Could Jesus Help Us Solve Climate Change?

The Role of Religion in Ecology

The world is not the product of manifold power, but of one will, of one mind; and that one mind is everywhere active. It is a mountain air. It is the embalmer of the world. It is myrrh and storax, and chlorine and rosemary. It makes the sky and the hills sublime, and the silent song of the stars is it.  Ralph Waldo Emerson, Divinity School Address. 1838.

Jennifer Karsten, Executive Director of Pendle Hill, a Quaker study center, was at a protest demonstration of the Keystone XL Pipeline in Washington DC when she suddenly found herself standing next to Bill McKibben, the organizer of the event. Wanting to encourage him, she said “Don’t worry Bill, a bus load of Quakers is on their way!” It wasn’t the first time that a religious group was active in the fight against climate change. All over the country, Christians as well as other religious groups, have been rallying around climate change as a way to express their beliefs. One of these organizations, Interfaith Power and Light, hosts an annual Cool Congregations Challenge, where religious congregations compete to reduce their carbon emissions. Last year over 550 congregations of many different faiths from 44 states participated.[i] In addition to activism, religious scholars have been fervently reinterpreting theology to accommodate environmental ethics. The Evangelical Environmental Network created the slogan “What Would Jesus Drive?” to “discover new ways to love your neighbor as we strive together to reduce fuel consumption and pollution from cars, trucks, and SUVs.” Climate change is arguably the most important issue of our time and religious institutions are uniquely suited to be a leader in this movement. I would like to articulate what I see are the most important reasons for religion to be involved in this seemingly secular issue.

First, religion’s Golden Rule is a direct indictment against a practice that disproportionately harms billions of people in the poor countries of the world. While climate change effects everyone, the most severe impacts have fallen on the poorest segments of the population, many of whom depend on natural resources for survival. These are also people who have contributed least to the problem, whose emissions, even when billions of them are added together, are a mere rounding error in the accounting of global greenhouse gas emissions. Even though they have done nothing to contribute to the problem, climate-induced droughts are destroying their crops and drying up their water supplies; climate-induced floods are washing away their homes, and climate-induced sea level rise is eroding their shorelines and in some cases submerging entire island nations. These people pay with their livelihoods and their lives the price for people in developed nations to drive our cars, power our homes, and advance our industries.The fundamental principle of “do unto others what you would have them do unto you” is at its heart a statement about fairness, that we should not treat anyone with less regard than how we would treat ourselves, our family, or our own people. As institutions that champion the caring of human beings and doing what is right in interhuman relations, religions have tremendous authority in framing climate change as a moral issue and working to alleviate the injustice and suffering caused by climate change.

The principle to do unto others is usually applied to living parties, but what about the care of future generations? Should the living be morally accountable for actions that will affect future generations? In the Bible’s Old Testament, Malachi writes, “And he [God] shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.” In the last century, mankind has been tearing through the earth’s supply of nonrenewable resources and putting the burden of pollution on future generations. Should the present generation be allowed to cause irreversible harm to ecosystems simply because they will not be around to deal with the effect of their own actions? A Native American proverb teaches, “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.” Christianity as well as all religions have the resources to articulate an ethic of care not only for the living but also for the unborn.

Second, many world religions espouse an ethic of stewardship towards the Earth. Christianity teaches that God created the plants, animals, and everything on the earth and commanded men to have dominion over it. This phrase has often been used to justify man’s domination of nature, but it is also interpreted to mean that humans should care for creation, use it wisely and not abuse it. In his 2010 World Day of Peace message, Pope Benedict XVI said:

“Man’s inhumanity to man has given rise to numerous threats to peace and authentic and integral human development … yet no less troubling are the threats arising from neglect – if not downright misuse – of the earth and the natural goods God has given us. For this reason, it is imperative that mankind renew and strengthen that covenant between human beings and the environment, which should mirror the creative love of God, from whom we come and towards whom we are journeying.”

