Following on from Lea Schulte-Droesch’s piece on the interconnections between culture and environment at the local level, Erin Wilson offers some reflections on the role of religion in the global climate change discussions and suggests that maybe we need to stop seeing science and faith as diametrically opposed.

The global community is in the midst of its annual climate change ritual, as Tom Arup of The Age described it earlier this week.[1] Each year, representatives from almost every nation on the planet gather for two weeks of high-intensity meetings that in the end seem to achieve very little – and meanwhile the predictions of climate catastrophes grow ever more dire.


The expectations of the current COP[2] are relatively low, compared to other meetings in recent memory, such as the 2009 COP15 in Copenhagen. Negotiators are hoping to extend the terms of the Kyoto Protocol, the only existing global treaty on climate change, beyond its present expiry date of the end of this year.[3] In addition, they hope to persuade delegates to agree to a 2015 deadline for finalizing the negotiations for a new treaty that will for the first time include emitters from both the Global North and the Global South.[4] In amongst all this, they also hope to increase the level of climate financing for developing countries.[5]


The climate change negotiations are incredibly complex and I don’t pretend to even begin to understand everything that goes on. I was fortunate enough to be in Copenhagen for the COP15 in 2009 and learnt a lot from friends and colleagues working “on the inside” of the negotiations. A lot of time seems to be devoted to negotiating technicalities – what emissions reductions should be required of which countries, what level of support developing countries should receive for climate change adaptation and mitigation from developed countries,[6] which developed countries should lead the way in providing such assistance, what forms this support should take… and the list goes on.


But while many of us tend to assume that making decisions on such climate-related technicalities is primarily the domain of scientists, economists and politicians, there is in fact a lot more to it. Underlying all of these issues are fundamental moral questions about ethics and justice, both for present generations and for generations to come. As one colleague acknowledged, the demands made during these negotiations are at their heart less about economic assistance or technological transfers, and more about reparations and justice.


As such the issues related to climate change are also fundamentally moral. This moral dimension, alongside the potential for climate change to alter or indeed (in extreme worst case scenario) end life on this planet as we know it, suggests, at least in part, a link between climate change and religion. The world’s religions are, after all, concerned with ultimate questions of morality and the meaning of human existence. Yet often the climate change debate ignores contributions from any quarters other than science or economics.

Key figures in the scientific climate change community have recently begun to call for the inclusion of alternative forms of knowledge beyond just science and economics in climate change discussions, including religion. Mike Hulme, Professor of Climate Change at the University of East Anglia, in his 2009 book, Why We Disagree About Climate Change,[7] unpacks in detail the impact of Judeo-Christian beliefs on the ways in which we talk about climate change, but also, crucially, the ways in which faith and more conscious spirituality can make an important contribution to our efforts to adapt and respond to the uncertainties offered by climate change.


Yet religious contributions towards the preservation of the earth have not always been as constructive as Hulme proposes. One need only look at the influence of right-wing, conservative, frequently religiously-affiliated climate skeptics, most notably in the Australian and US contexts. Such voices claim that science is trying to bamboozle us in some kind of conspiracy. They make use of Genesis 1:28, where God commands Adam and Eve to “fill the earth and subdue it.” They argue this verse demonstrates that, from the beginning, human beings were superior to nature and God intended that humanity would control nature and use it for our own dominance and power. This perspective, while at times vocal in contemporary climate change debates, is by no means new, and is arguably embedded in the Western psyche, providing a basis for consumerist culture and market-driven economics.[8]


This particular version of climate skepticism relies on privileging the Judeo-Christian scriptures over the authority of science. It juxtaposes religion against science, where in previous eras the two were closely entwined. Science may have experiments, equipment, rational thought and thousands of years of knowledge on which to base its claims about climate change – but we have God. The significant attention given to this viewpoint by some elements of the mainstream media explains why, at least with regard to climate change, religion and science appear like oil and water. It also provides further evidence as to why many people view religion as an irrational and unhelpful influence on politics and public life.


Yet this view, while receiving substantial airtime in the mainstream media, is marginal. Both the Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches, the two largest global Christian bodies, promote a completely different approach to climate change and to science. Instead of promoting the dominance of humanity over nature and the rest of creation, these two international religious bodies promote the view that human beings are responsible for creation, that it is our job to care for, protect, nurture and be good stewards of the world around us. The Vatican’s own scientific research institute, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences released a report on shrinking mountain glaciers in May 2011, in which it emphasized the sense of stewardship and responsibility shared by all humanity. “By acting now, in the spirit of common but differentiated responsibility, we accept our duty to one another and to the stewardship of a planet blessed with the gift of life”.[9] Science and rationality, in this view, are not seen as the enemies of faith, but rather are seen as gifts from God, gifts that enable us to think, to make good and responsible decisions about how we care for our world.[10]


But this assumption goes both ways and in part two of this post, I’ll discuss some of the implications of viewing science and religion as separate and climate change as purely a scientific issue.

[1] Arup, Tom. 2012. “Climate Summit’s 2015 goal” The Age 26 November 2012 Available at http://www.theage.com.au/environment/climate-change/climate-summits-2015-goal-20121125-2a1kb.html Accessed 26 November 2012

[2] 18th conference of the parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Doha, Qatar

[3] Given that none of the world’s major emitters are interested in extending Kyoto and there is little support for extending it outside the EU, Australia and a handful of other countries, even this rather moderate goal seems likely to fail.

[4] Arup, Tom. 2012. “Climate Summit’s 2015 goal” The Age 26 November 2012 Available at http://www.theage.com.au/environment/climate-change/climate-summits-2015-goal-20121125-2a1kb.html Accessed 26 November 2012

[5] Ritter, Karl. 2012. “U.N. Climate Talks: Will U.S. Take more central role after bout of extreme weather?” The Huffington Post Green 24 November 2012 Available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/24/un-climate-un-qatar-united-states_n_2184357.html?utm_hp_ref=green

[6] since developed countries are historically responsible for present CO2 levels in the atmosphere, while developing countries will, and indeed are already experiencing the most significant effects of climate change. For more on the impact of climate change on developing countries, see Oxfam International’s 2009 report “Suffering the Science”, available at http://www.oxfam.org/en/grow/policy/bp130-suffering-the-science

[7] M. Hulme, Why We Disagree About Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press (2009)


[8] L. L. Fields. ‘A Feast Fit for a King’ Christianity Today vol. 54, no. 11 (2010), pp22–8; J. Galtung. 1996. Peace by Peaceful Means: Peace and Conflict, Development and Civilization. London: Sage (1996); M. B. Steger, Globalization: A Brief Insight. New York: Sterling (2010)

[9] Working Group of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. 2011. Fate of Mountain Glaciers in the Anthropocene. Available at http://catholicclimatecovenant.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/Pontifical-Academy-of-Sciences_Glacier_Report_050511_final.pdf Accessed 23 January 2012, p15


[10] World Council of Churches. ‘Statement on Just Finance and the Economy of Life’ (2009) Available at http://www.oikoumene.org/…sources/documents/central-committee/geneva-2009/reports-and-documents/report-on-public-issues/statement-on-just-finance-and-the-economy-of-life.html Accessed 30 May 2011; World Council of Churches. Alternative Globalization Addressing Peoples and the Earth (AGAPE). Geneva: World Council of Churches (2005). Available at http://www.oikoumene.org/fileadmin/files/wcc-main/documents/p3/agape-new.pdf Accessed June 15 2011.



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