How do religion, ethics, and climate change fit together?

September 24, 2015

Question: Climate change is something that, until recently, was only discussed within the scientific community. But now others are getting involved from all types of disciplines, including religion and ethics. So what exactly does religion and ethics have to do with climate change?

Climate change is a scientific theory that helps make sense of the observable data that includes global temperature rises, increased carbon dioxide, acidifying oceans, and ice sheet melting among others. There are ethical issues about reporting the data, but by and large, religion plays no role in establishing the science of climate change.

So how does religion fit in?

Religion as an institution helps to guide our ethical thoughts in a number of ways, but one of the most powerful is the role of religions as repositories of cultural knowledge. The stories, rituals, and artifacts that make up religious experience help to define our lives – giving them clear boundaries and purpose. This is certainly the case for followers of various faiths, who memorize stories about exemplary individuals, passing down tales that are thousands of years old. But major religious traditions have an effect on society at large, too.

Pope Francis is a great example, and this past June, he published an encyclical, a teaching letter for the church, called "Laudato Si’."

Pope Francis wrote: “Climate change is a global problem with grave implications.” The Pope did not advocate solar or wind technology, rather, he called for a “radical change” in our relationship with the earth and all its creatures: “Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last 200 years.”

The encyclical is not some radical new teaching; religions don’t do “new” very well. Rather, it tries to put the current debate over climate into an old frame. The Pope is trying to remind us of what is important (our earthly home, our relationships to one another, our connection to nature) so that we can make the right decisions for the future.

This process of remembering what is important in life is exactly what religions do best. For example, Yom Kippur, a day of atonement in Judaism, is a time outside of the normal day-to-day rat race, a time to reflect. All religious traditions have similar ways of reminding us what matters in life.

How does ethics fit in?

Where ethics comes in most clearly is with the key question: what are we going to do about climate change? Ethical considerations include:

  • Intergenerational justice: what kind of a world should we leave to future generations?
  • Speciesism: what right do human beings have to a lifestyle that is causing extinction of nonhumans?
  • Fairness: is it okay for the average American to produce 20 tons of carbon pollution each year, when Europeans produce only 10? When one quarter of the world’s population produces none?

These ethical arguments are available for everyone to consider, and being religious is certainly no guarantee of acting ethically. But the framework that religions provide helps to put larger, long-term considerations in front of short-term, individual concerns. People don’t like change, and there is no question that responding to climate change will mean some sacrifices: less travel, cooler homes in winter, warmer offices in summer. We must cut our dependency on fossil fuels, and being more energy conscious is one way to get there.

But religions know all about sacrifice. Whether it’s giving food to the poor during Ramadan or putting money in the offering plate in church, religions teach us “it is better to give than to receive.” Every one of the great religious leaders, from Abraham and Jesus to Martin Luther King and Gandhi, were examples of sacrifice for the good of others.

So can we do the right thing about our changing climate without religion? Absolutely! But Pope Francis’ encyclical is so powerful because he is using religious stories to motivate people around the world to act. Hopefully, his appearances in Washington and Philadelphia will motivate some of the more than 3 million Pennsylvania Catholics to start engaging in “a healthy relationship with creation.” If he is successful, then we could see a significant change in our country’s response to climate change.

  • Jonathan Brockopp portrait

    Jonathan Brockopp directs an initiative on religion and ethics for Penn State’s Rock Ethics Institute.

    IMAGE: Penn State

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated May 19, 2016