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Varieties of Religious Engagement with Climate Change

Date:27 September 2016
Author:Religion Factor
Varieties of Religion Engagement with Climate Change
Varieties of Religion Engagement with Climate Change

Next week, the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain, together with Studium Generale Groningen, will host  Professor Mike Hulme from King’s College London, speaking on Religion’s Role in Climate  Change.  In today’s post, Professor Hulme provides a taste of some of the issues and themes he will address in greater detail as part of his talk on Wednesday 5 October.

On the 27th April 2015, several weeks before the Vatican issued Pope Francis’ encyclical  On Care For Our Common Home , the Cornwall Alliance, an American Christian evangelical coalition, issued an open letter on climate change addressed to the Pope.[1] Whilst commending him for his care for the Earth and for God’s children, the letter raised concerns about the quality of some aspects of climate science and about the worldviews underpinning some climate policy advocacy. Interpreting the Bible as mandating a preference for the poor, the authors of the letter concluded that “… it is both unwise and unjust to adopt policies requiring reduced use of fossil fuels for energy”.[2]

Three years earlier on 22nd February 2012, Operation Noah, another Christian evangelical coalition but one based in the UK, had also issued a public statement on climate change, the so-called Ash Wednesday Declaration.[3] It challenged the church that care for God’s creation – and therefore concern about climate change – was foundational to the Christian gospel. Consciously echoing the 1934 Barmen Declaration, which gave coherence and visibility to the emergent Confessing Church during the Nazi regime, Operation Noah claimed climate change to be just such another “confessional issue.” Taking inspiration from the same Scriptures as the Cornwall Alliance, they declared, “For our generation, reducing our dependence on fossil fuels has become essential to Christian discipleship.”

These two examples spotlight the complex relationship between religion – in this case the Protestant Christian faith – and climate change. On the one hand they clearly show that the questions raised by the idea of human-caused climate change have increasingly come to occupy Christian institutions, theologians and faith-holders. But these vignettes also capture something of the diversity of religious engagements with the issue. Though appealing to the same revealed divine authority in the Bible, the Cornwall Alliance and Operation Noah reach radically different conclusions about what constitutes an appropriate response to climate change. The arguments, controversies and calls to diverse actions (and inactions) that have characterized the public (and mostly secular) discourse surrounding climate change are also to be found powerfully at work within religious communities.

Why religions matter for climate change

Researchers, policy makers, and leading scientists have recently recognized the importance of religion for understanding how people make sense of climate change and also for identifying meaningful responses to the challenges that are raised. Conversely, climate change also matters for religions, as has been succinctly argued by Anglican Bishop David Atkinson: “… the questions posed by climate change reach to the heart of faith: our relationship to God’s earth and to each other; the place of technology; questions about sin and selfishness, altruism and neighbour love; what to do with our fears and vulnerabilities; how to work for justice especially for the most disadvantaged parts of the world and for future generations”.[4]

Religious traditions influence the cosmologies of believers and, less directly, unbelievers, which in turn give shape to how people make sense of unsettling changes in their local climatic environments. Major religious faiths also possess substantial institutional and economic resources, as well as possessing significant political power.[5]Arresting climate change is not just beyond the capacities of science; it is also beyond the capacities of the state. As with other non-state actors such as businesses, cities and NGOs, religious movements and institutions have the mobilizing power to enlist and de-list multitudes of citizens in influential causes. Religious actors are key contributors to political discourses at local, national, and international levels and prominent climate activists regularly cite the importance of religious participation in international climate negotiations. Influential climate scientists have publicly called for enhanced collaboration among religious institutions, policy makers, and the scientific community (e.g. Dasgupta & Ramanathan).[6]

Religions also give substance and power to social and ethical norms, enhance social capital and valorize certain lifestyles. Many commentators have remarked that climate policies need to tap into intrinsic, deeply held values and motives if cultural innovation and change are to be lasting and effective. As the Alliance of Religions and Conservation observed in 2007: “The emphasis on consumption, economics and policy usually fails to engage people at any deep level because it does not address the narrative, the mythological, the metaphorical or the existence of memories of past disasters and the way out. The faiths are the holders of these areas and without them, policies will have very few real roots.” Religious practices can not only ameliorate hardships affecting communal life, but also animate calls for alternative value systems and lifestyles.

Convergence or divergence?

Different regions and diverse groups of stakeholders understand the threat of climate change according to particular and often distinct religious frames of reference. These religious narratives and rituals shape the nature and credibility of different knowledge claims about climate – what is happening to it and why – as well as shaping individual and communal ethical and social behaviors. Religious faith communities therefore offer “thick” accounts of moral reasoning for acting in the world, in response to climate change as much as in response to other social and ecological challenges. Such an approach sits in contrast to secular calls for mitigation and adaptation which rely upon “thin” global values: widely shared, but culturally non-specific, moral criteria.[7]

But while I would argue that religious engagement with climate change is both necessary and inevitable, it is hardly a panacea for resolving the many deep divisions and dilemmas in our world which climate change reveals. Whilst the Interfaith Statement on Climate Change or Pope Francis’ Encyclical  On Care For Our Common Home,  hold out hopeful visions for common action on climate change, there remain many sources of tension within and between different religious traditions which complicate these hopes.[8] Far from inspiring a replicable or universal response, the world’s religions are engaging the idea of climate change for diverse reasons and in divergent ways.[9] Where local groups are affected by climate change, communities necessarily respond in vernacular terms consistent with their own religious and cultural self-understandings. “Thin” global values do not fully capture the full range of concerns and commitments expressed by affected communities, for example claims about sacred landscapes, divine causality, ethical responsibility or social solidarity.

