To Tackle the Climate Crisis, Philanthropy Needs to Get Religion

Billions of philanthropic dollars have funneled into climate and environmental groups in recent years, helping these movements increase the scope of their work and more forcefully address the climate crisis. Recent reports, however, show that almost none of that funding has gone to a field that is fast becoming one of the world’s most important environmental stewards — religious organizations.

This makes little sense. Religious groups have played indispensable roles in past social movements and are forceful leaders in the fight for a sustainable and healthy planet. They provide moral and spiritual energy that the climate movement urgently needs and increasingly articulate pro-environment interpretations of their moral teachings and rituals. Many religious organizations are also turning their substantial property holdings green and are at the forefront of efforts to divest from fossil-fuel assets.

These institutions, each in their own spiritual dialect, are spreading faith-based ecological teachings at countless mosques, temples, and churches as well as in so-called eco-theology courses taught in high schools and universities. They are contributing to a shift in cultural consciousness that is a precondition for social change.

Climate-focused religious groups merit greater philanthropic attention for two main reasons. First, the religious world is both massive and culturally influential. Religious organizations remain a ubiquitous global presence, with the power to galvanize people and influence public policy. A Pew Research Center survey found that more than 80 percent of people worldwide still identify with a religion.

Importantly, some of the most climate-vulnerable countries lie in areas of the world where religion is highly influential and can support ambitious policy proposals. In Indonesia, for example, Muslim leaders have issued an authoritative Islamic teaching forbidding the burning of forests and offering invaluable backing for governmental efforts with the same aim.

Demonstrators calling for climate action on the African continent.

A second reason for grant makers to pay attention to religious institutions is that they manage large amounts of wealth, property, and land — and many are using their earthly possessions to lead by example on sustainable living. Environmental groups have recognized the importance of the religious world’s massive physical and financial footprint. For example, the nonprofit GoodLands helps the Catholic Church map its landholdings around the world to ensure they meet sustainability goals.

Similarly, as longtime leaders in the field of socially responsible investing and as one of the largest investing groups in the world, religious organizations can play an important role in ensuring that funds flow to enterprises that support the planet’s health. More religious groups have divested from fossil-fuel holdings than any other type of institution. And religious activists are pressuring the world’s largest asset managers and banks to end their support for fossil-fuel and deforestation projects — and to instead finance climate solutions.

As world leaders, scientists, and advocates gather this week in Egypt for the 2022 U.N. Climate Conference, known as COP27, the message is clear: A dangerous gap exists between greenhouse gas emissions-reduction targets and the results needed to put the planet on an environmentally sustainable course. The religious world has the power to help rewrite that troubling narrative by engaging millions of people in the climate fight. But they will need more resources to get the job done on a large scale.

Build Relationships

Foundations can support this work by first getting to know the growing network of climate-focused religious leaders. For grant makers not connected to the religious field, this will be a first foray into a new world. They will need to spend time speaking with religious climate activists, building relationships, and involving them in the development of strategies for engaging the faith community. The good news is that dozens of religious environmental nonprofits and projects are led by people who understand how to work with donors who have a wide range of views on religion but a shared commitment to protecting the planet.

Grant makers should also start thinking strategically about how religion fits into their overall climate goals. Whether a foundation has a local, national, or international focus, examples abound of religious leaders who are effectively bringing their communities together to address the climate crisis. All of these could be adopted widely as part of larger philanthropic climate efforts.

In India, for example, Sikh groups have launched an innovative reforestation initiative to plant hundreds of small forests. In East Africa, religious groups play an important role in the opposition to the East African Crude Oil Pipeline, which would have a devastating impact on biodiversity. In the United States, religious groups are pressuring state and federal government to end new oil and gas projects and invest instead in green job training for people of color. At the global level, the Vatican and other religious organizations are key supporters of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, a fast-growing effort to develop a binding mechanism to end new fossil-fuel development and support an equitable transition to a clean energy future.

Africa and Asia

Religious climate nonprofits are also working to improve energy access in parts of Africa and Asia that lack electricity — a vital step toward preventing new fossil-fuel development and protecting biodiversity. Religious organizations in these regions are helping entire communities by allowing mini electrical grids and solar panels to be installed on their land. For example, Anglican Church property is being used for a large-scale solar field in Mozambique.

Philanthropic support could underwrite expansion of these efforts through community outreach, distribution of information about what works, and public communications using faith-based media channels.

With little philanthropic support, the religious world is asserting its power to protect the planet in big and small ways. Entire faith communities are coming together to campaign for climate justice, sustainable food systems, habitat protection, green job training, and much more. For example, the Jewish Climate Leadership Coalition has more than 100 organizational members across the country.

Religious efforts are not a cure-all to the grave environmental threats facing the planet. But additional resources would allow these groups to recruit more participants, train religious leaders, and partner with secular counterparts to move millions of people from passive concern about climate change into full-throttled public action. It’s hard to imagine a better investment for the future of the planet.