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  • Writer's pictureHersh Thaker

Reflections on the Interfaith Leaders Fellowship on Climate change at Duke University.

Updated: Feb 2, 2023

I was selected to participate in the Youth Interfaith Leaders Fellowship on Climate Change, a collaboration between Duke University and Faith for Our Planet. I joined 30 other young people from across the world looking to or already contributing to the energy transition through their communities. This piece is my opportunity to reflect and share learnings from the week.

As a technophile, I have primarily approached the energy transition by considering ways to make technological solutions affordable, accessible, and user-friendly. Business and technology hold the key to accelerating the energy transition. If we make technology solutions cheap, accessible and easy, people will naturally adopt and utilise them. However, this "build it and they will come" attitude is not enough. The more I’ve been reading into systems thinking, the more I’ve realised that we must also realign systems to drive increased political support, investment, and talent towards climate mitigation and adaptation efforts. This belief encouraged me to apply for the fellowship in the first place.

The question I went into the week at Duke was, how significant of a role can faith and faith communities actually play in climate change?

The language of climate change

The job of leaders in the energy transition is not to talk about climate change. Instead, we should think of ourselves as holders of stories and be able to empower people to tell their own stories to the broader community. Talking science will not bring people on the journey with us; we need to find the right language of the community to get them on board. Dr Normal Wirzba kicked us off with this message from the Duke Divinity School and set the tone for the week.

He gave the example that in a politically divided country like the US, where religion is also significant, talking about climate change with farmers living in the mid-west may be futile since it’s such a politically loaded term rejected by the Republican party in recent years. Instead, a conversation about the weather or soil quality is how to connect with people. Dr Ellen Davies, the renowned theology professor who specialises in translating the bible into relatable preaching with a particular focus on ecological crises, further emphasised this when she spoke to us about finding the correct language for our communities and congregations.

Give Climate Change a face.

There is a human cost to climate change that millions of people are facing across mainly developing countries. As people's homes become uninhabitable, we will see the rise of climate-related migration. The World Bank estimates that 216 million people could migrate by 2050. Without migration, one-third of the global population will live in Sahara-like conditions affecting their physical health, agricultural productivity and vulnerability to crop diseases. In the UK and elsewhere, refugees and migrants are often dehumanised, making them easier to be ignored. I reflected that climate leaders should also take responsibility for giving a voice to those displaced by climate change, especially considering they do not currently receive the same legal protections as refugees under international law.

We were also reminded that climate change is intertwined with and will accelerate other humanitarian issues, such as poverty, violence and poor governance. It’s a reinforcing feedback loop. Dr Sarah Berneo presented her research on climate-driven migration in Central America, showing extraordinary migration from Honduras and Guatemala (two case study countries), particularly after climate events. For example, after the 2018 floods in Honduras, there was an influx of migration towards the USA. She presented Central America as a case study where the combination of violence, poverty, and climate change has resulted in rural-to-international migration from the global south to the north.

Dr Berneo's findings showed a shift in migration patterns in countries facing high levels of poverty and violence. Historically, migrations were typically from rural to urban or single individuals leaving their families behind to find work. However, after the 2018 floods in Honduras, Dr Berneo observed entire family units directly migrating from rural areas and being apprehended attempting to migrate to North America. The change in migration patterns indicates a greater sense of hopelessness and the belief that their country holds no future for them and their families, with existing societal issues combined with climate-driven events significantly triggering these migrations.

Whereas the case of central America points to a need to improve the migration options available to climate refugees, Bangladesh presents opportunities for also investing in climate adaptation measures.

The situation in Bangladesh highlights the pressing need for investment in climate resilience. Rising sea levels and flash flooding are causing rural-to-urban migration as more people flock to Dhaka, which has become a mega-city. However, the growth of the city's population is outpacing its infrastructure development, leading to overcrowded and inadequate housing and increased urbanisation in areas vulnerable to hazards like landslides.

A significant increase in climate financing for adaptation measures is required to protect such vulnerable communities and prevent forced onwards international migration. Despite the need, the current funding of 80 billion dollars in 2019 is far from the estimated 300 billion needed for adaptation efforts.

Faith in action

​During the fellowship, we learned about the external challenges the world is facing and explored how best to respond to them. At the same time, I was struck by how faith is already being harnessed for positive change. I want to highlight two specific examples that particularly stood out to me.

Dr Rajwant Singh, global President of the EcoSikhs, inspired us by sharing his organisation's work. They have mobilised the Sikh community to act on climate change, and they’re on a mission to plant a million trees through a system they’ve developed for growing forests. They’ve produced 510 forests and planted over 280,000 trees across India, the UK and the USA in just three years.

Ecosikhs have mobilised an army of volunteers and paid staff members focused on planting and maintaining forests and supporting those with available land to grow. They’re self-sufficient and run off private sponsorship and donations without government support. We were all impressed by their incredible job of mobilising a community by connecting their climate change mission to their faith traditions.

Water and faith.

Water is symbolic in all faith traditions, with most rituals involving water use. Yet some of the holiest rivers in the world are the most polluted; take the river Jordan or the river Ganges.

Dr David Katz from the Nicholas School of environment shared his experience working on the “Save the Jordan” project. Dr Katz noted that mobilising the faith leaders were crucial to the project, and no amount of science or data would have been able to bring the leaders to the table. Belief systems and spirituality moved people and got them to respond to the crises facing the river Jordan.

Similarly, trees are significant in Buddhism since It was under trees and in caves where the Buddha found enlightenment. Monks in Thailand, dubbed ‘ecology monks’, have been ordaining trees by wrapping orange robes around the trunks to protect them from incursion. Once ordained, they become spiritually significant and are less likely to be destroyed for economic purposes. It’s a clear example where the moral authority of religion is more powerful than science or data.


Coming back to the question I started the week with, it becomes embarrassingly clear just how powerful a role faith communities and leaders have in the energy transition. It’s just as much of a battle of hearts and minds as it is of science and technology. The conversations, musings, lectures and readings over the week have reaffirmed my commitment to engage further within the context of my local community. I’m grateful to Duke University and Faith for Our Planet for the opportunity to be immersed in the environment and spend a week with an incredible group of people.

Watch this space.


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