Standing on the bow of a passenger ship before the fast-melting Ilulissat glacier, religious leaders from around the world lowered their heads in a silent prayer for the future of the planet.
Surrounded by icebergs, Sunni, Shiite, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Christian, and Shinto leaders committed themselves last Friday to leave the planet "in all its wisdom and beauty to the generations to come." They included the Grand Rabbi of Paris, René-Samuel Sirat, Bishop Sofie Petersen of Greenland, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, and the Rev. Jim Ball, founder of the Evangelical Environmental Network.
They are in Greenland for a six-day tour on the invitation of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the senior-most figure in Orthodox Christianity, widely known as the Green Patriarch for his efforts to mobilize religious leaders to protect the environment.
Patriarch Bartholomew, who is based in Istanbul, Turkey, has traveled to many of the world's environmental hotspots including the Black Sea, the Danube, and the Amazon, usually as part of a series of shipboard symposiums between religious, scientific, and political leaders.
Now he is taking on climate change, traveling down the Greenland coast by ship in the company of Princess Irene of Denmark, Greenland foreign minister Aleqa Hammond, and over 100 dignitaries, scientists, clergy, and journalists. The onboard forum is designed to focus global attention on climate change, whose effects can be seen most dramatically in Greenland, most scientists agree.
"Preservation of the environment, promotion of sustainable development, and particular attention to climate change are matters of grave concern for the entire human family," said Bartholomew at the conference's opening.
Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, says the event was indicative of the progress that was being made bridging the divide between environmentalism and faith. "Environmentalism is really the intersection of science and ethical principles," he says. "I was part of the generation that made the choice – the horrendous strategic blunder – of situating ourselves outside the institutions of faith. Now we have a chance to repent for and reform from that error."
Religious leaders also signaled the need to work together.
"It is very, very key for as many voices from as many fields as possible to come together to present a common effort," Cardinal McCarrick, Pope Benedict XVI's official representative, told the Monitor. Failure to address climate change, he said, "will mean the terrible suffering of millions of people."
Mr. Ball, an influential Baptist minister, said the event had considerable symbolic importance. "The image of all the religious leaders on the boat with the Ecumenical Patriarch says that we recognize this and that it's time for us to get busy, and for all hands to get on deck," he said.
Bartholomew, the head of the ancient "mother church" in Constantinople (now Istanbul), is the leader of a faith with a centuries-old reputation for avoiding involvement in politics and other worldly affairs. But over the past decade, he has led his sometimes reluctant church back onto the world stage.
He has declared the destruction of nature a sin, and built relationships with other religious and political leaders engaged in environmental causes. In 2002, he signed a joint declaration on the environment with the late Pope John Paul II, helping ease centuries of tension between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches since the Great Schism of 1054.
Glacial melting triple that of '02
The Ilulissat glacier in west-central Greenland, 155 miles above the Arctic Circle, was a poignant choice of settings. The glacier, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is massive: three miles wide and nearly one mile tall. It is also disappearing at a remarkable rate, having receded by nine miles over the past four years. Its ice is flowing at a rate of nearly seven feet an hour, nearly three times the rate of just five years ago.
"The amount of ice that comes into the ocean in a day could provide the water supply for any of the largest cities in the world for an entire year," says Robert Corell, director of the global change program at the H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics, and the Environment in Washington who has studied Greenland's glaciers for decades.
Some scientists argue that increased snowfall over parts of Greenland could compensate for the melting, but Dr. Corell, the head of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, says that data show Greenland's overall ice mass to be shrinking rapidly.
Global sea-level rise estimates in the latest report of the International Panel on Climate Change were based on data from 2005 and predicted a rise of eight to 24 inches over the century, says Corell. But more recent data has made it clear that Greenland's massive ice cap is collapsing much faster, and that sea levels will rise roughly three feet as a result. "The rate of melting is just phenomenal," he says.
Greenland is a self-governing territory of Denmark whose indigenous Inuit inhabitants aspire to independence. The Patriarch's ship sailed to the capital, Nuuk, over the weekend. Today he is at sea en route to southern Greenland, where he plans to conduct a Byzantine prayer service on the site of the first Christian church in the New World, built in AD 1000.