The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


Climate Change and Pagans

This is another in my series on climate change and religion in the US. I have already written on Catholicism, evangelical Christianity, mainline Protestant Christianity, African-American Protestant Christianity, and Islam.

American paganism is misunderstood, hard to define, and, for many, plain unfamiliar. It is the subject of active discrimination in some circles, to the extent that many pagans hide their religion for their own safety–a measure of how different the pagan continuum is from the religious experience of most Americans.

Related to that discrimination is the fact that it’s possible to discredit someone by accusing them of paganism (or witchcraft, or anything related). Sometimes environmentalists are accused of being pagan in this sense. The implied–and much more problematic–accusation is that environmentalism is pagan.

Some pagan environmentalists would, of course, agree that environmentalism is pagan, in much the same way that a Christian might say that ministering to the poor and the sick is Christian. But imagine a country in which Christians are suspect and the problem becomes clearer to see; perhaps some Roman aristocrat, on the way home from the Colosseum, decided that if charity is Christian than he certainly wasn’t going to give any of his money away….

So, to be clear, environmentalism is not pagan, any more than individualism, compassion, or creativity are. Probably, most American environmentalists are Christians.

Defining Paganism

Technically, “pagan” just means “not Christian,” or sometimes “non-Judeo-Christian.” In the US and in some other places, the word usually replies to the neopagan movement, a large group of religions and religious sects that generally attempt to revive or re-imagine the pre-Christian traditions from Europe. The most well-known of these religions is Wicca. Some pagans call themselves witches (a male witch is also a witch), but others do not.

Most of what most people know about these religions is wrong.

The neopagan religions are not, as a group, organized. Most are not organized in any sense. There is no one with the authority to tell pagans what to believe or do, and no one with the authority to say who is pagan and who is not. Even consulting polls is problematic, because pagans are not always willing to identify themselves to pollsters. And there aren’t very many of us, so pollsters don’t always bother to ask. Probably, around 0.2% of the American population is neopagan in one way or another.

Fortunately, I am pagan, and therefore know something about it already.

It is important to reiterate that there is more than one neopagan religion and that their edges are fluid and fuzzy. For example, is an agnostic who celebrates the winter solstice pagan? What about a witch who casts spells but doesn’t believe in the gods? Or a New Age practitioner who worships Jesus and his wife, Mary Magdalene? Are people who follow traditional Native American practices or African Diaspora religions, like Santeria or Voudou, pagans in this sense of the word, or is there some important difference to be respected there? There are many answers to these questions–probably as many answers as there are pagans.  It is important to approach any study of the movement with this fluidity and fuzziness in mind.

I’m not going to describe the neopagan movement in any detail here. There are plenty of books and websites on the subject already. As a broad generalization, neopagan religions tend to be polytheistic, egalitarian, and individualistic. Most have no concept of the devil, and may lack a conception of evil. Neopagans tend to be both feminist and socially liberal. Many (though not all) are “Earth-centered,” meaning that they recognize the Earth as inherently sacred or even divine.

Pagans as Climate Activists

Earth-centered religions have obvious doctrinal support for environmental action; the Earth is sacred. And perhaps because most of these religions are only a few decades old, there is no conflict between ancient cosmology and modern science–neopagans might question, or even abandon mainstream science (many believe in magic), but that is an expression of resistance to having a set cosmology, a kind of radical open-mindedness. There is no reason for a neopagan to doubt climate science and I know of none who do.

But do pagans actually act on that support to do something about climate change?

Well, this one does–I write this blog. But this blog is not religious in nature and, before today, there was nothing in it to suggest its author’s religion. The same is probably true of most other pagan environmentalists, people going about acting on their conscience without ever discussing their religious lives publicly–either because it isn’t safe or because it just isn’t relevant.

Many neopagans are either unaffiliated with any religious organization, or they practice in small, private groups. Organized groups of pagans exist, but they under-represent the whole. Lacking anything analogous to a church, most pagans cannot engage in climate action in anything except a personal or secular capacity–they may be motivated by an underlying religious conviction, but it is hard to know that without asking. That makes it hard to find out what the impact of paganism on climate action really is.

Here, again, the “fuzziness” of neopaganism is relevant, for while a climate activist might be pagan without showing it, he or she might also show paganism without being it. For example, at my graduate school, the environmental studies department (that is, the department actively training people to do something about climate change) had a tradition of beginning each semester (and occasionally marking other significant events) by ceremonially reenacting this history of the universe in mythic terms–the stage right before the Big Bang was the Cosmic Egg, for example. That ceremony was non-denominational Neopagan in both flavor and structure, to the point that at least one Christian student chose not to attend. Nor was that ceremony the only pagan element of the school’s traditions. Yet the only member of the department’s faculty to identify his religion publicly was Christian. Generally, no one, faculty or student, talked about religion one way or the other. My guess is that most were agnostic or atheist and that they participated in the school’s traditions as a form of play, or out of a vague sense that it resonated with aspects of their private spirituality. The school could not be said to be religious.

And yet, public play that resonates with private, unspoken, spirituality is very pagan.  The neopagan movement takes much of its inspiration from a form of religion that was based in community tradition and in those cultures’ equivalent of scientific knowledge–their understanding of how the world worked and why. The original European pagans probably conducted their ceremonies in exactly the same spirit that my grad school did. We may have been what a neopagan community acting on climate change looks like.

Bringing It All Together

There are neopagans writing or speak publicly about climate change in a religious context. I have not done a rigorous study of such work, but most of what I have encountered consists of pagans exploring how pagan ideas map onto what science tells us about climate change. They are not calling for other pagans to get involved, nor are they wrestling with whether climate change is real or important, possibly because they regard both as forgone conclusions. Rather, the underlying question seems to be whether neopagan practice has anything of its own to add to the conversation.

