I’m not religious but I was moved by the force of what Bishop Geoff Davies said as his gentle voice of faith stormed into a thunder that rolled across the room and bounced off its walls.
“It’s extreme heresy,” he boomed. “And it must be proclaimed as such.”
He was responding to my question about the evangelical Christians who say God gave the Earth to humanity and said we could what we want with it.
This is the ‘dominion’ argument — that God gave people a licence to exploit without limit every species, every forest, river and ocean, every grain of soil and even the atmosphere and the air we breathe.
Sitting to the bishop’s right that day was Rabbi Hillel Avidan. He explained that the scripture says God created humans in his own image – and that means we should show compassion to all we share the planet with.
He said people should be wise stewards of the environment, not its dominators, and that those who think otherwise “cannot read the Bible”.
The Rabbi and the Bishop — former and current directors of the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute — were part of a panel I organised at the Climate Communications Day on the sidelines of the UN climate change conference in Durban in December 2011.
I called the session “Climate change: What’s God got to do with it?” and the short answer from the panelists was “Everything”.
Faith leaders have indeed grown more vocal about the environment and in recent years Muslims and Jews, Christians and Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs have joined hands to sign the Interfaith Declaration on Climate Change.
With around 85 percent of the world’s population claiming to belong to one of the major religions, the arrival of faith groups on the scene could have a profound effect on how humanity responds to climate change and other environmental challenges.
This could signal a shift to what Sarah Peach calls a “more-appetising hotdog” approach to climate communication — one that wraps information in a “more palatable package that will help people absorb, rather than repel, it”.
So as religious groups get involved I look forward to seeing environmental messages served more in the fresh bread of peace and love than between stale slices of doom and gloom.
But for Simon Donner, an academic at the University of British Columbia in Canada, there is a bigger problem concerning communication, climate change and religion.
He says too many scientists, governments and nongovernmental organisations ignore the thousands of years of religious and cultural history that mean even atheists can be hardwired to reject the science of climate change.
“Ongoing public certainty about climate change may be rooted in a perceived conflict between the scientific evidence for a human role in the climate and a common belief that the weather and climate are controlled by higher powers.”
This belief originated thousands of years ago and became formalised in the first agricultural societies who said that while humans managed the land the gods managed the weather.
Donner says this ancient belief may be too well-entrenched to be dug out by more messages from modern science alone, and could explain “why the public may fail to believe that climate change is real, let alone that it warrants a policy response.”
As I read Donner’s paper, it made me think how in Britain today even atheists will say “the heavens opened” when it rains. We will talk of floods “of biblical proportions” and call major storms “acts of God”.
This all suggests that instead of more purely scientific or religious statements on climate change, more interesting conversations might take place on the bridges that link the two worlds.
Yet when Donner hit Google and searched for “climate change” he found that not one of the top 50 websites maintained by governments, and intergovernmental or nongovernmental organisations mentioned religious perspectives on weather, climate or climate change.
Donner urges “humility on the part of scientists and educators” for whom years of scientific training have washed away any doubts about climate change.
“It is unreasonable to expect a lay audience, not armed with the same analytical tools as scientists, to develop lasting acceptance during a 1-hour public seminar of a scientific conclusion that runs counter to thousands of years of human belief.”
As Mary Evelyn Tucker, co-founder of the Forum on Ecology and Religion said in a interview with Yale Environment 360 this month: “Religions have been somewhat late in coming to environmental issues. But they can be crucial partners with science and policy and economics.”
For that to happen it seems that science and policy and economics will need to recognise the ways religion has shaped people’s views on the environment — even for people who are not religious. Climate change communicators will need to reflect on that instead of keeping religion at arm’s length or acting as if it does not exist.
The non-religious among us will need to remember we are in a minority, and that a scientific worldview is just a recent addition to the long story of how and why our species thinks and acts the way we do.
We will have to consider whether our irrational lack of action in the face of vast amounts of credible information about climate change is in fact rational in light of our much vaster cultural inheritance.