The Climate in Emergency

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


Heretics and Fools

Note; although the conversation described here is based loosely on a real event, names and identifying details have been changed.

My friend Larry was loaded for bear that night, and I never did find out why. He’d gone looking for someplace he could be contrarian, and he turned up at our table. We were discussing the role of human communities in conservation, but in Larry’s view, all our talk of empowering tribal peoples to take care of ecosystems sounded dangerously naive. It’s not that Larry has any objection to social justice, he’d just seen too much human stupidity to believe that empowered people would always do the right thing.

He may have had a point.

We had asserted our commitment to both ecology and social justice, but where would our loyalties lie if forced to choose between humans and nature? Were we prepared to use force to protect the planet if we had to, even against some already abused minority? Or did the right of self-determination extend to people determined to destroy the last refuge of some endangered plant or beast? And if we said no to both questions, did we have some rationale for such a feel-good non-choice other than mere squeamishness? There were some hard questions we were not asking ourselves. Every group of like-minded idealists needs a contrarian.

But Larry pushed his point too far. As I said, he was loaded for bear that night, but no bears showed up. So Larry just started getting angrier and angrier, never raising his voice, but still lashing out at anyone who tried to disagree with him, until he finally lashed out at the whole human race. My friend Larry is not a bad guy. Far from it; he’s a kind and sweet man who loves what he loves very deeply. But something had gone very wrong for him that night, some frustration had reached flashpoint, and Larry had no answers, easy or otherwise.

“There are days,” he said, grabbing a paper napkin and carefully folding it and folding it again, “there are days when if I had a button, and if I pushed that button I could wipe out the entire human race and just let Nature go back to doing its thing without us, I would push it. I would kill every one of us, even myself, even my little girls.” You don’t need to know Larry very well to notice how much his girls mean to him. His heart rises and sets with their small heads. But Larry had folded his napkin into a very small square, a button-sized square, and he brought his fist down on his little napkin-button with thunderous finality into the stunned silence that had once been a friendly conversation.

I have never asked Larry what had been going on for him that night. I couldn’t tell whether he knew how frightening, how out of character, his terrible darkness had seemed. He did not seem to want to talk about it, and I wasn’t about to push him. Instead, I later joked that an intelligent, well-educated man such as himself could probably find the means to wreak such species-wide havoc, if he really wanted to.

“You mean, Osama bin Larry?” he asked, taking a bite of his pizza. His face was inscrutable.

Of course, Larry would never hurt anyone deliberately. He’s a good guy. And yet, where did that pizza come from? Where did the clothes he was wearing come from? Just like the rest of us, he buys the better part of his daily bread through an economic system that is destroying the planet.

“The Fool Button” is the title of a Jimmy Buffet song that got stuck in my head that night Larry joined our discussion. “Push it! Push it! Push it!” the singer chants, daring his audience to go ahead and do the unreasonable thing, the thing with consequences, the thing that can’t be taken back. Buffet meant getting drunk and stupid, of course, but the phrase works as well, maybe better, in another context. Now, Larry is not a fool. He is indeed an intelligent, very well-educated person. He is therefore aware that the environmental movement, far from being alarmist, has, if anything, down-played the degree of disaster we face. There are no easy answers, and there might not be any hard answers anymore, either. Sometimes, an extravagant foolishness is the only option left.

Push it, push it, push it!

The willingness to take leave of sane constraint can free heroes and it can also free terrorists. The Fool Button is not evil as a fantasy, nor are the people who harbor it exactly caught in despair. People who truly despair make hay while the sun shines. Instead, the Fool Button is the mark of a last, desperate faith, a faith that the world is worth caring about, even if we don’t always know what to do to help. The Fool Button is the dirty little secret of environmentalism. It’s the shadow of the most dire of dire predictions about global warming, peak oil, human overpopulation… some of these predictions may well come true, but that’s not the point. The point is that these predictions sound apocalyptic because they are apocalyptic.