It is possible that looking for self-declared pagan climate activists is beside the point.

Perhaps paganism as a group of religions is hard to define because it is and always  has been a default category applied by other people–pagans are those who are not Christian, not Jewish, not Muslim, and so forth. Perhaps our society as a whole is growing towards a realization that the Earth is sacred–that is, that it is of central and existential importance to us as humans. Each religion expresses that realization in a different way, and the growing popularity of Earth-centered religions among what might be called ceremonially inclined religious individualists is just another expression of that movement.

In other words, neopagans do not lead, drive, define, or even exemplify caring about the planet. But the societal shift that made that caring possible made us possible as well.


Climate Change and Black Protestants

This is the fifth installment of my series on climate change and religion. I have already covered Catholicism, evangelical Protestant Christianity, mainline Protestant Christianity, and Islam. I am neither a member of any of these traditions nor a religious scholar. I write, not as an expert, but as an interested outsider who knows more than she used to and wants to share.

A Matter of Definitions

Pollsters who study religion in America sometimes subdivide each religion by race or ethnicity, writing about white and Hispanic Catholics as separate, for example. That is not what I mean by black Protestants–Protestants who happen to have some admixture of African heritage. Instead, I’m referring to the historically black churches, a group of interrelated religious traditions with close ties to the evangelical movement, yet distinct in its doctrine, its practice, and its culture. Generally, the black churches have a much stronger focus on social justice and a more community-based concept of salvation. There are black members of both evangelical and mainline Protestant churches, but they are not what I’m talking about here. There are also white members of historically black churches.

The black churches do not derive their historical identity from segregation alone, the way the Negro Leagues or the historically black colleges did–as places black people could go because they were not welcome elsewhere. Instead, the black churches generally split off of their own volition, in part because white preachers tended to justify racism and even slavery from the pulpit. The fact that many traditionally white churches now welcome black members has not caused the black churches to evaporate because these religious traditions have developed a particular doctrinal viewpoint that reflects the African-American experience.

Green and Other Colors

While I’m specifically defining black Protestant in religious rather than racial terms, it seems disingenuous at best to avoid the subject of race in this article. Full disclosure; I am white and I grew up almost exclusively among white people. I was raised specifically by white liberals and sent to liberal private schools where our teachers diligently taught us about the Underground Railroad and the Civil Rights Movement–but never taught us to think about race in the present tense. Our student body was less than 10% black, half what our local public school system had, and I never heard anybody talk about why. I am gradually learning to leave such possibly willful ignorance behind.

I was always under the impression that environmentalism is a white-person thing, the kind of preoccupation that might turn up in one of those satirical “Stuff White People Like” books. I went hiking and saw only white people on the trail. I joined trail crews and met only white people there. I joined environmentalist organizations and got a degree in conservation biology and again–all white. Or, not all white, but in each of these cases, those brown faces I encountered usually belonged to Africans, Caribbeans, or otherwise not United States black people.

However, while researching for this series I found polls showing clearly that religious identity has much less to do with attitudes towards climate than does racial identity, at least among Christians. White Catholics, evangelicals, and mainline Protestants all show essentially identical numbers–none have much concern over climate. Black Protestants (apparently the pollsters did mean Protestants who are black) and Hispanic Catholics were both dramatically different–they believe in climate change and care about it. It seems as though climate denial is among the “stuff white people like.” I even found a serious article saying so.

Generally speaking, if the mainstream environmental movement has alienated non-whites, it is because of its persistent refusal to acknowledge social justice and racial justice issues. To a certain extent, that translates into a white environmentalist avoidance of environmental justice issues that are more relevant to many communities of color. But more insidiously, racism, both overt and systemic, exists within both environmental organizations and related government agencies such that is very hard for people of color to get higher level jobs in these industries–and the liberal white people who do get those higher level jobs tell each other that black people just don’t care about the environment.

Black Protestants and Climate Change

One reason why black Protestants tend to care so much more about climate change than other Protestant groups may be precisely that so many of them are black; environmental disasters are disproportionately likely to happen to black people. Partly, that is because disadvantaged people tend to be shuffled towards dangerous places, such as those parts of New Orleans that were below the water level of the adjacent canals. Everybody knew those canals were going to burst; as a child in Newark, Delaware, I knew virtually nothing about New Orleans–I could not have found it on a map–but I knew those canals were going to burst and flood the place. So why were people there? Second, when disasters happen, society tends to get a lot more honest, for better or worse. In New Orleans again, certain white residents used the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as an opportunity to go sport-hunting black people. Many of those murders were simply never investigated. Climate change shows its face to humans largely through an increased risk of natural disasters–that risk is personal for Black Americans in a way that it simply isn’t for most white Americans.

The black churches themselves, like other climate-conscious churches, discuss environmental responsibility as a religious duty in terms of both stewardship of God’s earth and the social justice component of Christian teachings–including the idea that “as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to Me.”

Or, at least, so said one website on the subject. I have found lots of information on how climate-friendly the black churches are, but no sites on which self-identified black churches talk about climate. I imagine I would have to look up specific denominations, as I did for mainline Protestants. I’m not going to, because it seems very likely they would say much the same things that the mainline Protestant websites do. The entire Protestant continuum works with the same doctrinal raw material and therefore finds much the same reasons to care about climate. What makes the Black churches different is that more of their members actually do think climate is important.

Into Action

It would be interesting to list climate action projects organized or sponsored by historically black churches. The numbers on climate attitudes among both parishioners and preachers suggest that these exist, and there are interdenominational climate action initiatives of various kinds. However, to do that story properly, I’d need to go considerably beyond the scope of this article. But there is a more obvious example of black Protestant climate concern in action.

