Symposium VII: ‘The Arctic: Mirror of Life’

under the patronage of

HAH The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew
HE Mr José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission
HE Mr Kofi Annan, Former Secretary-General of the United Nations

6th – 12th September 2007


The full Arctic dossier can be downloaded here.
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"It has been well observed that we should wage war not against the natural world, which has been created
 by God, but against those movements and energies of the essential powers within us which are disordered and
unnatural and hostile to the natural world"
St Maximus the Confessor, Monk and theologian, 580 - 662AD


From the Amazon to the Arctic

Since 1995, the non-profit organisation Religion, Science & the Environment has convened six symposia to study the fate of the world’s main bodies of water - the sacred element for most religions – which cover seven-tenths of the earth’s surface. Participants come from diverse backgrounds and disciplines, including religious leaders, scientists, policy-makers, environmentalists, activists, local community leaders, and the media. These unique global gatherings have promoted the environmental ethics movement through an alliance between science and religion forged in a spirit of mutual respect and cooperation.

The most recent symposium, Amazon: Source of Life, travelled through the world’s most magnificent system of rivers. It reaffirmed many of the lessons learned in previous years, while engaging with the ancient wisdom of the indigenous people for whom these waters have always been sacred.

In what is also the world’s largest forested area, this 6th symposium took RSE onto new ground, focusing attention on the critical ecological roles played by the Amazon’s 42 billion trees and the risk inherent in their systematic destruction. The impact on the regional hydrological cycle will soon threaten the water supply to Brazil’s largest cities. As the source of two thirds of all greenhouse gas emissions from Brazil, the cutting and burning of rainforest also contributes significantly to global warming.

Even before the journey to Brazil, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew had made a strong statement on climate change. As scientists reached a consensus, he said, it was no longer just an issue of environmental preservation but “insofar as it is human-induced, it is a profoundly moral and spiritual problem”. The evidence of human actions is painfully clear worldwide: low-lying islands in the Pacific are already underwater; hurricanes of magnifying intensity and frequency are wreaking havoc along the US coast; the number of food emergencies in Africa each year has almost tripled since the 1980s as a result of drought and desertification. Nowhere do the effects of this moral problem more cruelly manifest themselves than in the Arctic, a starkly truthful mirror of our own failings.  

Symposium VII – The Arctic: Mirror of Life

Recognising this to be a pivotal moment in human history, Symposium VII will take place in the Arctic Ocean in September 2007. Contrasting the colourful exuberance of the Brazilian rainforest with the silent majesty of the Arctic, our journey will be a polar pilgrimage conducted in awe and humility.

Given the sensitivity of their ecosystems, both poles have been called an early-warning system for the world, because that is where the environmental sins we perpetrate in the tropical and temperate zones impact most severely. But in the North, there are indigenous populations which have already suffered tremendous upheavals, the sea-ice is particularly fragile, oil exploration has brought pace and purpose to encroachments from the outside, and there is still no international treaty to offer the enforceable protections that provide a measure of shelter to Antarctica in the south.

If the Arctic is one of the first victims of human-induced climate change, however, it is by no means a passive one. The vast stores of water locked, until now, into the rapidly melting Arctic Ocean sea-ice and the Greenland ice-cap have the power to unleash a ferocious vengeance on the rest of the world. About 77% of the earth’s freshwater is locked in as polar ice. In the last ten years, the amount of fresh water flowing into the Arctic Ocean has increased dramatically. Scientists fear this will reduce its salinity, causing the Gulf Stream to falter and possibly plunging Europe into a mini Ice Age. A rise in sea temperatures of just 2.7°C could start an irreversible process that would eventually raise global sea levels by 7 metres, with devastating consequences for low-lying small island states and countries like Bangladesh, Egypt, Vietnam, the Netherlands, and parts of the United States. Many major cities, from New York to Shanghai, would be overwhelmed with knock-on effects beyond imagining.

In the Arctic regions, large amounts of methane - a particularly potent greenhouse gas - and carbon dioxide, trapped for centuries in the permafrost, will be released, accelerating the warming process. Permafrost, which covers 27% of the world’s land surface, is already starting to melt, particularly in Siberia, Alaska and Canada.
We know about tipping points, yet we ignore the warnings written large across the cap of the world. It is our nemesis that bubbles up from the melting permafrost in methane release. It is our whole planet that is at risk from the melting Greenland Glacier. It is our future that is threatened by the loss of the precious reflective whiteness of the Arctic ice. The planet is in crisis and each of us has a moral obligation to take urgent action.

To underline this, the symposium will visit areas where the impacts of melting ice are already clear, the northernmost communities in the world who have shown extraordinary resilience in the face of change, and finally the towering edge of the ice mass, still vast but retreating year on year towards the Pole. There, the assembled leaders of different faiths and disciplines will join in a prayer for the planet.

Few people now doubt the science of climate change, but this prayer from the top of the world will offer a different message: that the polar pilgrimage should be joined in spirit by all those who care about the future of mankind and its relationship with the planet, be they in Manaus or Moscow, Borneo or Beijing, Innsbruck or Ottawa.


Itinerary - For the latest itinerary please CLICK HERE

Plenaries - For the latest information on plenary sessions please CLICK HERE

Symposium Themes

I. One Living Planet

Our planet is unique because it is clothed in a complex web of life. Destruction or disruption in one part affects the whole. The damaging impact of human activity is now reflected throughout the biosphere. To reverse this damage, we must change our relationship with the earth, committing to the principles of interdependence which are common to both religion and science. A planet in jeopardy requires new paradigms for thinking about the environment.

