The Climate in Emergency

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


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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.

Huh?

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.

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Climate Change and Jewish People

This is the final installment in my series on climate and religion (except for a concluding post I’ll do at some point). I have already written about Catholicism, mainline, evangelical, and African-American Protestant Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Neopaganism. There are, of course, other religions out there, but as far as I know, these are the ones that have the loudest voices in American culture. There is no particular reason that I’m doing Judaism last. As always, I’m not a religious expert, only an interested writer who does her own research and shares what she learns.

Definitions

Judaism is different that any other religion I’ve covered in that the word “Jewish” refers to both an ethnicity and a religion. The Jewish religion is the religion of the Jewish people, but not all Jewish people are religious.

It is relatively easy to define ethnic Jewishness; the child of a Jew is also a Jew (technically, Judaism is transmitted from mother to child, but I do not know whether Jewish communities actually exclude people whose fathers only were Jewish). Conversion to Judaism is possible but not encouraged and one cannot simply become Jewish on one’s own personal say-so. A Jew can’t cease being Jewish, either, at least not completely, meaning it is at least possible to be a Jewish Christian–though whether anyone identifies as such I do not know. There are about 6.6 million Jews in the United States, which is 2% of the total American population.

How many of these actually practice the religion of their forefathers is harder to say, since of course there is a wide range. For example, is someone who does not follow any aspect of Jewish religious law but who sometimes attends services on the High Holidays and special occasions, religious?

There are four main Jewish denominations–Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist, with Orthodox communities being the most conservative and Reconstructionist being the least. The most Orthodox, the Hasidic Jews, are essentially separatist and follow a very strict and traditional interpretation of Jewish religious law. The more religiously liberal groups also tend to be more culturally liberal–there is therefore a lot of political and cultural variation among American Jews.

All that being said, because American Jewry is so small, many writers, including me, speak of it as a single group wherever possible.

Judaism and Climate Change

What Jews think about climate change is not something one can simply look up–there is no central authority on correct belief, as there is in Catholic Christianity–the Jewish religion has always focused more on correct behavior than on correct thought. Judaism does have a concept of heresy, but has never had any authoritative body able to define which ideas are heretical and which are not. Instead, there is a generally recognized consensus of basic principles that practicing Jews must uphold. Sometimes two sects regard each other as heretical.  This isn’t a process that can issue clear policy statements on the latest controversies.

As with almost every other major religious group, American Jewish leaders have publicly stated their dedication to climate sanity, complete with theological underpinnings and emission-reductions targets. As of 2012, the only house of worship in America with the LEEDS Platinum certification is a Jewish synagogue. As with Christianity, Judaism includes a concept of religiously grounded stewardship of the Earth. Proper care of the land is also seen as intimately connected to moral rectitude; at several points, the Jewish Bible gives immoral or sinful human behavior as the direct cause of environmental disasters, as though the land were a mirror of the collective human soul. That environmental destruction might itself be a sin is therefore not that far a leap. And there is a religious mandate to “heal” the world–a concept that is not necessarily environmental but can be interpreted that way.

And yet, “the environment” is not a top concern of many American Jewish voters, according to a 2014 survey (climate change as such was not listed as an option). Curiously, the environment did come in as more important than Israel, stereotypes notwithstanding, but the two issues ranked sixth and eighth respectively. The top priorities were the economy and health care. In polls, their level of climate concern is similar to that of Americans as a whole.

It doesn’t look like there is an organized climate-denial movement within the Jewish community yet, though that could change–Orthodox Jews tend to be culturally conservative and therefore often gravitate to the same media outlets that Christian climate deniers favor–Fox News is popular, and many at least have their doubts that climate change is real.  Conservative Jewish groups also sometimes shy away from dealing with climate change because they see such issues as too secular. Environmental outreach among these communities usually works better if focused on less politically fraught issues, such as water conservation, especially if framed in specifically religious terms.

Reform and Reconstructionist Jews, on the other hand, tend to be politically and socially liberal and quite open to science–and they are often politically and socially very engaged. Many Jewish organizations are therefore working in favor of climate sanity, in one way or another, but many are silent or in active support of the KXL pipeline or fracking. It’s not, apparently, that these groups are anti-climate stance per se, but rather they prefer to support other issues, like American energy independence (not like getting off fossil fuel isn’t a better way to secure energy independence, but not everyone seems to realize that). Climate change just isn’t necessarily on everyone’s radar, although there are community leaders working hard to get it there.The picture I’m getting so far is that the Jewish community is not fully engaged yet on climate change, and that different subsets of it could well engage in different directions, depending on who does more outreach more successfully.

All of which might sound like much ado about only 2% of the population, but American Jewry has more political influence than its size alone would suggest–it’s hardly the puppet-master of anti-Semitic fantasy, but many Jewish people are politically active and many provide strong financial support to candidates. The Jewish population is also concentrated in just a few states, so while Jews are a minority everywhere, they are a sizable minority in some states–enough to be an important part of a successful candidate’s coalition. The Jewish vote could decide a close race in New York, Massachusetts, Maryland, Connecticut, California, or Florida. Some of these states have decided the Presidency in the past.

The Jewish vote leans overwhelmingly Democrat, and has, with some variation, for decades. There are now signs that Jewish support of the Democrats may be starting to wane, at least slightly. Since, at present, climate-sane government policy depends upon the election of Democrats, what Jewish people think of climate change has world-wide implications.