In Buddhist teaching, human beings are not seen as superior to other living beings but as sharing its consciousness with other living beings. The concept of Atman, or no self, means that individuals are part of a whole, a universal soul manifest throughout the world. The belief in reincarnation supposes that an insect or bird could have been a human being in its past life and therefore deserving of basic respect. As such, Buddhists regard all of creation as being interconnected, and if one is hurt, the whole cannot be unaffected. Material consumption and the quest for power are seen as egoistic graspings that only reinforce our sense of separateness, which can never make us happy. Instead, Buddhism teaches compassion, moderation in living, and transcending the self through meditation. Strict Buddhists are forbidden to kill, eat meat, or possess property. The voracious way in which humans obtain and use energy today, using within a few generations the entire store of the earth’s supply of fossil fuels, surely does not qualify as moderate or wise use of God’s gift to man. Greed and overconsumption are problems which all religions agree are bad for the soul.

Third, religions have the capacity to awaken our sense of the sacred in the natural world. So much of the stories, traditions and practices of religions involve nature to help us connect with the divine. In Hinduism, the river Ganges is a focus of rituals of purification. The Buddha found enlightenment while sitting under a Bodhi tree. In Christianity, it is no coincidence that the celebration of the birth and resurrection of Christ coincide with the winter solstice and the coming of Spring. Religion prompts us to seek out the sense of perspective and wonder that nature so effectively provides. Away from the light pollution of urban centers, who can help but marvel at the dazzling profundity of the night sky in all its star-studded wonder? On top of a mountain overlooking forests and fields, how can we not feel the majesty of the earth? In the forest by a stream, the beauty of nature has the power to heal and penetrate our souls. Is it implausible that contemplation of nature is what gave birth to religion in the first place? We have ample evidence of the inspiration of nature in art, music, literature, and all the noblest expressions of human civilization. On the influence of nature on culture David Orr writes:

“We have good reason to believe that human intelligence could not have evolved in a lunar landscape, devoid of biological diversity. We also have good reason to believe that the sense of awe toward the creation had a great deal to do with the origin of language and that early hominids wanted to talk, sing, and write poetry in the first place …. If natural diversity is the wellspring of human intelligence, then the systematic destruction of nature inherent in contemporary technology and economics is a war against the very sources of mind.”[ii]

If we destroy nature then surely we also destroy the source from which sprang the diverse expressions of human culture around the world. If nature could move us to spiritual reflection, then perhaps religion could also awaken in us the love of nature.

Lastly, religion is uniquely suited to mobilizing the widespread support needed to fight climate change. Whether one is rich or poor, educated or uneducated, religion has adherents in all cultures and all levels of society. Religion speaks to fundamental human needs for meaning, community and continuity. By appealing to these powerful impulses, religions have tremendous influence and authority throughout the world. The largest religions are also well-organized institutions that are able to mobilize deep financial, social, and cultural resources quickly in response to a crisis. During natural disasters such as the Japanese Tsunami or Hurricane Katrina, religious organizations were the first to respond and provide physical, emotional, and spiritual aid. Religious people are also some of the biggest contributors to humanitarian organizations such as the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders. Politically, religious organizations have been powerful in mobilizing people towards specific causes. In 2008 Jews and Mormons were instrumental in helping to pass Proposition 8 in California to ban same sex marriage in an otherwise very permissive state. Buddhist groups have mobilized popular support for the liberation of Tibet and the release of political prisoners in China. Religion has the potential to be a powerful force in the fight to stabilize the earth’s planet and bring environmental justice; what is needed is a clear connection of climate change as a moral issue from the pulpits and pamphlets.