1. Physical Interdependence: One Living Planet

2. Spiritual Interdependence: The Eternal Covenant

3. The Intellectual Point: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

4. The Physical Tipping Point: Climate Change in the Arctic

II. Damage to the Arctic Ecosystem
With its direct influence over the whole planet, the Pole is a powerful icon of the interconnectedness of humanity. This interdependence is highlighted through scientific evidence, but also through human experience. We shall examine four interconnected aspects of change in the Arctic. They are all the result of human activity elsewhere, and are further exacerbated by the changing climate. Each case will be considered in terms of the global context, the direct impacts witnessed in the region, and finally the human choices which originate and perpetuate the problems.

1) Contaminants

The Arctic is no longer a pristine wilderness. Chemicals produced in industrialised nations are carried north by air and water currents, and the Arctic acts as the final sink where persistent organic pollutants are trapped. The traditional foods of indigenous people are now unsafe. There is also radioactive contamination. Leakage and waste from nuclear power plants from Western Europe is carried to the Arctic Ocean, where there are also some 120 decommissioned nuclear submarines.

2) Energy

Growth in world population, increased demands for energy and continued reliance on non-renewable sources are having a major impact on the Arctic. The region holds 25% of the world’s remaining hydrocarbons, the core agent of global warming. Ironically, as the Arctic ice melts it becomes easier to extract more oil and gas, further focusing commercial interest and activity. Nuclear energy, the alternative favoured by many, has brought its own set of problems to the region.

3) Biodiversity

The Arctic is home to some of the world's most distinctive mammals, millions of migratory and resident birds, a rich ice-edge community, and some of the world's major fisheries.
The physical and biological impacts of a warmer climate on Arctic ecosystems will be tremendous, affecting nearly all marine- and land-based wildlife species. Even a few degrees increase in seawater temperature will affect the Arctic marine ecosystem in many ways. Warmer temperatures will lead to increased biological productivity at the lower parts of the marine ecosystem. Reductions in sea ice will drastically shrink marine habitat for polar bears, ice-inhabiting seals, and some seabirds, pushing some species toward extinction. Caribou, reindeer and other land animals are likely to be increasingly stressed as climate change alters their access to food sources, breeding grounds, and migratory routes.

4) People

Human communities also survive in a delicate balance with the Arctic climate and are equally sensitive to change. Indigenous populations in the region maintain a strong connection to the environment through subsistence on wildlife and natural resources, a practice that has endured over thousands of years. Indigenous communities, whose knowledge of the land, sea, and ice dates back perhaps as many as 30,000 years, are already reporting signs of significant climatic change. Ice now forms later in the year and breaks up sooner. Changes in the ice pack alter travel routes over land and sea. Experienced hunters are falling through thinning ice into seawater cold enough to kill in minutes. Once-frozen coastlines are eroding, destroying homes.

Residents have observed changes in the animals around them, including caribou, polar bears, ringed seals, walrus, beluga whales, and seabirds, upon which the local people depend. The culture has relied on these animals for food, clothing, and various materials. Increasingly, they are noticing that polar bears cannot find seals along the receding ice edge and are forced to scavenge elsewhere for food. And robins and barn owls —birds for which the indigenous people had no name— have started to appear for the first time.

Thousands of years ago, nomadic Arctic populations adapted to environmental change by settling in favourable climate conditions along the paths of animal migration. Today, Arctic people cannot adapt as easily, because most now live in permanent settlements.

If climate change disrupts subsistence livelihoods in the Arctic, communities could face increased poverty, leading to drug and alcohol abuse and a host of other social problems. Such problems are already common in some areas, where traditional hunting and fishing based economies have given way to less reliable employment. The social and cultural impacts of a changing environment could be overwhelming.

In the Arctic, the traditions and lifestyle of indigenous peoples have been threatened and even destroyed as a result of the needs and demands of other parts of the world: oil and gas exploration, ozone depletion, acid rain, pollution from mining and timber production, and commercial fishing.

What happens to the Arctic and its human population concerns us all, for the response of the area and its people to climate change serves as an indicator for what may occur in other regions and to our planet as a whole. Arctic indigenous people, with their profound sense of spirituality, remind us that we are part of nature and not masters of it.

III. Alternative Reflections
When we look at the world now, we see the reflection of our own choices. The Arctic has a latent power to turn the harm it has been done back on to the rest of the planet. In many cases, it is in our power to make different choices, and to see as a result a different world.

1) Physical Reflections: the Threat to the Planet

• Rising sea levels
• Desertification
• Drought
• Climate refugees.

2) Alternative Reflections

• Technologies
• Economics
• Perceptions
• Politics.

3) Religion, Science and the Environment.

Silent Prayer for the Planet by Religious Leaders
aboard the M/S Fram preceding the Symposium ‘Arctic: Mirror of Life’

This September the leaders of the worlds faiths will pray in their own traditions for the future of the planet in the face of the damage mankind is doing to God’s creation on Earth.

Religious leaders from all around the world and representing many different faiths will come together at the mouth of the Ilulissat Icefjord, a world heritage site since 2004 and one of the most sensitive areas in the face of climate change. The prayer will be held in silence before the unfolding drama of colliding ice, continuously changing colours and sounds, as one of the most active glaciers in the world reaches the sea.

This gathering is a call for all humanity to come together and embrace the challenges that life on this planet is facing. Our responsibility in the failing of the earth’s natural defences can no longer be ignored. The thawing of the Arctic ice is a testimony to this. Following the Amazon symposium, the Ecumenical Patriarch has selected the Ilulissat Icefjord as the site in Greenland that most accurately mirrors our global predicament.

The full Arctic dossier can be downloaded here.