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Climate Change and the Significance of Religion

Mike Hulme ( is professor of climate and culture, Department of Geography, King’s College London.

There is a growing sense that religion has a part to play in shaping our responses to climate change. Merely understanding climate science, or dealing with it through the frame of technology is clearly insufficient. Religious engagement with climate change is both necessary and inevitable. But there is much to discover about how religious beliefs, institutions and practices around the world engage with the idea of climate change, and to what effect, thereby offering rich research agendas with which religious scholars and others might profitably engage.

People have always sought to make sense of their variable weather, to seek explanations for why the gods seem to bless or curse humanity through offering them either benign or malign weather. Agricultural societies in particular have always been aware of their dependence on the weather gods, since how the weather behaves means the difference between plenty and scarcity, profit and loss, between life and death itself. Yet, religious modes of explanation for changing climates began to be supplanted in the 17th century by naturalistic accounts of climatic misdemeanours. As nature became disenchanted during the Western enlightenment, scientific exploration and explanation became the preferred way to discover true causal accounts of adverse weather extremes and climatic stresses.

Such scientific accounts of climatic change are now dominant in the worlds of education, economics and politics. This dominance is nowhere more evident than in the international gatherings of politicians, diplomats and negotiators who, since 1995, convene each December in the Conference of the Parties (COPs) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Science has revealed that human activities are transforming the atmosphere (through the emission of greenhouse gases and particulates) and the land (through forest and ecosystem transformations) to such an extent that it is now humans, not the gods, who exert a greater influence on the climate.

If science provides comprehensive, and apparently adequate, accounts of climatic behaviour, and if it is human rather than divine agency that now shapes current and future weather, can there be any role for religion? In secularised polities, it is assumed that technology, economic instruments and political institutions will provide solutions to climate change and allow for a degree of deliberate human control over the climate. Science will provide the evidence for the effectiveness or otherwise of these instruments of secular governance. Religion becomes irrelevant, whether for explanations of change or for solutions to change. Thus one finds religion excluded from prominent accounts of climate change science (such as that offered by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC]) or of climate change activism (such as the call-to-arms issued in Naomi Klein’s recent book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate).

But is this really the case, in Europe, in North America—or in the rest of the world? I am not so sure. There is a growing sense that religion—religious thought, institutions and practices—might indeed have a part to play in shaping human responses to climate change (Hulme 2016). The West, let alone the rest of the world, is not as secular as it once thought itself to be. And in the face of the challenges posed by climate change, the motivational energy offered by science, economics and secular ethics has been found wanting. Ignoring the role and influence of religion in responses to climate change might be thought of as another form of denialism.

Leading scientists, researchers andpolicymakers have begun recognising the importance of religion for understanding how people make sense of climate change and for identifying meaningful responses to the challenges that a changing climate raises. For example, writing in a 2016 editorial inScience, the flagship journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo and Veerabhadran Ramanathan (2016: 747) argued that

… the resolution of major environmental problems facing society [such as climate change] requires a fundamental reorientation in our behaviour and attitude toward nature and toward each other—this is a moral revolution.

Not only does religion matter for climate change but, conversely, climate change also matters for religion, as has been succinctly argued by Anglican Bishop David Atkinson (2012),

… the questions posed by climate change reach to the heart of faith: our relationship to God’s earth and to each other; the place of technology; questions about sin and selfishness, altruism and neighbour[ly] love; what to do with our fears and vulnerabilities; how to work for justice, especially for the most disadvantaged parts of the world and for future generations.

Why Religions Matter

Given the ubiquity of religious faith in the world, and given that all religions offer ways of ordering relations between humans, non-humans and the gods, it would be surprising if religions had nothing to say about climate change. Different cultures and diverse groups of stakeholders understand the threat of climate change according to distinctive religious frames of reference, whether these are explicit or tacit. These religious narratives and rituals shape the nature and credibility of different knowledge claims about climate—what is happening to the climate and why—as well as shaping individual and communal ethical and social behaviour. Religious faith traditions and communities therefore offer “thick” accounts of moral reasoning for acting in the world, in response to climate change as much as in response to other social and ecological challenges. One such example would be the idea of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, the idea of people made in the image of god and thereby inspired to bring about justice, goodness and freedom for all—a vision which has long been part of many religious movements.

Such accounts of moral reasoning sit in contrast to most secular calls for climate mitigation and adaptation, which rely upon “thin” global values: criteria that may be widely acknowledged intellectually, but which lack conviction and are rootless and culturally non-specific (Wolf and Moser 2011). “Thin” global values do not fully capture the full range of concerns and commitments expressed by affected communities, for example, claims about sacred landscapes, divine causality, ethical responsibility or social solidarity.