President Obama is the first American President to make climate sanity a major part of his policy and the first to fight deniers on the subject as fiercely as he has. If the conference in Paris later this year does sign a politically binding agreement to lower global greenhouse gas emissions, the American most directly responsible will be Barack Obama. He’s also a Protestant. And he’s black. Is this a coincidence?

Whether the President is also a black Protestant in the sense I have used in this article is outside of the scope of this article–it may not even be a meaningful question, because of how fluid Protestant religious identity is. Mr. Obama did attend an African-American church in the past and caught serious political flake over certain comments by its preacher during his first campaign. As President, however, he invites spiritual council from a variety of sources.

But he is a deeply–and largely privately–spiritual man. It is difficult to believe that fighting Congress on climate as he has is not something he prayed over. Is it possible that the African-American religious tradition specifically supports his conviction that this issue matters?

The timeline of the climate crisis is such that meaningful greenhouse emissions reduction has to happen now. And global climate politics depends upon the leadership of the United States because everybody in the world knows we caused the problem in the first place. Is it possible that the world hinges now on the fact that America elected a black man?


Climate Change and Mainline Protestants

This is another in my series on climate change and religion. I have already written about Catholicism, Evangelical Christianity, and Islam. I am not a religious scholar and I do not want to represent myself as an expert on any of these faiths and practices. Rather, I am applying a somewhat unusual focusing lens to the readily available information on each; how different religious traditions relate to climate change.

Religion is a major force in American culture and politics, as is true for many other countries (depending on the definition of “religion,” all countries might be said to depend on it, but that is another topic). Religion both influences personal belief and reflects it–and religious identity is often the most obvious clue to deeper cultural and ethnic rifts, the fault line across which people standing in the same room might as well be living in different universes because of the basic misunderstandings between them. We need to be able to communicate on climate change; we therefore need to consider climate change and religion.

Climate change is, of course, not a matter of belief–except for the fact that some people disbelieve in it, sometimes in accordance with their religious views. More importantly, science can only tell us that climate change is real. Science cannot tell us what climate change means in a moral or existential sense–that is what religion is for.

Some Definitions

Mainline Protestant Christianity is best defined by what it is not–it is not evangelical or fundamentalist. These are churches with strong theological ties to the Protestant Reformation, not to the later religious movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In terms of doctrine, mainline churches tend to regard the Bible as requiring interpretation and many encourage the baptism of infants (evangelicals do not, maintaining that baptism is for those who already believe in Christ). But there is a great deal of overlap between the two groups; some denominations have both evangelical and mainline wings. Whether a person identifies as evangelical or mainline depends on the wording of the question.

According to polls, the population of the United States is anywhere from 13% to 18% mainline Protestant, fewer people than identify as either evangelical or Catholic. At one time, the mainline churches were the dominant form of Christianity in the United States, but they are now steadily losing ground to the evangelical churches. Overall, this means a conservative shift in American Protestantism.

Protestant Christianity is, in general, descriptive rather than proscriptive–there is no central authority able to define belief and practice, as there is in Catholicism, because the distinctions between denominations are fluid. That is, a particular denomination may have its own orthodoxy and regard other churches as apostate or simply not truly Christian, most individuals can switch denominations at will, without being perceived as changing religions. This freedom to vote with the feet on doctrine means that the only way to find out what Protestant beliefs are is to ask Protestants.

Mainline Protestants on Climate Change

According to polls, mainline Protestants tend not to be concerned about climate changebut they are more concerned, as a group, than other white Christians.

The poll I’m using subdivides both Protestants and Catholics by race, yielding five categories of Christian: Hispanic Catholic, white Catholic, black Protestant, white evangelical, and white mainline. This system is both curious and questionable for several reasons, most of which I will not explore here. For the most part, American Christianity is not organized along racial lines. There is only one Catholic Church and it does not have separate Anglo and Hispanic wings.

But the poll data is interesting. Taken as a whole, the Catholic Church is very climate aware, as I’ve written before. Not only is Pope Francis a powerful climate ally, but in polls American Catholics express more concern for climate than either evangelical or mainline Protestants. But when the pollsters separate Catholics by race, the white group ends up looking almost exactly like the evangelical and mainline Protestants–which are numerically and culturally dominated by white people. It appears that white Christians, regardless of denomination, drag their feet on climate in a way that no other group defined by the polls does. And I don’t know why.

(Before I get a lot of angry comments, I’m not saying ALL white Christians are climate deniers–my husband is a white Methodist and he bought a hybrid before it was cool. I’m saying that there is apparently a racial dimension to American attitudes on climate that transcends the religious dimension. And it could be important.)

Of course, there are leaders within the mainline Protestant community who are active environmentalists and who ground their environmental concern in their faith for much the same reasons that Catholic and evangelical environmentalists do.

It can be difficult to get more in-depth information on mainline Protestants as a whole, probably because few people really self-identify as such–the group is defined as those Protestants who do not self-identify as something else. I have therefore looked for information on several specific mainline denominations. This review is by no means exhaustive or even necessarily representational of the variety of belief and practice out there. It’s just some of the things some mainline Protestants are doing with respect to climate.


The Episcopal Church has published an official statement on climate change, acknowledging that it is real but that church members should not give in to despair because “God has not Abandoned His creation.” The language is heartfelt but somewhat ambiguous. Some of the Church’s leadership’s actions are much more straightforward, including backing conservation-related legislation and supporting emissions-reductions efforts in developing countries by donating money.