Though couched in secular, or even pagan terms, it is the same underlying narrative as the Christian prophesies of Apocalypse, and it is wishful thinking. No matter whether the central sin is taken to be moral, ecological, or technological, there is the same underlying assumption–

–that something is wrong with human nature

—that something was lost with the garden of our innocence.

–that our brokenness is not reparable but will soon catch fire and consume itself, and in the calm after that terrible storm the world will be made new.

How is this not the End of Days? And—be honest—who does not, in the quiet place behind the worry and concern, imagine themselves, with friends and family, making it past the tribulations to the New Earth? Who does not imagine being one of the Chosen?

Larry doesn’t. At least when Larry considers the Fool Button, he has no illusions about saving himself or his loved ones. He knows that sinners love their daughters, too. He knows there is no Chosen, only those who make choices.

The Fool Button is the dirty little secret of environmentalism. The dirty big secret is that the Fool Button is not a secular heresy; it’s orthodoxy. It’s nothing less than the logical extension of the paradigm that creates and maintains the National Park System. Consider that parks, and other refuges under other jurisdictions, seek to protect nature by keeping people out (with the exception of the carefully managed visits of tourists). We protect these little pockets, the best, the most critical, the last places. In these precious refuges at least, we assume, nature can proceed unimpeded. The implication is that nature is what happens when humans don’t interfere–but then it follows that when humans get involved, nature is necessarily destroyed, as silence is destroyed by sound. This puts us in a serious fix, for while it may be possible for humans to live sustainably, it’s not possible for us to live without having any influence. We’re large, active mammals. No sane scientist would expect us to be ecologically invisible. We incontrovertibly need this planet, and in having it we must change it. If anthropogenic change is inherently destructive, then a well-educated human being who so loves the world can only give his life—or hate himself.

Orthodoxy isn’t bad, and in presenting my friend on a bad night as its exemplar I don’t want to give the wrong impression, of orthodoxy or of him. Orthodoxy was originally a religious concept, and my sister, as a Catholic, would remind us that religious orthodoxy is the product of an ongoing lineage of extremely intelligent people all thinking very carefully together about very important questions. Orthodoxy is only the insistence that newcomers to the conversation not ignore what has already been said. Orthodoxy is a rule against continually reinventing the wheel, and if its champions object to heresy it may be simply that they would rather get on with inventing the rest of the cart.

I am not interested in continually reinventing the wheel. I am not interested in creating a new, schismatic orthodoxy where contrarians are not welcome. I am interested in getting on with building the cart, and I am interested in hard questions. But I suggest that if the logical extension of the dominant paradigm is suicide, then there is something not quite right with that paradigm. I, too, have daydreamed about the Fool Button, that’s why I recognized Larry’s version of it as kindred to my own thoughts. I would never actually hurt anyone on purpose, either, but I have bad days. Mine is a desperate faith, too.

And it is faith, the faith of a heretic, that tells me there must be another way, that the existence of the Fool Button, even if never pressed, is a warning sign that some important point has been missed. I pick up the trail of that missing piece with a question; how could human beings, who are the product of the biosphere, actually be outside of the biosphere’s processes? How could we come to be the only large mammal with no ecological role, the only species that would not be somehow missed if we went extinct? I find no answer. Is it therefore possible that we are not outside of nature, that nature actually needs us for something?

Is it possible that we don’t need more and bigger parks so much as we need a new and all-encompassing garden?


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.

1 Comment

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.


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.


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.


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?




Climate Change and Catholics

I’m planning to do a series on how different religious organizations are responding to climate change. Because the Pope is about to issue a major statement on the subject, I’m starting with Catholicism.

In the United States, at least, climate sanity has become a solidly liberal issue; Democrats occasionally run on an emissions-reduction platform, but Republicans often run against even acknowledging the existence of climate change, while simultaneously espousing culturally conservative views, such as opposing same-sex marriage and abortion. There is no obvious reason why climate denial should have become allied with traditional gender roles, but that is how the historical chips have fallen. Because the Catholic Church is also culturally conservative on key points, someone who didn’t know better might assume that Church doctrine includes climate denial.

