Religious Action and Climate Change
A DISCUSSION OFWhere Conversations Happen and Values Emerge
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In “Where Conversations Happen and Values Emerge” (Issues, Winter 2022), Forrest Clingerman and Robin Globus Veldman make an excellent case for engaging religion as a complex social force influencing climate change discourses. Using powerful examples from religious communities, they demonstrate the importance of understanding religions as “places” where people communicate across differences to form, question, and reform their deepest commitments.
Religion has too often been viewed monolithically by both its detractors and advocates in the climate movement. Skeptics argue that religious superstitions must be excised from discussions to make room for rational science and its truths about atmospheric change. Religious activists sometimes argue the opposite, that institutional religions are the only way to create the rapid and extensive cultural shifts required by the climate emergency. Both arguments are too simplistic. Religions do not provide complete, unchallenged understandings of the world; they engage in conversation with other ideas and narratives, including those from science. Religious communities do not act or vote in lockstep; they are gathering places that include internal diversity and disagreements.
As Clingerman and Veldman emphasize, one benefit of a nuanced understanding of religion is that it leads to more nuanced understandings of all issues and phenomena related to climate change. Like religion, the climate movement used to be spoken of in monolithic terms, as a singular project to help “the public” accept “the science” of atmospheric change to build support for “solutions.” But as the Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg has eloquently articulated, climate change is a different problem for an 18-year-old than it is for an 80-year-old; there is no one public. And the science is not sufficient: as the climate justice movement teaches us, privileged people need to accept not only facts about the climate but also the moral truth that that those who benefit most from industrial activity have particular responsibility to repair its harms. Finally, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is increasingly emphasizing, there is no simple or easy solution to climate change. It has happened; all creatures on earth now live in a climate changed by anthropogenic activity.
In other words, the work of climate activism and climate justice is complex. But the silver lining is that complex problems offer a wide, diverse range of opportunities to help. For example, building awareness includes conversations around dinner tables as well as protests and career changes. Climate activism includes supporting Indigenous communities who seek to regain authority to keep their traditional lands and waters healthy and clean. Climate justice includes advocating for more women, more people of color, more disabled people in scientific and political leadership to offer perspectives that have too long been missing.
As Clingerman and Veldman make clear, thoughtful engagement with climate includes taking religious people and the scholars who study them seriously as conversation partners. Engaging such people, entering into the conversations of religious communities, will be a good start toward a movement that matches the complexity of the challenges posed by atmospheric changes and injustices.
Kevin J. O’Brien
Professor of Religion
Pacific Lutheran University
Climate change is real, and it’s here. There’s no scientific doubt.
Yet doubts remain for some people who build their lives within conservative religious communities, according to Forrest Clingerman and Robin Globus Veldman. The authors describe the global Catholic church’s response to Laudato Si’, the encyclical released by Pope Francis in 2015 that used theology to critique environmental degradation and pinpoint the human obligation to take action. Some Catholic communities ignored it. Elsewhere in Christendom, some religious conservatives still question whether global warming is real at all.
At the Faith and Sustainability Initiative at World Resources Institute, we see clear evidence of Clingerman and Veldman’s main conclusion: that the most effective way to motivate people to lower their carbon footprints and take other climate action is to get to know them and understand the reasons behind their value systems. In our work, we partner with faith-based, religious, and spiritual groups across the globe to help them identify ways to reduce their carbon footprints. We connect them with the Science-Based Targets initiative, which our institute heavily supports, and we provide them with practical guidance to protect and restore natural resources.
It’s not our goal to influence doctrine. We know that most faith and spiritual systems are imbued with guidance to care for the earth. But the reality is that many religious organizations lack a clear road map for how to do that, especially in ways that are true to their communities’ deepest values, just as businesses and governments have lacked a framework to engage on the journey of sustainable development. Faith-based organizations have a clear sense that earth stewardship, both at the micro and macro levels, is important, but they’re not sure how to connect that sense with real action.
Moving faith and spiritual communities to a place of climate action requires much more than providing a bullet-point list of tasks. Instead, as Clingerman and Veldman describe, this shift requires meaningful dialogue.
For many businesses, municipalities, and other secular entities, a shift to a science-based target approach to carbon emissions reduction happens when there’s evidence that such a change will lead to cost savings and happier customers or constituents. It is true that using sustainable technology can dramatically improve business outcomes, including improving a competitive edge, boosting savings, and bolstering investor confidence.
Those potential benefits, however, carry far less weight for faith and spiritual groups. In our work, we find that these groups are much more inclined to take action because they see a direct mandate to do so in their teachings. In some cases, leaders need help in identifying how best to frame conversations around climate action with their communities. In others, the challenge lies more in helping people remove politics from the conversation to focus solely on what’s possible, rather than on arguments related to renewable energy and other technological developments. The conversations that are often at the heart of changed mindsets are those that are personal, safe, and empowering—the very kinds that pastors, priests, and other religious leaders are best-suited to hold.
The shift to climate action also requires clear guidance. Once a faith community has decided to take action, it needs a road map. That’s where the Science-Based Targets initiative comes in. Using real data, the initiative helps organizations understand precisely where they’re emitting more carbon than they need to, and how to better utilize sustainable tools and practices to reduce emissions.
Conversations about climate change can be fraught. But we are convinced, based on the hundreds of interactions we’ve had through our Faith and Sustainability Initiative, that people who root their lives in spiritual and religious value systems are motivated to steward nature well. This is just as they have been doing through centuries with education, helping the poor, and caring for the sick. We pursue these conversations because we know they’re possible, and because we know they can lead to a more prosperous earth.
Esben Lunde Larsen
Director, Faith and Sustainability
World Resources Institute
As an ecological theologian working on religion and climate change with faith communities and environmental movements in Latin America, I deeply connected with the argument that Forrest Clingerman and Robin Globus Veldman make. I resonated with their view that reductive visions of what religion is in fact block the real potential that religious communities may offer in the transformation that climate change requires.
In my perspective, the traditional definition of religion is a consequence of the same socioeconomic worldview that has determined humanity’s relationship with nature and has caused climate change itself. The modern world created a separation between religion and science, where science was believed to describe and investigate the world as it is, whereas religion was believed to consist of eternal spiritual truths and rules for moral behavior. Both of those assumptions are shaken in the face of the climate crisis, as both the rationalist scientific and the absolute religious worldviews are deeply anthropocentric and have responsibility in the crisis itself.
In an example the authors cite, scientists’ expectations that Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ would spur all Catholic communities into ecological action reveal a longing for commandments to easily address the crisis. Not acknowledging it is precisely the traditional way of religion—of “domination and subduing” (Genesis 1:28)—that has been one of the causes of the crisis itself. To promote ecological conversion, scientists and religious communities need to overcome definitions that reduce the religious to a hegemonic moral force, or to a spiritual realm stripped of nature. The division in people’s minds between ecology and religion is in itself a religious and scientific phenomenon.
Clingerman and Veldman, with their definition of religion as a dynamic space of dialogue about meaning and values, propose a new hermeneutics of religion, as a fluid, dynamic, and embodied phenomenon. I believe that this definition is not only more helpful but is actually part of the ecological paradigm we need to create.
The authors show that religion nowadays is much more complex and less dependent on doctrines than we might think. I endorse from experience what Veldman’s study, cited in the article, finds: more than doctrine, religion comprises relationships and conversations that create change in attitude toward climate change within religious communities. Long-time ecological testimony and trusted conversations within religious communities and with other significant people—as seen in the case of Jill in Veldman’s study—have the power to spur changes. However, it would be interesting to investigate how hierarchical positions within religious communities limit or create the possibilities to generate such conversations. A decolonial and gender-based view on leadership models would be complementary.
Religions indeed can create a free space for relational processes in which we test and reinterpret frameworks for ethical behavior. Where those conversations happen, we are building a more ecological, interdependent, and circular lifestyle. Ecology itself asks for a critique of our dualistic thinking about religion and science. Both respecting scientific data and reassessing questions of meaning and values concerning our relationship with the rest of the natural world are indispensable to address the crisis. In that sense I agree that the climate crisis changes religions, and probably will change the scientific community too. At least it asks for a new hermeneutics of the two, and here Clingerman and Veldman make an excellent contribution.
Arianne van Andel
Eco-theologian and Coordinator of Training, Otros Cruces (Other Crossings)
Coordinator, Interreligious and Spiritual Alliance for the Climate, Chile