However, many Episcopalian congregations have not yet signed on to the denomination’s climate efforts and there has been substantial pushback from church members in some areas–interestingly, many of them complain that climate change does not seem like a religious issue or that it is too political to address in church. Some pastors report being told by congregants that church (defined as what they do and think about on Sundays while attending services) should be separate from the rest of life and that pastors should not tell them how to live. I do not know how widespread that attitude is among Episcopalians.

And yet other congregants and the Church leadership keep pushing. The Episcopal Church has a long history of environmental leadership–it officially opposed drilling and mining in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge in 1991. And if some of the pushback against environmentalism sounds a bit unusual, the Episcopal Church also has a theological justification for environmental concern that I have not encountered before–that Jesus said to love our neighbors and that some of our neighbors are animals and plants.


The United Methodist Church has, as a “global church community” issued a resolution that human-caused climate change is real and is a problem and that church members should do something about it and encourage others to act as well. Representatives of the UMC marched as an identifiable block within the People’s Climate March (I saw them there). United Methodist Women, a missionary organization associated with the Church, has written accurately and movingly about climate change on its website.  The group describes the problem as a moral issue, tying it to both social justice and a sacramental understanding of nature as God’s creation.


The Lutheran World Federation is organizing a monthly fast leading up to the IPCC meeting in Paris later this year. The organization also called for increased climate advocacy on the part of Lutheran churches after the meeting in Lima, which the body criticized as not taking climate change seriously enough. A grassroots Lutheran environmental organization exists to support individuals and congregations with what it calls “earthkeeping.”


The Presbyterian Church (USA) published an accurate and serious position paper on climate change (and ozone depletion) in 1990. The paper called for the United States to take leadership on emissions reductions and for individual Americans to support that process through lifestyle change. The statement is not overtly theological or religious is nature. The Presbyterian Mission Agency provides support and information to Presbyterian faith-based activists on a number of environmental issues, including climate change–and its website does describe climate action in theological terms, as a way of “keeping the garden” as God asked. In 2006, the Church’s representative General Assembly voted for the Church as a whole to become carbon-neutral. Not surprisingly, such assertive environmentalism is not without controversy–some church members see economic and social benefit from continuing to exploit coal, for example. But such arguments sound distinctly secular and not different from the ways that any other group of people might disagree on how to handle worldly problems.

I can’t find any word on whether the Church (meaning not just its institutions but also its entire membership) has gone carbon neutral, or any report on their progress thus far, but the Church website does have a guide members can use in their efforts to achieving that goal.


“Quaker” is the nickname for a member of the Religious Society of Friends. I have heard that it was originally coined as an insult, but the Quakers themselves have appropriated the term and use it freely. In fact, although a Quaker congregation or a Quaker service is properly called a Friends Meeting, I am aware of no other way to refer to a member of such a group besides “a Quaker.” I know and have known several Quakers, and while I do not know if they are representative of their faith, I have always been impressed by them as individuals.

The Quakers have a long history of activism in social justice–they were very active in the anti-slavery movement, for example, and in various peace movements. During the Civil War, some Quaker men were imprisoned and abused by the United States government for their principled refusal to bear arms (or to pay for anyone to take their place). It is therefore not especially surprising that the Religious Society of Friends would get involved in climate sanity–I saw a contingent of them at the People’s Climate March, and finding articles and blogs on climate issues by Quakers is easy. Oddly enough, I have not been able to find an actual statement of policy on the subject by American Quakers. I did find a moving statement on the Quakers in Britain site, which described the issue in social justice terms and describes the environmental problem as a symptom of larger economic and social issues.

Bringing It All Together

So, I set out to read up on the responses of five mainline Protestant denominations and find that all five are more or less on it. I did not find a single climate-denial site identified with any of these denominations (doesn’t mean there aren’t any, only that they don’t rank well in search results). Nor did I encounter any reports of mainline climate activists having their faith questioned by their co-religionists (as does happen to evangelical climate activists and scientists). Only among Episcopalians did I encounter any stories of pushback, and those frankly sounded more like grumpy apathy than any kind of religiously motivated resistance.

So, where are all those white Protestants who disavow climate concern in polls?

Logically we might assume that these five denominations are dominated by black people, since the polls report a lot of environmental concern among black Protestants, except that they aren’t–these are majority white groups (there are also historically black Methodist denominations, but that isn’t the same organization). It’s also possible that since I only covered five denominations, I happened not to pick the churches where the deniers are. That, too, seems unlikely.

I am guessing that, as with the Episcopalians, the pro-climate sanity leadership of each denomination is encountering some degree of foot-dragging and pushback from among their followers. I am further guessing that I saw no direct evidence of that for some combination of three reasons: the dissenters could be disorganized, without leaders of their own inclined to speak and write publicly; climate deniers in mainline congregations could be in the process of migrating to evangelical churches; or maybe the lack of concern is fundamentally not religious or even not ideologically based at all. The people who register lack of concern in those polls might be unconcerned either way and just interested in going about their lives.

But guesswork aside, what we know is that a lot of white mainline Protestants do not care about climate, even though the leadership of their churches say otherwise. Why not? What message isn’t getting through? Can we help?




Keystone Again

The Keystone XL Pipeline is back in the news.

For months, President Obama has been holding off making a decision about the pipeline, pending the results of a court case in Nebraska. A week and a half ago, that case was thrown out of court, ending one chapter of the story and beginning the next.

The case involved a state law that approved the pipeline route through the state and gave TransCanada the power of eminent domain. According to that law, if the pipeline corridor crosses your land in Nebraska, you can’t do anything about it. Three landowners fought back with a lawsuit claiming that such decisions should not be made by the legislature and governor but by the Public Service Commission. While a county court agreed with them, the state Supreme Court threw the case out because, somewhat bizarrely, the landowners don’t have standing to sue in this matter.