That someone would be wrong.

Catholic teaching on the subject of climate change goes back to January 1st, 1990, when Pope John Paul II delivered an address that framed environmental problems as an important threat to world peace. Although he did not use the words global warming or climate change, he specifically cited fossil fuels and unrestricted deforestation among factors harming the “atmosphere and the environment,” and went on to say “the resulting meteorological and atmospheric changes range from damage to health to the possible future submersion of low-lying lands.”

That’s pretty unambiguous, and the Pope’s address even came out before the First Assessment Report by the IPCCC.

The Pope’s address precipitated other statements by Church officials, including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in support of climate sanity and environmental action. Pope Benedict the XVI continued the tradition by speaking and writing on climate change extensively and by urging climate conference delegates to make progress in Rio in 2011.

The Church is not an anti-science body, its famously bad treatment of Galileo notwithstanding (the Church has since apologized for that, and hostilities could never have been as serious as one might suppose–Galileo’s older daughter, a nun, seems to have felt no conflict between her religion and her admiration of her father). The Vatican actually sponsors unfettered scientific inquiry, and the current Pope has made clear that there is no contradiction between Church teachings and foundational scientific theories, such as the big bang theory.

Perhaps more importantly, the Catholic Church has a deep and persistent commitment to the world’s poor. Pope Francis has now explicitly described climate change as a moral issue because of its impact on poor and otherwise disadvantaged humans. And he has given his considerable moral and political weight towards the success of the climate negotiations in Paris later this year.

American Catholics generally agree with the Pope about climate change and appreciate his leadership on the subject, according to polls. Individual churches are already getting involved in a variety of ways. A body called the Catholic Climate Covenant is working to educate Catholics on the subject and to get them involved. The pro-climate stance is not universal among Catholics–Rick Santorum is both a Catholic and a vocal climate denier, for example–but for better or worse, the Church is not a democracy. To a much greater degree than the other religions familiar to Americans, Catholic Christianity is proscriptive rather than descriptive; Catholic beliefs are what the Pope says they are, even if there are individual Catholics who believe something else. From what I have read about the Church and the current Pope, I do not think that belief in climate change itself has become a Catholic precept. Church leadership generally differentiates between matters of science and matters of religion, and they are probably aware that climate science is not a matter of belief anyway. Rather, the church acknowledges that disbelief in climate change (and the Big Bang, and evolution by natural selection) are not precepts of the Church. In any case, the meat of Catholic teaching on climate change is not that it is real but that it is a moral issue.

One hopes that, on this subject at least, the Church proves an able and powerful teacher.

Science and religion have long been estranged, with large pockets of suspicion on both sides. It is not difficult to find people who believe–incorrectly–that one cannot be both a Christian and a scientist (whether the same perception exists for other religions I do not know), and that scientific ideas and religious ideas are mutually exclusive. While there are, indeed, Christian denominations that do define themselves in these terms, and while there are a few vociferously atheistic scientists (notably Richard Dawkins), as a general rule, science and religion are not actually in conflict.

Religion and science do not conflict with each other because they do not operate in the same plane–they are different sides of a coin, different hands of a person, whatever metaphor you like. The job of science is to answer what? and the job of religion is to answer why? Functioning societies need some way to answer both types of question and neither question can stand in for the other. For example, if you don’t know whether a dog can suffer, then all the moral philosophizing in the world will not tell you whether it is ok to kick dogs. On the other hand, if you discover that dogs can suffer and you go ahead and kick them anyway, science can’t tell you to stop–although a scientist might, because scientists, being human, can think about morality as well. Religion is, among other things, a social structure for moral reasoning and instruction.

Science has informed us that human-caused climate change is real and that it hurts poor and persecuted people disproportionately. Pope Francis has joined his predecessors and colleagues in asserting that humans therefor have a moral obligation to stop changing the climate and to help the disadvantaged adapt to the change we have already committed ourselves to.

There are 75 million Catholics in the United States listening to him, and 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide.