Building Bridges of Faith: Interfaith Climate Activism at the United Nations Climate Conference

Author: Garrett Pacholl

Garrett under the central dome of the COP28 grounds

Garrett Pacholl was a student in Professor and Ansari Executive Director Mahan Mirza's course American Adventurism in the Muslim World. He was able to attend a portion of COP28 and generously wrote about his experiences whilst over his winter break. His reflections are below.

This past December of 2023 marked the closing of the 28th annual United Nations Climate Conference, known as the Conference of the Parties (COP). COP28 in Dubai brought together tens of thousands of climate advocates, high-profile diplomats and heads of state, and countless more into one contained space to discuss international policy on climate change. I had the opportunity to attend the first week of this conference, where I learned more about transnational approaches to climate issues and met a number of inspiring advocates from all parts of the world. It was here that I refined my knowledge and passion for environmental advocacy, and it was also here that I learned more about interfaith approaches to climate activism than I ever anticipated.

Rainbow fluorescent lights envelop the nighttime walls of the COP grounds

Growing up, I’d always heard that faith was supposed to be a lifestyle, a part of one’s life at all times rather than compartmentalized into worship services. I had always been inspired by the actions of my Catholic home community to live up to this through various social work enterprises, but in my own experiences, I increasingly felt that one issue in particular failed to be captured by this ideal: environmental care. Anthropogenic environmental degradation, climate change impacts, and the natural disasters that result from these factors have incalculably damaged lives and livelihoods around the world and become more severe with each passing day. While Catholic doctrine like Laudato Si’ highlighted the importance of fighting against the impending climate crisis, discussions in my home communities and even at Notre Dame about these issues often seemed lacking in the urgency I felt to address the climate crisis. Discourse surrounding environmental care was often wrapped in nebulous, sterile discussions of sustainable technologies or far-off emissions targets that obscured the pressing nature of the matter or the impacts climate change was already having on innumerable people around the world.

A tree under the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building and a signature landmark of Dubai

As such, COP28 seemed to be a gleaming opportunity to meet people who reconciled this ideal with climate advocacy. I was excited to be attending COP28 with the Christian Climate Observers Program (CCOP), an interdenominational group that brings together emerging leaders from undermobilized groups to attend the conference and bring their experiences and learned knowledge back to their home communities. Our cohort had people of all ages from all around the world, coming from many different Christian traditions. What united us all was a care for our common home and the belief that faith was a powerful unifier and motivator in the climate crisis we all face. In our group meetings, casual conversations, and shared stories over dinners, I learned more about the life experiences and faith traditions that motivated them to pursue their activism.

I was met with a wealth of unique experiences that illuminated the intertwining of their faith and climate activism. They shared with me how their faith connected with important parts of their lives—care for their families or a love for the mountains of their hometown, for example—and informed almost all that they did. I also learned much about the obstacles many of them faced. Some, particularly from America, shared how their commitment to the environment was largely disregarded, or even disputed, by many in their congregations. Even outside of my CCOP cohort, though, I could see faith as a lifestyle manifesting in others throughout the conference—for example, with many in the Pacific Islands Pavilion starting events with a prayer. In instances like these, I came to see the harmony between living out one’s faith and caring for the earth through climate action.

The front of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, the largest mosque in the United Arab Emirates

COP28 also exposed me to how deeply faith could motivate those from non-Christian backgrounds, as well. For the first time in the history of COP, the United Nations established a Faith Pavilion to host events at the conference, inviting people from all religious backgrounds to share their wisdom, faith, and insights. It was an incredible space to be exposed to ideas that, given my positionality, I had rarely had access to prior. For example, one of the presenters spoke at length about how his Sikh faith influenced his climate activism, describing how environmental care was, in itself, an act of prayer. Additionally, CCOP hosted an interfaith event in Abu Dhabi that brought together our cohort, Christian climate leaders from sub-Saharan Africa, and Muslim scholars from the Abu Dhabi Peace Forum, in a dialogue. The similarities between what I had been taught about Catholic environmentalism and what I learned about climate engagement in Islam were striking, not only through faith parallels from shared Abrahamic roots but also through how environmental issues were described and approached.

In all these cases, I realized much more deeply how vast the common ground could be between people of different faith traditions. I learned that among many groups, it was commonly held that combating climate change was not merely a tenet of their respective religions but was an active, participatory expression of their faith. As climate change is a deeply intersectional issue, religious engagement with it is deeply intersectional, as well. The overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change demonstrates that its impacts harm incalculable numbers of lives around the world, disproportionately affect impoverished and marginalized communities, and make the world increasingly uninhabitable for future generations. As such, climate change impacts directly damage core values of Catholicism and many other religious traditions, such as the sanctity of life and lifting up vulnerable communities. In this way, fighting against climate change can not only be an act of prayer in itself but can also be an important way to enact faith as a lifestyle in a number of other ways. The urgent climate crisis poses a unique global threat that must urgently be addressed, but it also poses a unique opportunity for us to unite with those from different faith traditions across common ground, towards a common goal: protecting our home, our lives, and the lives of future generations.

This travel was made possible in part by support from the Liu Institute for Asia and Asian Studies and the Glynn Family Honors Program at the University of Notre Dame.


Originally published by Garrett Pacholl at on January 05, 2024.