The new Republican-dominated Congress has meanwhile made it their first priority to pass a Federal law requiring approval of the pipeline at the Federal level. The House of Representatives has passed such a measure at least three times already, but it has always been defeated in the Senate. This time, with the same party in charge of both houses, the bill is likely to pass the Senate as well–not that it matters. To pass a bill requiring a President to do something he does not want to do is a bit silly, considering that the President has veto power.

The Senate is currently in the early stages of what will likely be a long, drawn out debate on the issue, with various individuals tacking various largely symbolic amendments on to the bill. Democrats have added an amendment that would acknowledge that climate change is real, a neat trick. Republicans have countered with an amendment that would prevent the EPA from considering climate in environmental impact assessments. If the Senate passes a bill that includes both these clauses, what kind of message will that send?

For so much time and effort to go into a bill that does not have the votes to override Mr. Obama’s promised veto is bizarre. It isn’t, after all, as though Congress doesn’t have anything else to do. For Republicans, Keystone seems to have gained nearly the same symbolic weight as the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”). Why?

The Republican version of the Keystone story is that the pipeline will lower American energy prices and provide a large number of much-needed jobs if only Mr. Obama will get out of the way.  The Party has a long history of public concern over the unemployment rate. But estimating the number of jobs a pipeline will create is notoriously difficult–even the number of short-term construction jobs could end up being much lower than proponents claim. The State Department estimates that only 35 permanent jobs will be created. It is even possible that the pipeline could ultimately increase regional unemployment, if large numbers of people move into the area to take temporary construction jobs and are then laid off.

As to energy prices, pipelines in general don’t stabilize prices, and Canadian oil flowing through pipes to Texas for export does not directly effect American energy availability anyway.

If global warming and the likelihood of oil spills were not factors, the Keystone XL pipeline might well be at least marginally good for the American economy, but not to the extent that would justify the priority Republicans have placed on it. And that other major Republican bastion, defense against government “meddling,” should be totally at odds with the prospect of eminent domain–the Governor of Nebraska has given a foreign-owned company permission to take people’s land, essentially for its own benefit. Why isn’t the radical right up in arms about this?

The cynical might guess that, once again the Republican Party is kowtowing to Big Business–that concern over jobs, energy, and regulatory relief are all thinly veiled code words for a basic corporate friendliness. The cynical may have a point. And yet, in this case the most obvious beneficiaries of building the pipeline would be the Canadian oil industry. Is this a case of Big Business transcending boarders?

It may be, but my guess is that this is about narrative.

The Republican Party is trying to control the narrative, trying to be the one whose framing of events the public accepts. From that perspective, it is irrelevant whether Keystone XL helps the American economy and it is nearly irrelevant whether the pipeline even gets built. Votes in the House that go no place still count as strikes in the larger cultural war.

Why Keystone? Because liberals care about it.

Critics sometimes point out that for all the furor around the Keystone XL, other pipelines are being built across the country with little or no fuss. As a line in the sand, this one looks arbitrary to some. In point of fact, some of the other pipeline projects do receive a share of controversy, most people just never hear about it. Moreover, there is indeed a reason to focus on Keystone; out of all the pipeline projects, it is the one that President Obama has the power to say no to, because it crosses an international border. Mr. Obama constituency is the entire country and he is just one person. A national movement can speak to him in a way it couldn’t if final decisive power lay in the hands of dozens of state and local officials. And the President does actually pay attention to environmental issues. In order words, this one is winnable in a way that the fights over other pipelines may not be.

But all that being said, if KXL is defeated, a very large and multifaceted minority will celebrate a huge symbolic victory.

It seems likely that the Republican Party, which is very corporate-friendly, is trying to prevent that victory. They are also gunning for a national debate in which the economy represents the highest imaginable good, clean water and clean air are not considered relevant or important, and the homes, livelihoods, and families of farmers, ranchers, and indigenous peoples do not have meaningful standing.

If they achieve such a limitation of parameters, there are fights more important than one 36-inch pipeline that they can and will win.

It is true that much of the discussion around Keystone has been tangential to climate change, the main point of this blog. But within this one story are all the major sub-themes that govern what is going on in the atmosphere:

  • Who benefits from environmentally risky or destructive practices?
  • Who makes decisions about the use of land and other resources?
  • Who pays for environmental accidents when (not if) they occur?
  • What is the responsibility of those who use petroleum products, thereby creating demand?

And, perhaps most importantly,

  • Of all the things the United States has traditionally called its own, which are we willing to give up and why?

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No Answer to the Wrong Question

This is a re-post of an article originally published on the old Climate Emergency blog. It’s a little out of date by now, but its central arguments are still quite relevant.

My thesis adviser likes to warn students against finding “a great answer to the wrong question.” He means, I think, that scientists should not rely on scientific method alone. Following all the right steps can still get you lost if you set out in the wrong direction to begin with. More generally, there is the danger run by anyone, scientist or otherwise, in missing the point, failing to grasp which aspect of a situation is really the one to watch–like collecting statistics on unwed motherhood, when you are actually concerned about is unprepared motherhood. Or, as many of us have recently done, asking whether the current batch of freakish weather is due to global warming.

Some weeks ago, my husband and I were taking a walk on a warm and lovely night in early December (which is not typically a warm and lovely month in our area), and he said something about global warming. Then he corrected himself, reminding both of us that, as he puts it, “weather is what you wear today, climate is all the clothes you’ve got in your closet.” Put it another way, climate is the tide, and weather is the waves. Asking which waves are due to tidal change is clearly silly; none of them are, all waves are influenced equally by the tide. And yet, it is often an unexpectedly high wave that alerts beachgoers it is time to move the umbrella and blanket.