Even though religion can be a powerful force for good, it has its challenges. Religion can be anthropocentric, or focused on the welfare of human souls to the exclusion of other types of sentient beings. It can also be overly concerned with transcendence by viewing the physical world as limited in favor of liberation in a transcendent spiritual world. This attitude can result in a denial or indifference towards environmental problems. Religions can also become dogmatic, in which independent thought is suppressed in favor of rigid adherence to doctrines or rituals. Many individuals come to religion for refuge from the complexities of the modern world, for such people religion can be motivation for inaction rather than action. Christianity in particular has a history of being dismissive of science in favor of literal interpretations of the Bible. In Lynn White’s Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” he writes:

“Our science and technology have grown out of Christian attitudes toward man’s relation to nature which are almost universally held not only by Christians and neo-Christians but also by those who fondly regard themselves as post-Christians. Despite Copernicus, all the cosmos rotates around our little globe. Despite Darwin, we are not, in our hearts, part of the natural process. We are superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for our slightest whim.[iii]

Is Christianity able to put aside its anthropocentric roots and take a role in the battle to defend creation? I believe the answer is yes. Increasingly, religious leaders are using the substantial resources in their power to motivate and mobilize their congregations to protect the environment. The Catholic Coalition on Climate Change and its campaign for education and action, called the Catholic Climate Covenant, works to spread education and action about climate change. The nonprofit organization, Christian Ecology, was founded specifically to form an eco-positive response to Lynn White’s argument that Christianity is at the root of the ecological crisis. Interfaith Power and Light, which organizes the Cool Congregations Challenge, was founded in 1998 with several Episcopalian congregations. Today it includes Lutherans, Baptists, Catholics, Jews, Buddhists among others and has a 1.5 million operating budget. These and many other religious organizations are making a tremendous difference.

Perhaps the potential leadership role that religions can take with regard to climate change could be compared to its role in the abolitionist movement. In the 19th century, religious leaders such as Theodore Weld and Lucretia Motts used Christianity to voice a theology of freedom and equal rights for African Americans. Publications such as The Bible Argument Against Slavery were widely circulated and had a profound impact public sentiment towards slavery. Their battle was long but ultimately successful. A hundred years later, Martin Luther King Jr. also used the church for moral appeal and as a social base to advance civil rights.

The crisis of climate change today threatens social justice in much the same way that slavery did in the 19th century. Through droughts, floods, rising sea levels, and other disasters, climate change robs the poor, third world countries, and other species that share this planet with us their right to liberty and pursuit of happiness. So far, science and politics have failed to move us on an issue in which there is little economic or political benefit. If we are to make the marked transitions needed towards a sustainable future, then it must matter to us as a moral issue. Climate change cannot only be an issue of economic or ecological sustainability, but a fundamental question of right and wrong, the way that slavery ultimately mattered as a moral issue. We are running short on time against climate change; and the contribution of religions is greatly needed in the effort to create an ecologically just world.


[i] Interfaith Power and Light 2011 Annual Report. <http://interfaithpowerandlight.org/about/mission-history/> August 23, 2012.

[ii] Orr, David. Earth in Mind. Washington DC: Island Press. 1994. p.140-41

[iii] White Jr, Lynn. “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis.” Science. Volume 155. pp. 1203-1207 <http://www.uvm.edu/~gflomenh/ENV-NGO-PA395/articles/Lynn-White.pdf&gt; August 23, 2012.

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6 thoughts on “Could Jesus Help Us Solve Climate Change?

  1. Peter Singer is less convinced that White’s solution to the ecological crisis using St. Francis of Assisi can be successful. But I agree that religion is a powerful tool to fight environmental degradation. And, if religion is partly to blame for our attitudes towards the environment, then revisions in our interpretations of religious texts and ideas should be effective in changing our attitudes.

  2. Clara …. you state my response (answer NO to can JC save the day) is unacceptable …
    it is not uncommon for those with an agenda to dispatch those who have a contrary view that upsets the repetition required to entrench a mantra …

    I have replied to your email thus
    ‘religious people have a reality problem …
    analogy …
    UN (united nations) split the world up into regions, as an example Indonesia was ‘given’ Irian Jawia … the Indonesians say they are the owners/rulers and exploit the resources of that country … they kill locally elected people who seek freedom …

    religions came along and appropriated the Universe in its operations and decreed it their god’s work and that they represent Indonesia / god … you understand ?

    I notice you’re in China, so substitute Irian Jawia with Tibet …

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