The Climate in Emergency

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


Climate Change and Religion

This is the conclusion of my series on climate and religion, which profiled Catholicism, the evangelical, mainline, and African-American wings of Protestant Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and American Neopaganism. These are hardly the only religions, or even the only ones in the United States, but together they are dominant voices. If anyone wants to see another religion profiled, just let me know.

Throughout writing this series, I was struck by a recurring pattern; America’s religions are mostly pro-climate, and American people are mostly religious, and yet America as a whole is decidedly climate denialist. Meaningful climate legislation won’t pass Congress.


Seriously. Leaders and representatives of every group I researched had published pro-climate statements and only among the evangelical Christians could I find any organized dissent on the issue. On the face of it, that implies that religious people are generally pro-climate, with the exception of some (not all) evangelicals. And yet, there are simply too many religious people in the country, and too few who take climate change seriously, for religion to actually be the pro-climate force that it repeatedly says it is. In polls, only 16% of Americans identify as unaffiliated with any religion. Just over 26% identify as evangelicals. Since some evangelicals are climate activists and climate scientists, as are some unaffiliated people, that means that less than 42% of Americans should be indifferent or hostile to climate. Everybody else belongs to religions whose leaders who have come out in favor of the planet. And yet fully 50% of Americans actually describe themselves as “unconcerned” about climate. Only 5% consider climate change our most important issue. Only seven US states are not currently represented by at least one climate denier in Congress; 11 states have Congressional delegations with a majority of climate deniers.

So what is going on? How and why is there such a disconnect between what American religious leaders say and what American political leaders actually do?

Part of the issue is simply that many religious groups are less interested in climate than their leaders’ public statements suggest; according to polls, only a little over a third of all Americans “often” or “sometimes” hear their clergy discus climate change. Of white Catholics, 40% never hear about climate change in church, despite Pope Francis’ outspoken environmentalism. Of white mainline Protestants, 37% never hear about climate change from their pastors, again despite public pronouncements by church leaders. Those religious people who do hear about the issue from their clergy are significantly more likely to believe in climate change and take it seriously than those who do not.

Are we looking at a case of religious hippocracy, where church leaders say one thing but do another? Possible, but I doubt it. I suspect that most American clergy, of whatever stripe, are not hostile to climate so much as uninterested in it. Those who do care, and who publish statements on global warming, are met, not with controversy but with silence. The result is that, except for evangelicals, the only voices an outsider like me hears on the subject are those of the vocal minority who are climate-concerned.

Another part of the issue is that many people who do accept climate change are happy to vote for political leaders who do not, provided they like the rest of the candidate’s presentation–but climate deniers will not vote for a candidate who does accept climate change. The result is that candidates put together winning coalitions by denying climate change.

Climate deniers are louder, politically speaking, than the climate-accepting majority, in part because many evangelical Christians have, rightly or wrongly, linked climate science (and evolution) to other issues that are also important to them. As political liberals have shown themselves more concerned over climate change, climate has become identified with the “liberal agenda,” such that a vote for climate is, by proxy, a vote for social changes conservative Christians do not want.

In contrast, people who do accept climate change seem not to have made equivalent conceptual links. Just 5% of Americans consider climate change the country’s most pressing issue, while many more consider the gap between rich and poor (18%) or health care (17%) the most important–even though climate change is closely related to both economics and public health. Only 25% say climate change is even the most pressing environmental problem, while 29% say the worst environmental problem is pollution and 23% say it is water shortages and drought–even though climate change is caused by pollution and is an important cause of water shortages and drought. It seems that many people who believe climate change is real still don’t believe that it is important because they do not see the connections between climate and the other issues they care about.

It’s also worth noting that the electoral results relative to climate change do not exactly reflect the will of the American people right now. A huge amount of money is being poured into electoral politics in support of climate denial candidates (and candidates who are otherwise in favor of big business)–and those efforts are succeeding. While liberal candidates raise huge amounts of money, too, and some of their donors are indeed very rich, no one is in the same financial league as Charles and David Koch–who get much of their money through the oil industry. The electoral landscape of the United States is now a direct result of the fact that climate deniers–of whatever religion–have substantially deeper pockets than climate activists do.

