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 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.

I 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.