Climate Change Opinion

Faith and Science Working Together on Climate Change

When science can show that the poorest among us are suffering first and worst from human-induced climate change, religions can motivate people of faith to care and to act.

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Can religion and science work together?

Historically, the arcs of religious thought and scientific thought tended to intersect at flash points: the idea of Earth’s heliocentric orbit, the evolution of life, catastrophism, and supernatural causation, to name a few. For many, science and religion remain at odds with each other.

But, increasingly, the two disciplines are finding that they need each other. They are coming together to solve one of the world’s major challenges: climate change.

I am completely convinced that human-induced climate change is the most challenging moral issue of our time. If we don’t turn around the warming trend soon, we will doom future generations to food scarcity. Sea level rise will drown entire nations and cultures. Spikes in extreme weather will mean more fires, droughts, and floods. Disease will move to higher elevations and latitudes. Unfettered climate change means a world engulfed in poverty. No one will escape the consequences.

How we respond will define the future for our children and for theirs. We have to question our values when making decisions about another purchase, a bigger car, a bigger home. Will we continue to live for ourselves alone? Or can we refocus our energy on maintaining a healthy and safe planet for the future? And in doing so, can we share what we have, instead of collecting more? These are moral values that religions teach and science can inform.

As an Episcopal priest and student of many diverse religions, I know that most major religions teach service to one another and, particularly, service to the poor. Justice is a mandate for all religions. When science can show that the poorest among us are suffering first and worst from human-induced climate change, religions can motivate people of faith to care and to act.

I am not alone. Religions around the world are looking inward and outward, directing their faith leaders to help congregations humanize climate change’s scope and effects.

Our work is difficult but rewarding: In communities around the planet, we lead grassroots efforts to educate people about climate change and brainstorm ways to address it.

Facts to Back Up Faith

For 16 years, I have led the Interfaith Power and Light campaign. Our mission is to mobilize a religious response to global warming. Through our network of 18,000 congregations, we promote energy conservation and efficiency, sustainability, and environmental justice.

Our doors are open to all, which means that many in our network’s congregations are hearing about climate for the first time. And those who have heard may relegate climate change to an economic, scientific, or political issue and not consider it a concern for the faith community.

However, in our pews, our audiences hear about climate change as a social justice issue, as a moral and spiritual issue. Human-induced climate change threatens what God created and made sacred by calling it “good.” These ideas are new and are beginning to change some hearts and minds.

Yet, time and again, I have been challenged by parishioners to keep my sermons focused on theology and to leave “political issues” outside the church walls.

One time, a kind gentleman approached me and said, “The subject of climate change is being manufactured by scientists, and it is all a hoax.” “Really,” I asked, “why would they do that?” He said, “They are looking for research money from the government and private foundations in order to maintain their opulent lifestyles.” “Hmmmm, and could you point out a wealthy scientist for me?” The conversation ended there, and I have never seen this fellow again.

On other occasions, after preaching about climate being a moral issue and something that humans have been contributing to, I was told that, yes, the climate is changing, but it is due to sunspots and solar energy. Others have said, “It is God’s will, and once the Earth is destroyed, Jesus will return, and all of us believers will return to God” (the Rapture).

These examples show that if religious leaders are going to talk about climate change, we have to know and be able to explain the basic facts. If I’m challenged at coffee hour about the sermon someone in my church just heard, I have to be able to back up what I said.

Faith Leaders Should Build Relationships with Scientists

To be able to speak with some degree of scientific authority, religious leaders need close ties to scientists. That’s why one of the most important relationships that the Interfaith Power and Light campaign maintains is the one with science.

Many years ago, I developed a genuine, honest, and loyal friendship with Dr. Stephen Schneider, one of the most influential and well-known climate scientists of our time. Dr. Schneider and I were a tag team, and he joined me at many congregation events. He would give an overview of the science of climate change, and I would follow with the religious response.

When Stephen suddenly died in 2010, I no longer had the ear or advice of a scientist who was also a friend. This void led me to encourage each of Interfaith Power and Light’s state leaders to get to know a scientist who can be on their local team, in addition to making a conscious effort to learn the science of climate change themselves.

As Albert Einstein said, “Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.” Faith leaders cannot teach or promote protection of the climate unless we know what is causing the problem.

Different Religions, One Voice

Most faiths profess a love and sense of gratitude for the life that sustains us. That’s why faith leaders of nearly all mainstream religions have developed genuine, unique, yet amazingly consistent statements on climate change.

In 2000, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL)—an umbrella effort that networks 27 national organizations to rally the U.S. Jewish community to conserve energy and promote sustainability—issued a statement on climate change. The statement also includes policy recommendations for the president and for Congress. Over the years, more statements and recommendations have been issued by COEJL, along with petitions the faithful can sign and letters the faithful can send, urging politicians to protect our planet and its inhabitants.

Heads of the Eastern Orthodox Church have also focused on climate change and the environment. Notably, a statement issued in 2007 by the Standing Conference of the Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas says,

Faithful to the responsibility that we have been given within God’s good creation, it is prudent for us to listen to the world’s scientific leaders as they describe changes occurring in the world’s climate.…

We must set an example in the way that we choose to live, reaching out and informing others about this threat. We must discuss with fellow-parishioners and—since climate change is not only an issue for Orthodox Christians—we must raise the issue before public officials and elected representatives at the city, state and national levels.

