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Religion and Climate Change 

Pedram Rashidi offers a political perspective

In August 2015, a group of Muslim scholars and religious leaders released an open letter on the environment. The Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change invited the community, particularly fellow Muslims, to unite to stop and eventually reverse the damage of climate change. Drawing on scientific findings, they declared that anthropogenic climate change was threatening “the gifts bestowed on us by God, whom we know as Allah – gifts such as a functioning climate, healthy air to breathe, regular seasons, and living oceans”.1 This declaration followed an Encyclical Letter, on Care for Our Common Home, written by the Pope Francis and released by the Vatican.2 Pope Francis similarly invited all populations, though especially Christians, to take action on climate change and act on inequality between the rich and poor. Both declarations aimed at giving momentum to political actions ahead of the Paris climate summit in December of that year. They both beg the question: Can mainstream religion (or more particularly religious institutions and leaders) truly support climate action? If so, how?  


Religion, nature, and ecological crisis 

Reading these declarations against the historical backdrop of religious engagement with the environment suggests some problems. I see at least three problems, focusing on the Judeo-Christian case and the literature on environmental politics. First, historians, such as Lynn White, trace a key shift in human-nature relations back to Judeo-Christian beliefs about the environment as being rightly subject to human need. In his view, Judeo-Christian teleology supposes that there was a beginning (the creation) from which point humans began progressing toward a utopia (the end point) and other physical entities served humans in their journey. It was “God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper end” (White 1967: 52). Paul Taylor, the late environmental philosopher, similarly regarded the idea of ‘great chain of being’, which was found in the metaphysical tenets of Christianity, as an assertion of humans’ superiority over other living things (Taylor 2011). 

Second, the Protestant Reformation paved the way for a more instrumental use of nature within capitalism. The upheavals of the 16th C Europe generated new versions of Christian teaching which gave value to nature based on its utility to humans in their quest for salvation (Northcott 2009). In prominent Protestant doctrines of the time, salvation became something to be achieved through man’s hard work and worldly success; nature became an object upon which man works for holy purposes. As John Calvin asserted, “nature was redeemed from the Fall by being transformed by human work” (Northcott 2009: 151). Related aspects of Protestant doctrine sanctified profit making and material accumulation, as Weber famously described, and provided an ideological legitimacy for extractive industries in colonial territories. 

The deep (somehow misperceived) historical conflict between religion and science has thirdly complicated the role that religion plays (or could play) in environmental conservation. The conflict started with the emergence of modern sciences and reached a pinnacle during the Enlightenment. Central to this tension was the perceived incommensurability between theological and scientific methods of investigation. Fast forward to the second half of the 20th C, when the emergence of climate science similarly faced strong opposition from members of some Christian denominations: Katherine Wilkinson, in her study of US Evangelicals’ encounters with climate change, observed that while climate care was not contentious among the followers, climate science was a major point of conflict (Wilkinson 2012). The general distrust toward the scientific data was a key driver of their scientific skepticism. Their distrust of the data was due to its association with ‘secular’ or ‘liberal’ views. 


Is there a way forward? 

There are features of the current crisis which suggest a positive relationship is both possible and desirable between religions and environmental causes. First, the significance of religions to environmental debate is undeniable. they can mobilize vast resources and exert influence through their powerful international institutions. Religious leaders, for instance, can play a strong role in the broader social response to climate change. Not only can leaders influence their believers’ worldviews or cosmologies, promoting a sense of moral duty towards the environment and strengthening their common commitment to collective goods. In addition, senior religious figures can engage broad audiences who respect their moral authority and leadership (regardless of their beliefs). Within their organizations, they can also promote climate-friendly policies and practices using their abundant institutional and financial resources (Haluza-DeLay 2014). 

Secondly, religious leaders may foster and respond to the ways of thinking about nature within contemporary society. The scale and novelty of the current ecological crisis, which is caused by human activities, is unprecedented in history. The nature of the threat is arguably changing how many of us understand ourselves and our place in the world with respect to the ecological crisis. Pope Francis’ Encyclical, along with the declarations of Muslim and other religious leaders, can be seen as a reflection of this environmental consciousness. The statements show how believers may search in their traditions for ways to reimagine care and connections for/with nature. For example, the Pope finds his inspiration in the convictions of Saint Francis of Assisi, his namesake. His efforts could be a source of inspiration for other religious leaders to involve themselves with environmental issues and provide his religious fellows with moral justification for ecological and social practices that could foster a collective action. 

Third, ironically, ‘religion’ can support ‘science’. For example, each of those religious declarations on climate change drew on scientific research (most notably the IPCC reports) and used that data to remind their followers of their moral obligations to act on climate change. This shows the potential of religious leaders and institution to help support greater trust in scientific knowledge and institutions – if the scientists will let them! 

Haluza-DeLay R. (2012). “Religion” in Sage Encyclopedia of Global Warming & Climate Change, vol. 3. 2 ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference. 

Northcott M. (2009). “Christianity” in Encyclopedia of Environmental Ethics and Philosophy. Macmillan Reference.  

Taylor P. (2011). Respect for Nature: A Theory of Environmental Ethics (25 Anniversary Edition). Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 

White L. (1967). The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis. Science, 155(3767), 1203-1207. 

Wilkinson, K. (2012). Between God and green: How evangelicals are cultivating a middle ground on climate change. Oxford University Press. 


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