Embracing a fair-weathered faith
Posted Nov 20, 2005

Embracing a fair-weathered faith

To battle against global warming, religions can spur a much-needed cultural change among Southeast Asians

By NAZRY BAHRAWI

In some scientific circles, mankind’s most elusive enemy is not a gun-toting bearded Islamist ideologue whose occasional appearances are limited to ominous yet cliched messages of hate on Al-Jazeera TV and directed against “Western infidels’‘. Not to diminish the perils of Islamic extremism, but scientists would argue that the biggest threat wields some of Nature’s own weapons of mass destruction, able to dwarf the worst Bin Laden fantasies.

Case in point: the attacks on the United States resulted in 2,986 deaths, an alarming figure but which still pales in comparison with the Boxing Day tsunami which killed approximately somewhere in the region of 275,000 people.

The US-led global war on terror has wrested the spotlight away from the greater threat of extreme climate change. Proponents of the anthropogenic global warming theory assert that it is high time to talk about the weather _ not to fill in awkward social moments but seriously, discourses about how we can curb the advent of escalating temperature.

On the international political front, the keen awareness that such weather conditions could be man-made have given rise to global initiatives like the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty on climate change initiated in 1997.

At Kyoto, Japan, participating industrialised countries agreed to lessen their emissions of greenhouse gases to less than 5% of their recorded 1990 levels by 2012.

The treaty allowed emissions trading should a country’s emissions level stay constant or increase. If the Kyoto Protocol succeeds, scientists predict it will reduce the global temperature hike anywhere between 0.02 to 0.28 degrees Celsius.

But this approach to global warming has its fair share of doubting Thomases. Scientists and politicians have manifested their widespread scepticism in multiple manners.

For instance, a minority group of scientists is dishing out a counter-thesis that the Earth’s rising temperature is a natural cyclical process unaffected by human activities.

The US and Australia have simply and repeatedly expressed their opposition to the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol.

Regardless of its controversies, the rising global temperature warrants prompt reaction that would lend credence to the notion of global warming towards humans. As a testament to the severity of climate change, Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies figures that “this year’s average temperature is 0.047C higher than the previous record in 1998’‘as reported in The Straits Times in mid-October.

As the Earth warms up rapidly, some are questioning if the Kyoto Protocol is enough.

One such voice is Prof Sir David King, chief scientific adviser to the British government, who believes that the onus to managing climate change is as much the responsibility of the governing elites as it is the masses’.

At a climate change forum in Singapore early this month, he urged the city-state’s largely affluent citizens to embrace a crucial cultural change which effectively challenges the predominant view that high energy consumption equates to a superior social standing.

Indeed, there is really no need for one to own a sporting utility vehicle (SUV) when public transportation already provides top-notch services. He believes the culture of consumption, if allowed to fester, will lead to man’s eventual downfall.

In Southeast Asia, where piety is the order of the day, this cultural change is best spurred among the believers. In an age where the pious are viewed suspiciously, global warming can perhaps carve a positive niche for religions as a means for social engineering. Both sociologists and theologians will agree that the values of moderation and even frugality can be weaned from within the teachings of major religions practised here.

For instance, Buddhism’s principle of abstinence within both the Theravada and Mahayana traditions, through the concept of tanha, constructs a worldview that the faithful steer away from all forms of addiction, including excessive energy consumption.

Islam has the concept of khalifah, where humans are bestowed custodianship of Planet Earth. This has been interpreted by modernists to mean taking care of the environment too. Christians surely can draw inspiration from the figure of Jesus Christ the carpenter, whose life was utter simplicity, while his mission was compassion for all.

In as much as religion is the impetus for change, it can also exponentially exacerbate the dilemma of climate change. The superstitious amongst the faithful will subscribe to millenarian theories that speak of Earth’s final days. This is most evident in the Islamic and Christian traditions which prophesise the Second Coming of the Messiah, who will ascend from Heaven and call all to Islam according to the Muslims, or establish Christendom according to the Christians. Either way, this theological notion can possibly lead to that “clash of civilisations’’ predicted by Samuel Huntington.

Without that much-needed cultural mindset change urged by Sir David, what remains clear is that increasing global temperature will turn God’s green Earth into a paradise lost.

Nazry Bahrawi is the managing editor of “The Muslim Reader’’ magazine published in Singapore.

Originally published in the Bangkok post and reprinted in TAM with permission of the author.