So, what is religion good for?

So, if religion in America is not the force for climate sanity that it looks like it should be, what is it good for?

The simple answer is that if religious leaders who do support climate action organize themselves better and do more effective outreach among their colleagues, we could indeed see a major cultural shift on the subject–and we may be heading in that direction. Let’s give those leaders their due.

But mobilizing congregations is only one of the possible roles of religion in climate change, and it may not even be the most important role. Not all religious people take the advice of their clergy to heart, after all, especially in areas of life not considered obviously religious. And non-Christian religions are such small minorities in the United States that mobilizing those congregations on climate will not, by itself, swing the national conversation very much.

What religious leaders can do is give the national conversation more depth of meaning. Religion can host an exploration of why climate matters.

“Religion” means many things, including a dimension of the collective human soul. By this definition, even many atheists are religious, because they wrestle with meaning, priority, and morality. Specific religions are entities dedicated to discovering and spreading particular visions of the meaning of life. Religions are places within the culture set aside for discovering what matters and why, what our ideals are, and what our standards are, just as sciences are zones within the culture set aside for discovering what exists and how it works. Science can tell us that the planet is heating up because of human activity and it can predict the kinds of disasters we face if we don’t stop warping the sky very soon. But science cannot tell us why that’s a problem or why the planet is worth fighting for. That’s what religion can do.

Science can tell you that if you point a loaded gun at somebody’s head and pull the trigger, you’ll probably kill the person, but only religion can tell you that it’s murder.

The religions, collectively, can host a discussion of the moral dimensions of climate change. They can be our conscience, and they can serve that function not just for their own adherents but for all of us. I don’t have to be Buddhist to have my conscience pricked by a Buddhist teacher who calls out climate apathy as a failure of awareness and compassion. You don’t have to be Wiccan to be inspired by a vision of the planet as an entity to whom we owe a debt of care. Neither of us must be Christian to consider that perhaps we only become most fully alive when we dedicate our lives to the service of something larger than ourselves.

Apathy, cowardice, gluttony, denial, and greed have the capacity at this very moment to render our beautiful planet something less than what we were given to care for. Fortunately, there are people who know how to cope with and combat those darker tides of human nature. We should listen to them.



Climate Change and Buddhists

This is another installment in my series on climate change and religion in America. I have already covered Catholicism, evangelical Protestantism, African-American Protestantism, mainline Protestantism, Islam, and the Neopagan continuum. I am not a religious scholar, but I look at the publicly available information through the lens of climate change and I share what I find.

It is hard to say for sure how many Buddhists there are in America, in part because many practice independently or in informal groups. Also, many American Buddhists are of Asian ancestry, a group that many demographers largely ignore. Estimates vary from one to six million. Perhaps two-thirds of these are of Asian ancestry. The remaining third is mostly but not entirely white. All told, at most 1% of the US population is Buddhist.

And yet, this one percent has been oddly influential in the American environmental movement. Michael Soulé, the founder of conservation biology (a branch of science specifically applied to environmental conservation) is Buddhist. So is Gary Snyder, a major artistic and philosophical voice for the movement. So was Henry David Thoreau, after a fashion–Thoreau identified with many religions and none, being careful to remember that all religions are human constructs. But that reticence about commitment to any one philosophy is itself a very Buddhist thing. He was heavily influenced by Buddhist writings and occasionally referred to himself as a follower of the Buddha, or was referred to that way by people who knew him. And H.D. Thoreau was not only an influential writer and philosopher, a point of inspiration for many later environmentalists, he also discovered the process of ecological succession.

Some Definitions

One more reason that it is hard to say how many Buddhists there are in America is that no one needs anyone else’s permission to be Buddhist. Although there are certainly initiatory lineages within Buddhism, where certain wisdom is transmitted formally from teacher to student, it is also possible to study and practice alone, without ever identifying as Buddhist to anyone else. Not only are the latter hard to count, but the validity of their practice makes it hard to say who is Buddhist and who is not. Can a person who practices Zen meditation regularly, but ignores the rest of the teaching, properly claim to be Buddhist? What about people who claim no religion at all but, like Thoreau, live in a very Buddhist way? It is reasonable to suppose that the influence of Buddhism on American culture extends far beyond the lives of those few who are definitely Buddhist, in part because of the uncountable people (me among them) who have incorporated some Buddhist element into their lives.