Religious traditions influence the cosmologies of believers and, indirectly, unbelievers, which in turn give shape to how people make sense of unsettling changes in their local climatic environments. Major religious faiths also possess substantial institutional and economic resources, as well as possessing significant political power (Grim and Tucker 2014). Arresting climate change is seemingly not just beyond the capacities of science, it is also beyond the capacities of the state. But as with other non-state actors such as businesses, cities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), religious movements and institutions have the mobilising power to enlist multitudes of citizens in influential causes. Religious actors are key contributors to political discourses at local, national, and international levels, and prominent climate activists regularly cite the importance of religious participation in international climate negotiations. Influential climate scientists have publicly called for enhanced collaboration among religious institutions, policymakers and the scientific community (for example, Dasgupta and Ramanathan 2014).

Religions also animate social and ethical norms, enhance social capital and valorise certain lifestyles. Many commentators have remarked that climate policies need to tap into intrinsic, deeply-held values and motives if cultural innovation and change are to be lasting and effective. As the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (2007) observes:

The emphasis on consumption, economics and policy usually fails to engage people at any deep level because it does not address the narrative, the mythological, the metaphorical or the existence of memories of past disasters and the way out. The faiths are the holders of these areas and without them, policies will have very few real roots.

Religious practices can not only ameliorate hardships affecting communal life, but can also deliver on calls for alternative value systems and lifestyles.

Religion as Cultural Resource

When thinking of a visionary future, any visionary future, whether decarbonised or not, one needs to engage the full cultural resources at the disposal of humans. And to do this, I suggest, is to engage the religious imagination. For example, what criteria, beyond simply “keeping it [carbon] in the ground,” can guide ethical thinking and the moral imagination? What vision of humanity, beyond that of narrow self-interest, species-interest or national interest, is to guide us? Or, to echo the words of Naomi Klein (2014), where is the moral energy to be found that takes us beyond seeing humans as singular, self-gratification-seeking units? In her book, Klein seems shy of engaging with the religious, but not so many other scholars in the environmental humanities. Willis Jenkins at the University of Virginia, for example, makes clear the relationship between ecology and religion:

Humanity’s ecological relations have religious and cultural dimensions. Failure to recognise and interpret those dimensions impoverishes environmental understanding, whereas engaging them has the potential to connect environmental questions with fundamental human questions of meaning, value, and purpose. (2016: 22)

Or take religious scholar Erin Wilson, Director of the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain at the University of Gröningen in the Netherlands. Wilson studies the idea of the post-secular and in particular the rise of new religious globalisms and how these globalisms are important, powerful and creative in relation to public policy questions concerning human rights, aid and development, conflict resolution and, relevant for us here, climate change (Wilson 2012). Wilson’s argument is that secular assumptions remain deeply embedded within many of the global governance frameworks within which these questions are examined. But she and others argue for a re-examination of assumptions about religion’s role in global civil society and about religion itself. Certain forms of secularism are highly subjective, ideologically driven, and culturally specific. In privileging secular approaches, global justice theorists and activists are overlooking fruitful resources for critiques of neo-liberalism and other forms of hegemony. More fundamentally, they are inadvertently (re)producing global epistemological injustice through the exclusion of non-secular world views.

A different line of argument is developed by Lisa Stenmark, a religious studies scholar at San Jose University in the United States. Stenmark (2015) argues that while scientific discourses and data are important for dealing with “wicked” problems such as climate change, stories and storytelling are indispensable. They allow people to live with uncertainty and ambiguity, opening them up to new possibilities. This is a view also reached by Alex Evans in his recent, short book The Myth Gap (2016), written on the back of 20 years’ experience inside the political networks and institutions seeking to deal with climate change. The practice of storytelling is a religious one, reminding us that religion is an embedded and embodied practice. Stenmark makes an important difference between religion and theology. And to the extent that both science and theology concern themselves with doctrinal statements, both science and theology are opposed to storytelling. The goal of storytellers is to provoke—to point to absolutes when people fail to act, to point to uncertainties when people become too confident. The role of storytellers is to increase the plurality of perspectives and to open minds to alternatives, to offer stories that help people to judge and act in the midst of uncertainty. This is an art the world’s great religious traditions have long mastered.

Decarbonised futures for humanity as imagined in the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change cannot be ends in themselves. They can only gain strength and legitimacy by being placed within a larger narrative about what guides and energises people to act in the world, what account of meaning and purpose they give themselves. The danger of too narrow a focus on low carbon societies, in the narrow sense, is that it is reductive in vision and moral force. It fails to deal with ultimate questions of the good, the just, the meaningful, the transcendent. These ultimate questions that any utopian project has to consider—and I deliberately place decarbonisation in the tradition of utopias (that is, an imagined society that possesses highly desirable or nearly perfect qualities)—emerge from religious and philosophical reflections, practices and imaginaries. What is it to be imago dei, to be made in the image of god? What is it for humans to be emancipated? What ultimately is a satisfactory human life? In what faith are the qualities of goodness, justice and equality grounded, if not in god?

