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Look to our religious leaders for a climate change Plan B

Pope Francis urged strong action on climate change in his encyclical this year. REUTERS/Tony Gentile

Look to our religious leaders for a climate change Plan B

In the lead-up to the Paris climate change summit, US President Barack Obama recently said “We only get one planet. There’s no Plan B”. Of course he’s right – there’s no other planet we can retreat to. Obama’s statement emphasized the urgent need for international agreement in Paris to minimise human-caused climate change and its impacts.

Plan A is gaining international agreement, and no one wants to contemplate the next steps if it fails. Yet we’ve been here before – similar sentiments preceded the Copenhagen summit in 2009, but negotiations failed. Since then, climate change has slipped in public importance across the world.

Despite some promising initial announcements from politicians and entrepreneurs, even optimistic predictions of the Paris agreement indicated it will fall short of what is required.

We actually need Plan B.

We need Plan B because the need for action remains even if negotiations fail or fall short. This Plan B would focus on motivating people to do what they can in their own lives, and to pressure their governments to act even in the absence of international agreements.

We need Plan B because even if negotiations succeed, commitments need to be enacted in each country, most likely in the face of pressure from some community sectors. With countries such as Australia committing to review their targets in the future, continued public support and pressure will be critical to enforce, maintain, and strengthen commitments made in Paris.

So what is Plan B?

Our [research]( “) on people’s motivations to act on climate change around the world shows that people were willing to act on climate change, both in reducing their carbon footprints and in supporting government action, to promote a more benevolent (caring and moral) society. This "co-benefit” of climate change action is common across continents, age, gender, political ideology, and even beliefs about the reality and importance of climate change.

This means that a promising way to enhance public support and action is to design policies that promote caring communities when helping the environment, and communicating these co-benefits which are known to be influential even for people unconvinced climate change is real. You might call it Plan B(enevolence).

Admittedly, this is a less common way to think about climate change action than focusing on the science and economics of climate change and its consequences. This provides a challenge for Plan B.

Who should communicate Plan B? Trust in politicians is low in most countries around the world, and climate scientists are unlikely to be seen as experts on society.

Look to religious leaders

But morality and caring are the bread and butter of religion. While the world focuses on the science of climate change, religion could now be a lynchpin for achieving widespread action.

A recent case is Pope Francis strong messages on climate change action in his recent US tour and encyclical “On care for our common home”. His tone was critical – we should act not just to save the environment, but because “around these community actions, relationships develop or are recovered and a new social fabric emerges.” That is, these actions promote stronger communities.

The Pope’s messages produced greater concern about climate change among Catholics, especially among those likely to be least convinced about climate change .

Islamic leaders have also made a declaration on climate change that highlights care and compassion, stating “Intelligence and conscience behoove us, as our faith commands, to treat all things with care and awe (taqwa) of their Creator, compassion (rahmah) and utmost good (ihsan).”

In short, while science and religion may compete in providing explanations of the universe, they can be partners in promoting social change.

What about Plan B policies?

It’s overly optimistic to think that national policies such as a carbon tax or emissions trading scheme can build more caring communities. But government occurs at many levels, and promoting community participation and bringing communities together is often the remit of local government.

Local governments can bring neighbours together in events that need not even have climate change as their core, but where addressing climate change is one of the outcomes of community activities. Local communities can work on both practical and symbolic initiatives that promote both communities and reducing carbon footprints, such as local car-pooling schemes (practical) or planning and promoting their own “Earth hours” (symbolic) to remind the community of environmental issues like climate change

This is not a case of “think global, act local”, but actually “think local, act local (with consequences for a global cause)”. Such “bottom-up” activities on climate change are increasingly acknowledged as important and supported by national and international bodies.

Plan B is no substitute for Plan A, but is likely to be critical for implementing Plan A, and addressing its shortcomings (or failures). Plan B means drawing on strengths in different sections of society, particularly in using the strengths of religion and local governments to help address climate change.

We need Plan B because if the alternative is to rely on an international agreement in Paris to save us, we may need to commence our search for another planet sooner than we think.