based on (a) measurements of greenhouse gas emissions and Earth’s surface temperature, (b) experiments on the chemistry of these gases with each other and other constituents in the atmosphere, and (3) computer modelling of the chemistry and physics of the complex constituents in the atmosphere.
The thousands of scientists who believe that climate change is happening acknowledge the following facts: (a) carbon dioxide (CO2) leads greenhouses gases [that include natural gas (methane), ozone, chlorofluorocarbons and laughing gas (nitrous oxide)] in terms of the extra warming they have produced, (b) while CO2 releases from human activities are only 4% of that produced by Nature, CO2 concentrations are increasing indicating a net build-up of this gas in the atmosphere, (c) according to the 2007 report by the U. N. Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (1), global warming observed in the past 100 years is very likely (80-90%) due to CO2 releases by human activities, because natural global warming as large as 0.5 degree Celsius appear once or twice a millennium, (d) the uncertainty in the predictions of models used to predict future climate stems mainly from their mathematical treatment of clouds and particulate matter. To improve the predictive power of climate models, many research groups in North America and Europe are working to understand the science behind cloud formation and lifetime, and the contribution of natural and anthropogenic atmospheric particles to climate change.
Science of climate change helps us understand the how and why questions of human activities’ negative impacts on the natural world. These activities are mainly driven by the desire to grow “the economy’. This is anything but new as we (humans) had to deal with acid rain and ozone layer depletion after the industrial revolution, and are still dealing with different forms of air and water pollution in different parts of the globe.
While we live in an era of unprecedented scientific discoveries and technological advancements, we pretty much have ignored an important parameter in our selfish scientific endeavour, which is the potential negative impact of our activities BEFORE we conduct them in the name of improving our economies.
Many scientists believe that what led us to this stage of environmental degradation is a view to Nature as an infinite resource of raw materials needed for our economic growth, and as an infinite-size dumpster for the waste we generate in the process. People across the board have subscribed to this view. Such an irresponsible view of Nature by the human race on this planet is not only disturbing the cyclical and balanced interactions among all elements of Nature, but also is threatening the continuation of life in its different forms on this planet.
Hence, we are at a stage in our collective human history where self-examination of one’s value system is needed, particularly in defining our relation as a species with the rest of elements in Nature. To take on this task, I see religious teachings playing a crucial role.
For Muslims, the Quran is the word of the One God (Allah) and is considered one of the sources of knowledge that defines human relationship with Nature. Prominent scholars such as Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr (2) and Dr. Yusuf Al-Qaradawi (3) have written extensively on meanings of the verses in the Quran that shed light on this topic. It is interesting to note that these verses address the human race in general, believers and non-believers, and hence the message in these verses is a universal message (4).
For example, elements of nature that include living and inanimate creation are referred to as “signs” of God’s existence: “On Earth there are signs for those with sure faith; and in yourselves too. Do you not see?” Quran (51:20, 21).
God describes that animals form nations and communities like humans: “All the creatures that crawl on the Earth and those that fly with their wings are communities like yourselves” (Quran 6: 38).
God also says that all natural elements are in a continuous state of worship: “Do you not realize [Prophet] that everything in the heavens and earth submits to God: the sun, the moon, the stars, the mountains, the trees, and the animals? So do many human beings” (Quran 22:18). “The seven heavens and the Earth and everyone in them glorify Him. There is not a single thing that does not celebrate His praise, though you do not understand their praise: He is most forbearing, most forgiving” (Quran 17:44).
The state in which God has created the universe is also described in the Quran: “He (God) has raised up the sky. He has set the balance” (Quran 55:7), which in light of our scientific understanding of how the ecosystem work, the word “balance” suggests inherit interconnectedness of natural elements.
So, where does the human race fit in the picture? The following Quranic verse clearly answers that question: “It is He (God) who has made you (people of Adam) khalef al-Ard (successors, stewards, vicegerents on the Earth)” (Quran, 6:165). Muslims understand that this appointment by God comes with great responsibility and accountability (5).
As God’s vicegerents on Earth, generations of humans are guardians of the natural world and should work hard to keep it in a balanced state: “He (God) has set the balance so that you may not exceed in the balance. Weigh with justice and do not fall short in the balance” (Quran 55:7-9).
The accountability principle that governs human beings relation with the natural world is understood from this verse: “Corruption has flourished on land and sea as a result of people’s actions and He will make them taste the consequences of some of their own actions so that they may turn back” (Quran 30:41). The word “corruption” (fassad in Arabic) has been interpreted by many scholars to include environmental degradation (2-4).
In summary, Islamic teachings provide an ethical worldview of Nature and extends an invitation to believers and non-believers alike to reflect on natural phenomena, and to safeguard natural elements as an invaluable trust so that they may avoid disturbing the inherent balanced state of the planet. Humans should strive and excel to build a sustainable and responsible civilization that is in harmony with the rest of natural elements.
Muslims in particular have a greater responsibility towards Nature as the bearers of the Islamic message. They ought to revive their understanding of their role on Earth as trustees by acting on the Quranic and Prophetic traditions that encourage them to lead a responsible and environmentally-friendly lifestyle in this world (7). I pray that God will make us from among those who listen, contemplate, and follow the best of what is said.
References and additional resources:
(1) UN IPCC: http://www.ipcc.ch/
(2) The Islamic perspective on the environmental crisis: Seyyed Hossein Nasr in Conversation with Muzaffar Iqbal. Islam and Science (Review), Jun 22, 2007. Accessed through www.thefreelibrary.com
(3) Dr. Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, Caring for the Environment in Islamic Shariaa (Arabic), Dar Al-Shorouk (www.shorouk.com), Cairo, 2nd edition, 2006.
(4) Dr. Tariq Ramadan, Radical Reform: Islamic Ethics and Liberation, Oxford University Press, 2009.
(5) Fazlun M Khalid, Islam and the Environment in Encyclopaedia of Global Environmental Change, Peter Timmerman (Eds), vol. 5 (2002), John Wiley & Sons, pp 332-339.
(6) M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, The Qur’an: A new translation, Oxford University Press, 2nd ed., 2005.
(7) Muslim Green Guide to Reducing Climate Change, LifeMakers UK and Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences (www.ifees.org), 2008.
(8) Elizabeth May and Zoe Caron, Global Warming for Dummies, 2008 (Note: The science in this book is based on the 2007 IPCC report and it was reviewed by scientists who were on the IPCC panel. It is full of ideas to implement in our daily activities to reduce our greenhouse emissions).
*Dr. Hind Al-Abadleh is an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Wilfrid Laurier University, and teaches courses on environmental chemistry. She is interested in studying how religion can motivate people of faith to changing their practices to more environmentally-friendly ones. She could be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org