The enduring importance of these questions begins to explain the generally enthusiastic reception given in the West and elsewhere to the Pope’s encyclical, Laudato Si’: On Care for our Common Home (Pope Francis 2015). What is important in this encyclical is not so much the Pope’s comments about the reality of (human-caused) climate change nor about limiting global warming to 2°C; in fact he says nothing about this policy goal. What is far more important is the way in which he develops an account of what it means to be human, to be made in the image of god (Hulme 2015). He is concerned first and foremost about offering a vision of human dignity, responsibility and purpose, drawing upon the rich traditions of Catholic theology and ethics. Pope Francis offers a holistic narrative of the human condition which embraces science, but is hardly driven by it. It is rooted in a cosmic reality—with both material and spiritual dimensions—and recognises the human capacity for ingenuity and propensity for greed. That religion can offer such accounts of the human condition is recognised by the novelist and essayist, Amitav Ghosh, as well. Unlike Naomi Klein, in his book on climate change, The Great Derangement (Ghosh 2016), Ghosh recognises the animating power of such religious narratives and movements, and argues that without them there is little hope for developing any adequate response to the challenges of climate change.

Convergence or Divergence?

I am arguing that religious engagement with climate change is both necessary and inevitable, but we must also recognise that religion per se is hardly a panacea for resolving the many deep divisions and dilemmas in our world which climate change reveals. While the Interfaith Statement on Climate Change (Interfaith Summit 2014), or the Pope’s encyclical, hold out hopeful visions for common action on climate change, there remain many sources of tension within and between different religious traditions which complicate these hopes. Where local groups are affected by climate change, communities necessarily respond in vernacular terms consistent with their own religious and cultural self-understandings. Far from inspiring a replicable or universal response, the world’s religions are engaging with the idea of climate change for diverse reasons and in divergent ways (Veldman et al 2013).

Take this example. On 27 April 2015, several weeks before the Vatican issued Pope Francis’ encyclical, the Cornwall Alliance, an American Christian evangelical coalition, issued an open letter on climate change addressed to the Pope. Whilst commending him for his care for the earth and for god’s children, the letter raised concerns about the quality of some aspects of climate science and about the world views underpinning some climate policy advocacy. Interpreting the Bible as mandating a preference for the poor, the authors of the letter concluded that “… it is both unwise and unjust to adopt policies requiring reduced use of fossil fuels for energy” (Cornwall Alliance 2015).

Three years earlier, on 22 February 2012, Operation Noah, another Christian evangelical coalition but one based in the United Kingdom (UK), had also issued a public statement on climate change, the so-called Ash Wednesday Declaration (Operation Noah 2012). It challenged the Church that care for god’s creation—and therefore concern about climate change—was foundational to the Christian gospel. Consciously echoing the 1934 Barmen Declaration, which gave coherence and visibility to the emergent Confessing Church during the Nazi regime, Operation Noah claimed climate change to be just such another “confessional issue.” Taking inspiration from the same Scriptures as the Cornwall Alliance, they declared, “For our generation, reducing our dependence on fossil fuels has become essential to Christian discipleship.”

These two examples highlight the complex relationship between religion—in this case the Protestant Christian faith—and climate change. On the one hand, they clearly show that the questions raised by the idea of human-caused climate change have increasingly come to engage Christian institutions, theologians and faith-holders. But these vignettes also capture something of the diversity of religious engagements with the issue. Though appealing to the same revealed divine authority in the Bible, the Cornwall Alliance and Operation Noah reach radically different conclusions about what constitutes an appropriate response to climate change. The arguments, controversies and calls to diverse actions (and inactions) that have characterised the public (and mostly secular) discourse surrounding climate change are also to be found powerfully at work within religious communities.

Unanswered Questions

There is much yet to discover about how religious beliefs, institutions and practices around the world interact with the idea of climate change, and with what effect. If more culturally-grounded policy responses to climate change are to be secured, then a better understanding will be needed of the religious heterogeneity through which climate change is experienced and politicised. Improved knowledge about the overlaps and differences among religious traditions can inform the development of climate policy and generate more effective coalition-building across diverse interests. Here are a number of emerging research agendas with which religious scholars and their companions might enthusiastically engage.

