Science Diplomacy - Strengthening the public role of faith-based communities in environmental protection


Antonino Puglisi, coordinator of the MCAA Task Force on Science Diplomacy, reflects on the role of faith-based organisations in environmental protection.¹

Antonino is a researcher at the Department of Nanobiotechnology at BOKU. After his Masters and PhD in chemistry in his native Italy, he went on to do a postdoc in the UK and subsequently joined an Oxford-based biotech company. Through a Marie Curie Fellowship, he then moved to Turkey for an independent research project at Istanbul Technical University. In 2020, Antonino joined BOKU with a Lise Meitner Fellowship. He is also an active member of the Marie Curie Alumni Association where he coordinates the Association’s science diplomacy working group.

1.This article is a revised version of a presentation delivered at the InsSciDE Open Conference held in Erlangen (Germany) on 24-26 November 2021.

Science diplomacy has become an area of growing interest in both the scientific and diplomatic communities. According to the Madrid Declaration on Science Diplomacy, science diplomacy refers to ‘a series of practices at the intersection of science, technology and foreign policy […] where a greater scientific voice could add value to bi- and multi-lateral discussions and decisions about our shared global concerns’ (S4D4C, 2019).

Science diplomacy has emphasised the need to identify and involve other actors alongside professional scientists and international institutions to fully deploy the power of science in addressing major global challenges. In particular, the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic and the current environmental crisis have served as a stark reminder of the need for global cooperation across national borders, diverse cultural backgrounds, and all generations.

As we explore the role of interculturality in 21st-century scientific action and societal engagement, we are urged not only to take into account different cultures but also to unpack the role of various religious beliefs and values in this context. On 12 May 2020, at the very peak of the pandemic, the UN SecretaryGeneral addressed the world's religious leaders on the specific role of faith communities in the pandemic: “We are all vulnerable, and that shared vulnerability reveals our common humanity.“ He then added that the current crisis “lays bare our responsibility to promote solidarity as the foundation of our response.“ (Guterres, 2020).

But are faith communities relevant nowadays in the discourse about the future of our modern societies?

A 2012 report by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life estimated that 5.8 billion people were religiously affiliated, representing 84% of the 2010 world population (Hackett et al., 2012). Many of the most important cultural heritage sites around the world are deeply rooted in local spiritual and cultural traditions, within which they are considered holy places (Verschuuren et al., 2012). Religious institutions own more than 7% of Earth’s land surface, and a further 8% has religious connections (Hillmann & Barkmann, 2009). Moreover, a recent report by the Global Impact Investing Network has found that “while there are no specific figures estimating the total assets held by faith-based investors, there is strong evidence that illustrates vast accumulation of wealth and most likely represents trillions of global assets under management.” (GIIN, 2020).In the light of these figures, Guterres’ words are not surprising as international institutions are increasingly recognising the importance of working together with faith-based organisations (FBOs) to foster sustainable development, particularly with regard to the environment.

The World Wide Fund for Nature has launched the Sacred Earth program to better articulate ethical and spiritual ideals around the sacred value of Earth and its diversity (WWF, 2021). In 2010, the United Nations created the Interagency Task Force on Religion and Sustainable Development (UNIATF-Religion, 2019) and, more recently, in 2018, the Multi-faith Advisory Council. The purpose of those bodies is to provide strategic policy guidance around engagement with FBOs and so to deepen the UN’s understanding of the intersections between religion, development, human rights, and peace.

In 2015, the Catholic Church launched ‘Laudato Si’ which has been hailed as one of the most important interventions among 21st-century campaigns for environmental justice. Around the same time, an Islamic Declaration on Climate Change was launched in Istanbul and, more recently, the more comprehensive document ‘Al Mizan’ sponsored by the United Nations Environment Programme represents a covenant for all Muslims around the world on the environment.

At COP 26 – the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Glasgow – I personally witnessed how FBOs were visibly present. They were catalysing action with their advocacy power through various statements and informal negotiations fostering alliances for nature conservation (WCC, 2021).

Recently, religious leaders have increasingly shown great convening power around the theme of the preservation of our planet through strategic diplomatic actions, including issuing a pre-COP26 appeal on climate change signed by all major faith leaders in October 2021 (Pullella, 2021).

To conclude, for the majority of people on our planet, spiritual values are key drivers of individual and communitarian behaviours. Through their emphasis on wisdom, social cohesion and interrelatedness, FBOs represent a strategic partner for science diplomacy to ensure effective sustainable development. In the context of the current environmental crisis, FBOs show the potential to effectively mobilise people on the ground in response to climate change as well as motivate large sections of society.

Antonino Puglisi
Coordinator of the MCAA Task Force on Science Diplomacy
University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences,
Vienna (Austria) & Faculty of Theology and Religion,
University of Pretoria (South Africa)


Guterres, A. (2020, May 12). Remarks at High-Level Video Conference entitled 'The Role of Religious Leaders in Addressing the Multiple Challenges of COVID-19'. United Nations Secretary-General.

Hackett, C., Grim, B. J., Stonawski, M., Skirbekk, V., Potančoková, M., & Abel, G. (2012). The global religious landscape. Pew Research Center.

Hillmann, B. M., & Barkmann, J. (2009). Conservation: A small price for long-term economic well-being. Nature, 461(7260), 37.

GIIN. (2020). Engaging Faith-Based Investors in Impact Investing. Global Impact Investing Network.

S4D4C. 2019. The Madrid Declaration on Science Diplomacy.

UNIATF-Religion. (2019). The United Nations Interagency Task Force on Religion and Development. Annual Report 2019. United Nations.

Verschuuren, B., McNeely, J., Oviedo, G., & Wild, R. (Eds.). (2010). Sacred natural sites. Routledge. WCC. (2021, November 10). Statement from the Faith-Based Organizations to COP26. World Council of Churches.

Pullella, P. (2021, October 4). Pope, other religious leaders issue pre-COP26 appeal on climate change. Reuters.

WWF. (2021). Sacred earth: Faiths for conservation. World Wildlife Fund.

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