August 2, 2018
Climate change—generated primarily by human activities—is real, and presents an urgent challenge for those concerned with the well-being of poor and vulnerable communities globally. The moral imperative to act in response to this challenge can be articulated in either religious or secular terms, but this imperative is not, in its basic outlines, ethically ambiguous or controversial. The perception that this is not a settled moral issue is a strangely American phenomenon, or, perhaps more accurately a problem particular to the Anglosphere, where climate obstructionism has been successfully married to particular forms of religious identity. In the United States, and to a lesser degree in Canada and Australia, climate deniers and politically conservative Christians are overlapping demographic groups. Given two decades of systematic public relations campaigning by fossil fuels groups, this is no accident, nor does this religious and political polarization provide reliable evidence about fundamental theological differences. Rather, the presence of religion in (American) debates about climate change is an opportunity to separate empirical questions from normative ones.
The uneven levels of public support for policies to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and to invest in adaption measures raise a host of empirical questions. Why do certain religious groups hold the opinions about climate change that they do? And why have they become more trenchant in these views in recent years? As policymakers and civil society groups struggle to achieve any meaningful progress and look with increasing desperation for new ways to leverage political support, these are urgent questions. But these empirical questions remain distinct from normative considerations for action, where the case against climate policy is increasingly exposed as the manifestation of xenophobic, isolationist, and neo-colonialist mentalities. The international energy economy is characterized by bald injustice. Hydrocarbon energy has for two centuries been a tremendous source of wealth and prosperity for developed economies in the Global North, largely because its many harmful side effects—e.g. climate change, toxic waste, and political corruption—have been borne largely by the Global South and rural, marginalized places in North America. It is critically important for those concerned about climate change to be clear about this: There is no meaningful religious case against wealthy nations acting to ameliorate the impact of climate change on poorer nations. When figures like EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt claim “The biblical world view…is that we have a responsibility to manage and cultivate, harvest the natural resources that we’ve been blessed with,” this should be seen as using religion to provide political and rhetorical cover for policies designed by and for corporate fossil fuel interests.
Although there is a strong and compelling moral case for climate action, which resonates with the demands of justice expounded by many religious and philosophical traditions, there are lingering questions about exactly what is to be done. As the international community attempts to build on the important, but limited consensus achieved with the Paris Agreement in 2015, there are lingering questions about whether and how the agreement’s goals can be achieved, and about the specific contributions of various sectors of civil society. An important but perhaps underappreciated such question regards the role played by faith-based organizations (FBOs).
There is a tendency in public discourse about religion and climate change to frame religious engagement primarily as advocacy. Religious leaders, especially outspoken figures with a global audience, like Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama, have been key advocates for climate action. These messages have been echoed and amplified at the local level by many religious leaders with influence in their communities, but the role of religious actors with respect to climate change has to be broader than mere moral messaging. And it is. In some domains, the contributions of FBOs are well-known and carefully integrated into multilateral policy frameworks, as, for example, in the case of humanitarian aid and disaster relief.
In order to develop effective partnerships with faith-based organizations and other religious actors, policymakers should recognize the contribution of such groups to both advocacy and implementation. As advocates, FBOs can bring policy issues to the attention of large communications networks and can speak in ways that make these issues relevant for stakeholders outside of the traditional “big green” tent. Many FBOs are also implementing agencies, which develop programs and deliver services on issues directly related to climate change, including not just humanitarian relief, but also agricultural development, healthcare, education, sanitation, etc. FBOs often work closely with community stakeholders and their attention to local priorities and concerns ought to be taken as a model as the international policy community looks for ways to move from adaption and resilience as abstract principles of governance to actual practices.