A New Audience for Climate Action

21 May

Pope Francis visits Varginha, Brazil in 2013. Photo Credit: Agencia Brasil

By Jack Karsten, PISA Staff Assistant

In April, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis would deliver an encyclical during the summer about climate change and the moral responsibility of the world’s Catholics to care for the Earth. In response, 250 rabbis in the United States cosigned a letter that outlines the obligations of Jews towards protecting the planet.  In addition, climate scientist Dr. Katherine Hayhoe has made inroads among evangelical Christians with a series of speeches delivered to churches. These developments precede the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in December, making 2015 an extremely important year for global action on carbon mitigation.  The effort to reduce humanity’s carbon footprint will see greater success if religious and secular leaders share a unified message.

The religious argument for carbon mitigation hinges on caring for God’s creation and caring for other humans.  Stewardship of the Earth is a central theme of the creation story found in the book of Genesis.  However, some believers cannot reconcile the idea of an all-powerful God with human greenhouse gas emissions.  If God had absolute power over creation, then human action could neither destroy nor save it except by divine will.  This theological conflict may have made religious leaders reluctant to discuss climate change in the past, but now many leaders recognize the moral imperative created by the negative impacts on humans and the environment.  Framing the issue in a religious context will add spiritual authority to arguments for carbon mitigation.

Since his election in 2013, Pope Francis has distinguished himself by taking non-traditional views on policy issues. The former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergolio brings a unique perspective to the office as the both the first Jesuit pope and the first pope born in the Western Hemisphere.  Among its teachings, the Jesuit order emphasizes social justice, a theme that plays into Pope Francis’s message of saving vulnerable populations from climate-related natural disasters. The Pope’s words carry enormous weight among the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, bringing a new moral dimension and massive audience to the discussion of climate issues.

Climate change as a moral issue also offers an opportunity for inter-faith cooperation.  The seven rabbis who initiated the Rabbinical Letter on the Climate Crisis cited Pope Francis’s upcoming encyclical as an inspiration for their own effort.  The letter also emphasizes social justice: “The unity of justice and Earth-healing is taught by our ancient texts and by our experience today: The worsening inequality of wealth, income, and political power has two direct impacts on the climate crisis.” The world’s poor are most vulnerable to severe storms and flooding, though they contribute the smallest share of global carbon emissions.  Serving the poor, a mission shared by many religions, will correct the unjust impacts of climate change.

While Evangelical Christians are known for their skepticism of climate science, some are receptive to the message of Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, who is both a climate scientist and an Evangelical.  Hayhoe began to speak at churches around the country after first convincing her husband about the importance of her work.  The couple co-authored a book about their experience, A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions, which became the basis for Hayhoe’s subsequent speaking tour.  When asked about the opinions of Evangelicals, Hayhoe admitted that “I realize that, sure, most [Evangelicals] would say climate change isn’t real. But if you actually take the time and talk to them, only about 10 per cent of people are hardcore”.  For her work, she was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2014.

Though religious leaders communicate with the faithful in different ways, they can all adopt a similar message on climate change awareness. Whether believers listen to one spiritual leader, a group of them, or an itinerant climate scientist, there is a shared moral responsibility towards both creation and other humans. Many religious groups already respond to natural disasters with donations and volunteers, but they can also work to prevent climate-related disasters by reducing their carbon emissions.  The environmental movement will benefit enormously from the adoption of their message by religious communities.

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