2011 was a bizarre year, weather-wise, and 2010 wasn’t all that complacent, either. According the PBS Newshour’s December, 28th broadcast, 2011 brought record-breaking floods, heat-waves, and tornadoes to the United States, plus severe snowfall and drought. Typically, each year will have three to four major weather-related disasters. This past year we had twelve, breaking a previous record of eight set only three years earlier.

Unfortunately, according to a New York Times article published on December 12th, climate scientists are unable to provide a definitive answer as to whether the recent extreme weather is linked to climate change. Apparently, a combination of general economic woe and specific political hostility severely limits the research currently being done on climate change.

Political resistance to climate research is deplorable. Equating presidential interest in climate change with the creation of propaganda, as House Republicans have done (again, according to the Times article), not only insults the integrity of climate scientists, it also implies indifference to the long-term welfare of the American people. But “was 2011’s serious weather related to global warming” is the wrong question, and I suspect it is not actually the question climate scientists are interested in getting an answer for.

More probably, they want to know if 2011 was really unusual, weather-wise. It seemed unusual, but science was invented because what seems to be true often isn’t. An “unprecedented year of disaster” could be caused by a bored news media industry, biding time between election cycles. Less cynically, one might wonder if a large U.S. population simply makes it more likely that someone will be on hand when bad weather happens. Determining whether weather weirdness is really underway requires comparing equivalent data sets from multiple years and comparing the difference to what would be expected by chance. “Is the weather that seems unusual, actually unusual” is a good question.

“Is the weather we are getting consistent with our theories” is another question. Climate change theory predicts more extreme weather events, so if the weather were different than the current degree of warming suggests, maybe the theory would need to be reworked. Another good question!

Climate does not cause weather any more than the tides cause wind-driven waves (that tidal bores are also called waves is an unfortunate weakness of the metaphor). Neither is tide or climate irrelevant, as any beachgoer looking to keep a beach blanket dry knows. Climate is the local median from which the waves of weather depart; a higher median equals a higher wave, given waves of the same size.

But even though a year of weird weather may make a changing climate more obvious (such a year soaks your beach blanket), extreme weather does not embody climate more than mild weather does. “Is this storm climate change” is the wrong question. The right question is “is the climate changing?”

Not understanding the difference between these two questions results in the public hearing “we don’t know,” when the more relevant answer is “yes.”


Climate Change and Muslims

This is the third in a series of posts on climate change and specific religious groups in the United States. So far, I have written on Catholicism and evangelical Christianity.

In light of the recent attacks in Paris, I wanted to write something about Islam. While I have not personally heard much in the way of Islamaphobia recently, the fact that American Muslims have felt the need to publicly condemn the attacks is just plain depressing. I mean, yes, I condemn the attacks, too, but I don’t feel compelled to say so on YouTube because no one has any particular reason to doubt that I do. That American Muslim children apparently feel differently suggests that some serious misunderstanding is in play.

But this blog isn’t about bigotry per se. It’s about climate change. So I’m going to talk about Islam and climate change, especially since this is not the angle from which non-Muslim Americans (the majority of my readers) usually hear about Muslims. In fact, when I sat down to research for this article I had no clear idea what I’d find. This article should therefore be regarded as extremely provisional, since I am new to the subject myself.

Muslims comprise about one percent of the American population. It may surprise some readers to learn that only a quarter of these people are of Arab descent (the vast majority of Arab-Americans are actually Christian). A third of American Muslims are of South Asian descent, a third are African-American, and the remaining fifteen percent is from everywhere else. While many American Muslims are either immigrants or the offspring of immigrants, African-American culture has had a Muslim component from the beginning because many Africans taken as slaves were Muslim.

So, how do all these people feel about climate change? I don’t know.

There are two reasons I don’t know. One is that Islam, unlike some branches of Christianity, has no inherent hierarchy. There is nothing directly comparable to the Roman Catholic priesthood in any branch of Islam that I have heard of (and yes, though I’m hardly an expert, this is not the first time I’ve read up on Islam, only the first time I’ve researched it in the context of climate change). There are religious scholars who can give advice on Quranic interpretation and Islamic law, and some of these lead prayers, if their communities want them to. That’s what an imam is; a Quranic scholar whom other Muslims want to listen to. There is no central authority on belief and policy except the Quran and the consensus of scholars (which rarely happens, for obvious reasons). Therefore, there is no way to find out what Muslims believe except to ask Muslims. It isn’t something one can just go look up.

And that get’s us to the second reason why I don’t know what American Muslims think and feel about climate change–if anyone has asked them recently, their responses have been drowned out by John Kerry.

I’m serious. Internet searches on “American Muslims and climate change” (or variations on that theme) yield Secretary of State John Kerry explaining that Americans have a Biblical mandate to help Muslim countries cope with climate change. Arguably, he’s right–more on that later–but he fills up literally pages of search results. Interestingly, mixed in with John Kerry were a few sites that appeared to feature assertions and Muslims and climate change are together some kind of scourge against American freedom, but I did not click on those links. Basically, my search engine reacted as though I’d asked about “America, Muslims, and change” and ignored the American Muslims.


But there are American Muslim environmentalist organizations and there is information on climate change and Islam as a whole.  There is, in fact, an Islamic environmental consciousness and Muslims often have less difficulty reconciling science and religion than many Christians do.

Although concern about modern environmental problems originated in “the West” (a rather puzzling code word for the European-derived cultural continuum), the Islamic world has had its own environmental movement since the 1970’s. Resistance to the issue has not been religious but political. Many protest, with some justification, that environmental degradation is an essentially “western” problem and that the “western” countries first got rich by fouling their lands and then decided that pollution is bad just as other countries are starting to make some money, too.