Unanswered questions

There is much yet to discover about how religious beliefs, institutions and practices around the world interact with the idea of climate change, and with what effect. A crucial first step towards forging more culturally grounded policy responses is improving public understanding of the religious heterogeneity through which climate change is experienced and politicized. Better knowledge about the overlaps and differences among religious traditions can inform climate policy and generate more effective coalition-building across diverse interests. I close by offering a number of emerging research agendas with which religious scholars and their companions might enthusiastically engage:

  • Most scholarship on Christianity and climate change has been focused on North America and Europe. Yet the most significant concentrations of Christian believers, and where growth is strongest, are in Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia. How then do African Christians, for example, bring theological reasoning to bear on the questions of poverty, ecology and technology that lie at the heart of climate change? (see Golo and Yaro, as an leading example).[10]
  • How do individual religious believers interpret doctrinal, ethical and behavioral statements on climate change issuing from faith leaders, and what range of such lay interpretations can be – and are – accommodated within religious traditions and communities? For example, empirical research should be conducted on lay readings and uses of the Pope’s 2015 Encyclical.
  • Given that Islam, with nearly 25% of the world’s population, is the second largest religion in terms of adherents, more attention should be paid to how Muslims – in faith and in practice – either engage with or potentially engage with climate change. For example, studies should track how ordinary Muslims interpret and respond to the August 2015 Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change.
  • What are effective and ineffective means of communicating the risks of climate change, as articulated by science, with people of various faiths? A recent report from the Climate Outreach and Information Network in the UK –  Messages to mobilise people of faith  – is of interest in this regard.[11]
  • Finally, to what extent can religious framings of the causes, effects and ethics of climate change be more effective in reconciling disputed positions on climate policy than can other authoritative cultural framings? Wilkinson’s 2012 study of American evangelicals could usefully be extended in other regions and to other religions.[12]

Science is never enough to resolve problems that are cultural in origin. Neither through its promise of solid and reliable knowledge, nor through its efforts to animate social movements, can science chart a course of action in the world that will resolve political contestation. The former Chairman of the IPCC, R. K. Pachauri, was therefore profoundly wrong when he claimed in November 2014 at the launch of the Synthesis Report of the IPCC’s 5th Assessment that, “All we need is the will to change, which we trust will be motivated by … an understanding of the science of climate change”.[13] Simply understanding climate science will not provide the “will to change.” On the other hand, reading climate change and accounts of human agency through the eyes of the world’s religions offers fresh insights and different inspirations about what it means to be human in an age of climate change.

Mike Hulme is Professor of Climate and Culture at King’s College London, where he is also Head of the Department of Geography. His work sits at the intersection of climate, history and culture, studying how knowledge about climate and its changes is made and represented, and analysing the numerous ways in which the idea of climate-change is deployed in public discourse around the world. His new book Weathered: Cultures of Climate is published this autumn by Sage. Previous books include Can Science Fix Climate Change? A Case Against Climate Engineering (2014) and Why We Disagree About Climate Change (2009).

This is an abridged version of an essay that was published as:

Hulme,M. (2016) Climate change: Varieties of religious engagement   pp.239-248 in:  Routledge handbook on religion and ecology  (eds.) Jenkins,W., Tucker,M.E. and Grim,J., Routledge, Abingdon, 448pp.


[1] Pope Francis (2015)  Encyclical letter: Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis – On care for our common future  Vatican Press, Rome.

[2] Cornwall Alliance (2015) An open letter to Pope Francis on Climate Change (

[3] Operation Noah 2012 Climate change and the purposes of God: a call to the church (

[4] Atkinson D. (2012) Why climate change is a confessional question (

[5] Grim J. and Tucker M.E. (2014) Ecology and religion Island Press, Washington DC.

Interfaith Summit on Climate Change (2014) Climate, faith and hope: Faith traditions together for a common future (

[6] Dasgupta P. and Ramanathan V. (2014) “Pursuit of the common good”  Science  345, 1457-1458.

[7] Wolf J. and Moser S. C. (2011) “Individual understandings, perceptions and engagement with climate change: Insights from in-depth studies across the world”  WIREs Climate Change  2:4, 547-569.

[8] Interfaith Summit on Climate Change (2014) Climate, faith and hope: Faith traditions together for a common future (

[9] Veldman R.G., Szasz A. and Haluza-Delay R. eds. (2013)  How the world’s religions are responding to climate change: Social scientific investigations  Routledge, Abingdon/New York.

[10] Golo B.-W.K. and Yaro J.A. (2013) Reclaiming stewardship in Ghana religion and climate change  Nature and Culture  8:3, 282-300.

[11] Climate Outreach and Information Network (2015) “Starting a new conversation on climate change with the European centre-right” (

[12] Wilkinson K. K. (2012)  Between God and green: How evangelicals are cultivating a middle ground on climate change  Oxford University Press, New York.

[13] IPCC (2014) Climate change threatens irreversible and dangerous impacts, but options exist to limit its effects (


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