Buddhism is sometimes described as a philosophy and not a religion, in part because it has no gods. The Buddha himself was a man, notable only for having achieved enlightenment first. His name was Siddhartha Gautama, and he lived in India. And yet, some sects do have gods and goddesses, or at least figures that seem analogous to them. Siddhartha Gautama certainly lived in a culture that worshiped gods and goddesses and he did not begin his teaching by attempting to convert others to atheism. Many modern Buddhist traditions are rich with stories of saints and miracles and various types and processes of reincarnation–clearly religious beliefs of a type the Buddhism the philosophy is not supposed to have, either.

Instead, it might be more  accurate to say that gods and goddesses and miracles and heavens and hells are beside the point. A Buddhist teacher might believe in all those things, but not bother to pass them on to the student because the important thing is to wake up to the reality of lived experience. Buddhist teachings and practices are, to some extent, portable, able to be adapted to other belief systems–including atheism.

Buddhism is not a belief or a faith. It is a practice.

As with other religions, Buddhism exists in many different forms. Perhaps surprisingly, not all forms involve meditation at all. Even those that do emphasize meditative practice go beyond it to include a definite moral code and a system of values. The American Buddhist perspective is also complicated by the fact that it flows through and across many different cultures; Buddhists differ not only by sect but also by ethnicity, national origin, and race, things that may be beside the point of religion but are often very much to the point for actual human beings.

Despite the variation among American Buddhism, though, I am going to treat it all as one unless stated otherwise. There are just too few Buddhists in the US for me to address the differences among them in an article this brief.

Buddhism and Climate Change

Buddhism has a reputation for sympathy to the natural world, a recognition that all life in connected. While the reality is a bit more complex, the reputation is not entirely undeserved. Not surprisingly, Buddhist leaders from all over the world have come together to issue a declaration on the importance of doing something about climate change. In some ways, this declaration is no different than those written by any other group of religious leaders I have profiled (whether or not many adherents pay attention). There are a couple of distinctively Buddhist points, of course.

In grounding their concern in specifically Buddhist concepts, the authors describe environmental responsibility as an outgrowth of the principle of non-harm or non-violence–the same principle that leads many (though not all) Buddhists to be vegetarians. In so doing, the authors recognize the inherent moral worth of non-human life. At the end of the document, they write movingly of how neither other life forms nor future generations of humans can speak up on their own behalf. “We must listen to their silence,” they say, and speak and act for them.

But this is not a specifically American Buddhist response, nor does it tell us much about what ordinary Buddhists say or do about climate change. And since polls cannot accurately assess even how many American Buddhists there are, it seems foolish to look to a poll for answers here.

It is not difficult to find people–including Americans–online talking about climate change and Buddhism. Some of these writers express frustration that Buddhists aren’t doing more about the issue. Apparently, the justifications for inaction include a desire to achieve enlightenment first before trying to help the rest of the world and the idea that “all is void” and therefore environmental destruction does not matter. Of course, there are grave philosophical problems with both assertions and either can be easily refuted with other Buddhist ideas. But, most likely, Buddhist inaction is just like Christian inaction in that neither really has much to do with the theological weight of the atmosphere.

But how many Buddhists are complacent verses active on climate change? It’s hard to say–and it may not matter, at least not in the US. There are, after all, very few American Buddhists, and whether the majority do something about the greenhouse effect or not will not swing the political center of gravity very much. What does matter is whether those Buddhists who do care about climate change find something in Buddhism that helps them become more effective in their work–and what Buddhism can offer in the way of perspective to the larger society of Americans who are “sort of” Buddhist, Buddhist-influenced, or even just know somebody who meditates sometimes.

Some time ago, I posted a discussion of an editorial on climate change by the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, a Tibetan spiritual teacher. While he is not American, the journal that published his essay is. He was speaking to Americans, among others. That essay was interesting for its description of the climate crisis as, first, a failure of compassion–and for its framing of the issue in spiritual terms able to transcend divides of religion and culture. Perhaps that is what Buddhism can give.