Where religious issues are a barrier to the environmental message, it’s often that environmentalists are not being religious enough; Muslim communities sometimes drop unsustainable practices very quickly once the issue is framed in terms of their own values. Islam not only includes a concept of environmental stewardship equivalent to some Christian interpretations of “dominion over the Earth,” but also has a rich tradition of appreciating and studying the natural world in a religious context. To quote Sarah Jawaid, director of Green Muslims, in Washington, DC:

In the Quran, God identifies nature as a tapestry of signs for man to reflect upon his existence, just as the verses within the Quran are also considered signs, sharing the same Arabic word, ayat.

Generally, people in the Muslim world accept that climate change is real and they take it seriously; in both Turkey and Lebanon, over 70% of those surveyed described climate change as a “very serious problem.” Many, especially in Jordan, are reluctant to pay money to solve the problem, but again that is understandable given the history of who has profited from fossil fuels and who has not (Jordan’s oil production has, in recent decades, been minimal). Imams often ignore climate change in favor of more pressing concerns, but given that many Muslim countries are poor or war-torn or both, that is understandable. Climate skepticism and climate denial are not strong forces in these cultures. Specifically among American Muslims (I was able to find a few tidbits of information) almost two-thirds of those surveyed do not perceive any conflict between science and religion, whereas among Americans as a whole almost two-thirds do perceive such a conflict.

What we can gather from all of this is that while the United States of America does have a problem with climate denial, its small Muslim population is not part of the problem and is probably part of the solution.

John Kerry, meanwhile, has a point. Leaving aside  discussion of the Biblical mandate, many Muslim countries stand to be disproportionately affected by climate change–and have begun to be so already. By pure bad geographical luck, many of them are unusually susceptible to regional symptoms of a global problem–Bangladesh and Indonesia are being flooded while much of the Arab and Persian worlds, plus much of Africa, are drying up.

People in these regions generally know that the climate is changing, whether they are familiar with the greenhouse effect or not. They can tell that the weather is going wrong, that new, more severe disasters are occurring. Many interpret these changes as signs of the imminent end of the world. Muslims, like Christians, believe that God will one day end this world. However, unlike evangelical Christians, who often attribute disaster to the End Days and not to climate change, Muslims tend to see no conflict between natural and theological explanation.

I am not certain if of my understanding here, but that could mean that Muslims can use the religious stories about the end of the world to relate emotionally and morally to the scientific predictions of the end of the world as we have known it.

How all of this relates to the American Muslim experience is not clear to me. I’d be delighted if American Muslim readers can write in an expand my understanding. But since many are immigrants or descendents of immigrants, a lot of American Muslims probably have friends and relatives back in the old country(s) who are variously desiccating or drowning these days, because of climate change. That must matter.

And since climate change causes increased social instability and terrorism, chances are good that the future will see more American Muslim children apologizing on YouTube for things they did not do.



Climate Change and Evangelicals

This is the second part of a series on religion and climate change. The first part covered Catholicism. I’m going to cover all of the major–and some of the minor–religions in the United States. Feel free to comment if you know about how these issues play out in other countries.

It may seem strange to non-Christian readers, that I’m doing separate posts on different subtypes of Christianity. It seems strange to me that I have to, but Christians themselves often speak as though the different branches of Christianity were, in fact, separate religions. Notably, I have heard Protestants use constructions like “are you Christian or Catholic?” More important for our purposes, the different branches respond differently to the issue of climate change.

Some Definitions

Talking about Protestant Christianity and climate change is difficult because, in contrast to Catholicism, there is no central authority on doctrine (except the Bible itself which, rightly or wrongly, is obviously subject to multiple interpretations). True, the leadership of an individual denomination can decide on a doctrine and treat it as orthodoxy–Protestant churches are not necessarily democracies on matters of faith. But if somebody disagrees they can go to a different Protestant church, or even found a new one, without dropping out of the larger Protestant continuum.

By “Protestant continuum” I mean the variety of beliefs and practices encompassed by all Protestant churches everywhere. Outsiders tend to treat variations within that cloud as mere details, so, sometimes, do Christians themselves. One of my brothers-in-law was raised Methodist, “saved” in an evangelical denomination (I don’t know which one), attended a Methodist seminary, and now teaches adult Bible study at a church of another denomination (the rest of the family can’t remember which). On Christmas and Easter he returns to his parents’ Methodist church for services. Nobody seems to care, and he is not the only Protestant I have met who shifts denominations so fluidly. While in theory some Protestant churches may indeed have an orthodoxy and by its lights define other Protestant churches as apostate or even just not Christian, in practice individual Protestants have a wide freedom of religious choice. To discover what Protestants do and believe, we must therefor look to polls, not encyclicals.

The polls I have found divide Protestants into three groups: mainline, evangelical, and black. To be clear, “black Protestants,” in this usage, does not mean Protestant who happen to be black. In fact, all three groups have at least some black members and all three have at least some white members. But, in the United States, at least, the traditionally black churches comprise a distinct body of both doctrine and practice. We’ll start, today, with the evangelical branch.

Evangelical by Any Other Name

Evangelical Christianity is not a denomination or even a distinct group of denominations–although some denominations are generally considered evangelical. More properly, the evangelicals comprise a movement, and, like all movements, its boundaries are somewhat fuzzy. Generally, evangelicals can be said to share a few key doctrines, such as conversionism or Biblicalism, but not everybody who has those beliefs calls themselves evangelicals. It is difficult to even say for sure how many American evangelicals there are, although a third of the total population is a reasonable guess.

