Time for faith in our environment

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.

Donner’s recent paper in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (PDF here and blog post here), argues that:

“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.

10 thoughts on “Time for faith in our environment

  1. Great post Mike. I spent some time talking to Bishop Geoff in Durban — and dragged my butt out bed very early to make sure I could do this piece: “End Carbon Apartheid, Say African Faith Groups” http://www.ips.org/TV/cop17/end-carbon-apartheid-say-african-faith-groups/

    The Bishop said: The U.S is the most religious society in the world but their behaviour is “sinful” in their refusal to reduce emissions that is causing so much suffering among people.

    I know Simon and we have chatted about these issues previously but hadn’t seen his paper or blog so thanks for that. Taking action on climate has little to do with science or more information. What then is the role of media?

  2. Thanks Mike.

    We have the so-called ‘scared groves’ in some Indian forests. The point is that by designating them ‘sacred’ it ensured that they are not tampered with and/or destroyed, which is another means of conservation. Worth mulling whether the end justifies the means sometimes, even if we are not religious ourselves (I am not :-).

  3. Interesting article, Mike. It reminded me of a theory I was surprised to find during a climate change fellowship in the USA a month ago. I didn’t think I was going to find such an amount of people denying climate change. In South Carolina, for example, there’s a religious theory that says something about the earth warming because it is a place of sin. People shouldn’t do anything to control the climate variability because it is something sent from God. Good people will go to heaven anyway and there won’t be any global warming, according to this theory. I was very surprised to see that usually the people who mentioned God in my interviews were ‘not believers’ in climate change.
    This really got my attention because I remembered last year in Mexico someone mentioning something about the link between religion and ethics and how it could help the climate change cause.
    Best wishes for 2012. I hope to see you in COP18


  4. Nice post, Mike, very thoughtful.

    It’s long past an all-hands-on deck moment, so anyone coming to the side of must-act-now is welcome.

    But I’m increasingly of the opinion that some people just don’t WANT to acknowledge the reality of climate change, some for traditional religious reasons (the way they interpret the “dominion” verse), some for reasons of faith-based free-market ideology (an inheritance of the supposedly anti-religious Enlightenment).

    (I’d add that I think it’s counterproductive for journalists to talk of “belief” in climate change, as though it were the existence of an incorporeal soul; we really are talking about simply acknowledging the facts of disappearing ice sheets, melting glaciers and rising seas, just for starters. But the existence of mutating viruses doesn’t seem to require people to “believe in” evolution, either.)

    I think the only thing that that changes people’s minds about climate change is when bad stuff starts happening to them. For many people, even that won’t do it. But journalists have to double down efforts on reporting these changes, even as we inform those who do acknowledge climate change what must be done to prepare for it and try to alleviate its worsening.

    Thanks for the post.

    Bill O’Driscoll

  5. Thanks for this, Mike, and for inviting SAFCEI to participate in the climate communications day.

    The Donner arguments are interesting, but I tend to think he’s wrong. Inherent conservatism on this issue is probably a very small factor alongside the huge confusion bought and paid for by the fossil fuel lobby. In some cautious policy and scientific circles, there seems to be immense denial over or ignorance of the nature and extent of the climate change denial propaganda industry, an industry bought and paid for by big oil and coal, which is incredibly well-documented for those who care to acknowledge it.

    Also, as recent research has shown, climate denial is to quite a substantial degree, a phenomenon only in English-speaking countries where the propaganda wars have been most intense. But if Donner’s hypothesis is correct, then there would be no such skewing. What’s more, there wouldn’t be the see-sawing of public opinion on the issue clearly visible in US polls.

    Quite the contrary, in fact: in many religious traditions, disturbances “in the heavens” are indeed related to the misdeeds of human beings. In my own Buddhist tradition, it is believed that it is the pursuit of misleading beliefs that cause disturbances in the natural realm. In other words, weird weather is completely within the realm of human responsibility. In the modern context, these misleading beliefs have nothing do with one’s choice of superstitions, as the religious sceptic may imagine: misleading beliefs include the notion that you can add unlimited amounts of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere without there being any effect on climatic stability!

    A colleague tells a heart-breaking story of pygmies in central Africa who for years have been conducting rituals to try to appease “the spirits that seem to be so unhappy with them”, which is how they have explained climate disturbances. When they heard that human beings are causing climate change (and that they were not directly responsible themselves), and the mechanisms were explained to them, they had no difficult accepting this.

    Generally in Africa, it’s only urban elites, cut off from the rhythms of natural life – white South Africans, in my experience – who deny climate change. But most people who are close to the land accept that it’s happening and have no problem with the scientific explanations.

    It’s also my experience that secular technocrats, perhaps recently influenced by the sophistry and parodies of religion circulated by the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens, have an exaggerated sense of the “irrationality” of people of faith. (Of course, many of their specific criticisms are legitimate – but they come to all the wrong conclusions: asking people to throw out religion wholesale shows about as much understanding of human nature as would asking them to stop having sex.)

    Yes, there are many science deniers in the realm of faith – but a great many other people of faith have no difficulty reconciling that faith with scientific truth – or with recognising that the fossil fuel industry is now waging war against humanity and Mother Earth: genocide and ecocide. These companies should be indicted in international courts for crimes against humanity.

    All that said, Donner’s suggestion that scientists should make their arguments with humility is helpful. Problems that have been created by a rampant technocratic culture will not be solved unless that culture itself changes dramatically.

  6. I am much of the belief that our environment has been damaged beyond repair and the natural disasters and global temperature rise are the repercussions of humankinds inability to curb their insatiable appetite for fossil fuels, power and money. Led by powerful corporations, backed by governments and exploited by man, our environment has been warning us for decades of it’s inability to support and withstand the attack and rape of it’s core. Eventually, we will be unable to ignore the symptoms of our dying planet and Mother Nature will take over with it’s own healing processes to eliminate the cancer of man, leaving us with minimal habitable regions. I am not a religious person. If I was to state a religion it would be Wicca, to do no harm to any living thing, to give and take equally and to live naturally, peacefully and in harmony with our world and all that reside on its surface.

  7. Time for faith indeed! Science has completely let us down, and can clearly no longer be trusted. The claims of the IPCC are demonstrably exaggerated and lack a proper scientific foundation. Perhaps religion has something to say about this mess, and the moral turpitude of the scientists who led us up this blind alley. Why did no-one ask them who they thought they were, playing God and telling us they could predict what the weather might do? For example, how many must die of malaria before someone who has been paid millions because he said it was caused by climate change is hauled into court and charged with ecoterrorism? Malaria and temperature are essentially unrelated – ask the 20 000 Siberians who died the year their village recorded the coldest temperature ever recorded in the N Hemisphere!

    • Iceman your comments are classic stuff from denierville – ridiculous, inaccurate and ‘oh my god Gore is criminal genius mastermind who’s deceived the entire world!!!’

    • Hi Iceman. Thanks for popping over and leaving a comment.

      Record cold temperatures at specific locations do not disprove an overall rise in global temperatures. That’s the difference between weather and climate, or between short-term variability and a long-term trends (as shown in this video).

      The rise in temperature over time has been observed and recorded by independent research, including by one team led by Professor Richard Muller at the University of California at Berkeley. Before his study Muller was what many people would call a climate-change skeptic — or sceptic here in the UK : ) . Andy Revkin has a good summary of the story at his Dot Earth blog.

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