In 2014, the Anglican Church, the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Canada, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the United States jointly issued a statement. It includes the following:

The Holy Spirit’s work in us leads us as faithful consumers and investors in a global economy to make responsible choices to reduce energy use, carbon emissions, and the wasteful consumption of water and other natural resources. As citizens, we have voices to use in educating children about the climate and in shaping public and corporate policies that affect the environment. The Spirit has also given us our voices to contribute our witness to public discussion of just and responsible use of natural resources.

We also have the resources and responsibility to act together for the common good, especially for those most vulnerable to the effect of climate change in the spirit of the seventh Millennium Development Goal, “to ensure environmental stability.”

Prior to the United Nations Conference on Climate Change, held in Paris last year, many religious leaders and scholars took action to urge representatives to come together before irrevocable changes to climate occur.

For example, faith leaders and scholars developed the Islamic Statement on Climate, signed by 60 leaders, including the grand muftis of Lebanon and Uganda. It says, “Human activity is putting such a strain on the natural functions of the Earth that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted.”

Further, it states, “We recognize that we are but a miniscule part of the divine order, yet within that order, we are exceptionally powerful beings, and have the responsibility to establish good and avert evil in every way we can.”

A 2015 statement issued by at least 27 Buddhist leaders across the world, including the fourteenth Dalai Lama, says, “We believe it imperative that the global Buddhist community recognize both our dependence on one another as well as on the natural world. Together, humanity must act on the root causes of this environmental crisis, which is driven by our use of fossil fuels, unsustainable consumption patterns, lack of awareness, and lack of concern about the consequences of our actions.”

Specifically, the statement says, “Our concern is founded on the Buddha’s realization of dependent co-arising, which interconnects all things in the universe. Understanding this interconnected causality and the consequences of our actions are critical steps in reducing our environmental impact.”

More than 60 Hindu world leaders also signed a statement in 2015, building on a similar declaration in 2009. The recent statement says that “we have a dharmic duty for each of us to do our part in ensuring that we have a functioning, abundant, and bountiful planet.” It goes on to say,

Climate change creates pain, suffering, and violence. Unless we change how we use energy, how we use the land, how we grow our crops, how we treat other animals, and how we use natural resources, we will only further this pain, suffering, and violence. On a personal basis, we can reduce this suffering by beginning to transform our habits, simplifying our lives and material desires, and not taking more than our reasonable share of resources.

The most recent and perhaps the most influential of these statements is the encyclical by Pope Francis published in June 2015. In it, the Pope states,

A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon. Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it.

This is a shining example of the fact that even the most powerful religious leader in the world needs science to inform his intellect.

To protect creation, which includes the environment and all living creatures, including flora and fauna, religious leaders speak with one voice: We need both science and faith.

Taking Action for Faith

For 7 years, the Interfaith Power and Light Campaign has organized a preach-in on climate change over Valentine’s Day weekend. With love at the foundation of the weekend, we have directed the focus to love God and love Creation. On this weekend, we have encouraged congregation leaders to preach, teach, and advocate for a religious response to global warming.

Through our network of congregations, we have collected sample sermons from nearly every denomination. We have films to show, books to read, and discussion topics for climate conversations.

Solar panels on the roof of a church near Adelaide, Australia.
Solar panels on the roof of a church near Adelaide, Australia.
Credit: Michael Coghlan, CC BY SA 2.0

Each year, we enclose Valentine postcards in the congregation packet. These postcards are sent to senators or representatives in Congress about legislation that would further protect the climate and demonstrate love for the Earth and one another. Just last year in 2015, between 70,000 and 80,000 of these Valentine cards were sent by constituents who’ve heard our message of loving God and loving our neighbor. And the message is simple: If you love God and love your neighbor, you don’t pollute your neighbors’ air.

The popularity and influence of our preach-in weekend led us to believe we could and should do more, broader and bigger. If we could have an impact over a weekend, why not test what we could do over several days?

That’s why this year, in 2016, we’ve launched Faith Climate Action Week: an entire week surrounding the secular Earth Day when the faith community can come together, united, to learn about and inspire one another to take action on climate. On our website and in our congregational tool kit, we offer sample sermons, the award-winning film Racing Extinction, and information on scientific studies so that we can answer skeptics’ questions.

Connecting Our Heads to Our Hearts

In a way, the science of climate change really needs religion to help galvanize communities to coordinate and adopt solutions that mitigate climate change’s effects.

The bottom line is this: Facts alone will not convince and are insufficient in and of themselves to motivate us to act. To tackle climate and mitigate future suffering, we must connect our heads to our hearts.

We need the science, data, and facts, but for those of us of faith, we also need the hope and joy our religions provide to move forward into an uncertain future with certain action.

—Rev. Canon Sally G. Bingham, President, Interfaith Power and Light Campaign, San Francisco, Calif.; email: [email protected]

Citation: Bingham, S. G. (2016), Faith and science working together on climate change, Eos, 97, doi:10.1029/2016EO050243. Published on 14 April 2016.

Text © 2016. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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