The terms evangelical, born-again, and fundamentalist are all used interchangeably by many outsiders. Indeed, the word fundamentalist is used by some writers, such as Karen Armstrong, to refer to common elements among religious movements of multiple religions, including Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism. By this definition, evangelical Christians are often fundamentalists because they take the Bible literally. These terms are not interchangeable for believers themselves, however; the term fundamentalist originated in an American Christian movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the term evangelical originated in a separate religious movement that arose in the Midwest in opposition to fundamentalism during World War II.

What the Polls Say

Among self-described white evangelicals, 64% are “somewhat” or “very” unconcerned about climate change, more than any other American religious grouping (Hispanic Catholics are most concerned). 77% attribute recent natural disasters to the “End Times,” while only 49% attribute such disasters to climate change (obviously, some attribute disasters to both causes). Only 31% say humans are causing climate change, a dramatically lower percentage than for all other groups polled.

While some obviously accept climate change and care about it, the evangelical voice is largely one of climate denial or climate skepticism (yes, there is a difference) and the voice of American climate denial is largely an evangelical Christian voice.

There is serious political importance to evangelical belief because they vote in large numbers and they care about the beliefs of the people they vote for. That is, while climate change and evolution are political non-issues for many other Americans, both are important indicators for evangelicals; many simply will not vote for anyone who believes in either. Evangelicals are hardly unusual among Americans for doubting evolution or climate change, but because they vote on these issues and most other people vote, their vote matters more. White evangelicals were the largest voting bloc in many districts at the recent midterm elections and they overwhelmingly voted for Republicans. They are why the Republicans took the Senate.

Notice the implication here; if non-evangelicals tend not to care whether candidates accept global warming, that means that many people who do believe in climate change are voting for candidates who don’t. This is why the United States has a persistent climate denial Congress and why the long-hoped-for climate agreement to be finalized in Paris will not include a new, legally binding treaty. When Americans who do accept climate change do not vote about climate, or do not vote at all, the entire world sees its options narrow.

Why So Many Evangelicals Doubt Climate Science

There are important doctrinal reasons why evangelical Christians have trouble accepting the idea of human-caused environmental disaster. If God is omnipotent, then how could humans mess up Creation? Even the suggestion that we might seems sacrilegious to some. In this view, if the climate is changing than God must be changing it and He must have a good reason to do so. Further, if after the Resurrection the saved will live forever with Jesus Christ on a new and much-improved Earth where there is no suffering, then it doesn’t much matter what happens to this Earth. It’s temporary. Some evangelicals also believe that God gave the Earth to humans to use however they want–this being one interpretation of the concept of “dominion over the Earth.”

The problem is that other Christian groups share the same doctrinal underpinnings and yet have much higher rates of climate change acceptance. While evangelical climate skeptics and deniers may indeed list the above reasons for their doubt, something else is clearly going on.

The “something else” is culture and politics.

Basically, environmentalism and especially climate sanity have become identified in the popular American imagination with liberal politics and liberal values. Evangelicals are generally culturally conservative, so they are automatically suspicious of anything liberals espouse. It is simply not possible for everyone to become an expert in everything, so we all have to trust others to tell us what is right to some extent–everybody, liberals included, is inclined to believe the things that people they trust tell them. We also disbelieve people we dislike or distrust.

Part of the problem with the climate discussion in the United States is that this distrust-by-proxy is mutual. For every conservative who complains about Al Gore and the socially licentious, politically imperious liberal agenda, there is a liberal complaining about those racist, sexist red-necks who listen to Rush Limbaugh. Underneath the reflexive mud-slinging, both groups harbor–and sometimes share–entirely valid concerns about how the country is being run and how its culture is changing, neither group is willing to listen to the other. Climate change, as an issue, is a casualty of this breakdown in communications. It is not the only one–there are important concerns that liberals overlook, too.

Why Some Evangelicals Are Climate Activists

I am not myself evangelical (nor even Christian), but I have had many friends over the years who are. One of them was, at the time, the state ecologist of Delaware and he took climate change more seriously than the vast majority of my liberal friends (he accepted evolution as well, having heard of a pastor who claimed that the “days” in Genesis could have each encompassed millions of years). He took a lot of flak from his colleagues for being Christian and told me that he knew of Christians in the sciences who hide their religious identity for fear of professional discrimination and harassment.

He isn’t alone. Evangelical Christianity does not get much respect from the American mainstream. They are often wrongly assumed to be stupid or anti-intellectual because so many of them take the Bible literally. Evangelical environmentalists consequently often feel uncomfortable at best among liberal environmentalists and environmental scientists. They don’t feel welcome, and sometimes aren’t welcome. Many must also cope, simultaneously, with having their faith and their values questioned by other evangelicals, who suspect them of being turncoats.

Nevertheless, evangelical environmentalists do exist. Not only do they accept the science on the matter and feel concern for the same reasons other people do, but some see environmentalism as an important embodiment of their faith. The evangelical environmentalist groups I have encountered recently mostly describe responding to climate change as an extension of their Christian duty to other people, but I have, in the past, also heard environmental responsibility framed as another meaning of human dominion over the Earth. The idea is that God gave the Earth to humans to shepherd and take care of, not simply to use. A related concept is that God made the world, so for humans to wantonly damage it is disrespectful of God.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that American evangelical Christianity has a huge effect on environmental policy, both for good and for ill. Alongside evangelical climate skeptics–who are factually wrong on that one point but have much to say on other issues–there are scientists and activists who approach environmentalism as part of a sacred trust. Recently, self-described evangelicals have spoken up in support of the EPA’s new rules regulating carbon emissions, pressed Congress for legislative action on climate, and even encouraged President Obama to speak with the Pope on climate change.

We need these people.