Most scholarship on Christianity and climate change has focused on NorthAmerica and Europe. Yet the most significant concentrations of Christian believers, and where growth is strongest, are in Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia. How then do African Christians, for example, bring theological reasoning tobear on the questions of poverty, ecology and technology that lie at the heart ofclimate change? (See Golo and Yaro 2013, as a leading example.) Similarly, giventhat Islam, with nearly 25% of the world’spopulation, is the second-largest religion in terms of adherents, more attention should be paid to how Muslims—in faith and in practice—either engage with or potentially engage with climate change. For example, studies should track how ordinary Muslims interpret and respond to the August 2015 Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change (IFEES 2015).

Better understanding is needed of how individual believers interpret doctrinal, ethical and behavioural statements on climate change issued by faith leaders, and what range of such lay interpretations can be—and are—accommodated within religious traditions and communities. Forexample, empirical research should be conducted on lay readings anduses of the Pope’s encyclical. Schuldt et al (2017) offer one such example in their study of howthe encyclical influenced American public opinion on climate change. It is also important to understand the effectiveness of different means of communicating the risks of climate change, as articulated by science, with people of various faiths. A recent report from Climate Outreach (2015) in theUK is of interest in this regard.


Science is never enough to resolve problems that are cultural in origin. Neither through its promise of solid and reliable knowledge, nor through its efforts to animate social movements, can science chart a course of action in the world that will resolve political contestation and cultural diversity. The former chairman of the IPCC, R K Pachauri, was therefore profoundly wrong when he claimed in November 2014 at the launch of the Synthesis Report of the IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report that, “All we need is the will to change, which we trust will be motivated by … an understanding of the science of climate change” (IPCC 2014). Simply understanding climate science will not provide the “will to change.” On the other hand, reading climate change and accounts of human agency through the eyes of the world’s religions offers fresh insights and different inspirations about what it means to be human in an age of climate change. There is no “single solution” to climate change here to be found, but it would be foolish in the extreme to pretend that religion has nothing to offer.


Alliance for Religions and Conservation (2007): “UN and ARC Launch Programme with Faiths on Climate Change,” ARC News and Resources, 7 December,

Atkinson, D (2012): “Why Climate Change Is a Confessional Question,”

Climate Outreach (2015): “Starting a New Conversation on Climate Change with the European Centre-Right,”

Cornwall Alliance (2015): “An Open Letter to Pope Francis on Climate Change,”

Dasgupta, P and V Ramanathan (2014): “Pursuit of the Common Good,”Science, Vol 345, No 6203, pp 1457–58.

Evans, A (2016):The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough, London: Transworld Publishers.

Ghosh, A (2016):The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Golo, B-W K and J A Yaro (2013): “Reclaiming Stewardship in Ghana: Religion and Climate Change,”Nature and Culture, Vol 8, No 3, pp 282–300.

Grim, J and M E Tucker (2014):Ecology and Religion, Washington DC: Island Press.

Hulme, M (2015): “Finding the Message of the Pope’s Encyclical,”Environment Magazine, Vol 57, No 6, pp 16–19.

— (2016): “Climate Change: Varieties of Religious Engagement,”Routledge Handbook on Religion and Ecology, W Jenkins, M E Tucker and J Grim (eds), Abingdon: Routledge, pp 239–48.

IFEES (2015): “Islamic Declaration on Global ClimateChange,” mMWB.pdf.

Interfaith Summit on Climate Change (2014): “Climate, Faith and Hope: Faith Traditions Together for a Common Future,” 21 September, NewYork,

IPCC (2014): “Climate Change Threatens Irreversible and Dangerous Impacts, But Options Exist to Limit its Effects,” 2 November, climatechange/blog/2014/11/climate-change-threatens-irreversible-dangerous-impacts-options-exist-limit-effects/.

Jenkins, W (2016): “Whose Religion? Which Ecology?”Routledge Handbook on Religion and Ecology, W Jenkins, M E Tucker and J Grim (eds), Abingdon: Routledge, pp 22–32.

Klein, N (2014):This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, New York: Simon & Schuster.

Operation Noah (2012): “Climate Change and the Purposes of God: A Call to the Church,”

Pope Francis (2015):Encyclical Letter: Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis—On Care for Our Common Home, Rome: Vatican Press.

Schuldt, J P et al (2017): “Brief Exposure to Pope Francis Heightens Moral Beliefs about Climate Change,”Climatic Change, Vol 141, No 1, pp 167–77.

Sorondo, M S and V Ramanathan (2016): “Pursuit of Integral Ecology,”Science, Vol 352, No 6287, p 747.

Stenmark, L L (2015): “Storytelling and Wicked Problems: Myths of the Absolute and Climate Change,”Zygon, Vol 50, No 4, pp 922–36.

Veldman, R G, A Szasz and R Haluza-Delay (eds) (2013):How the World’s Religions Are Responding to Climate Change: Social Scientific Investigations, Abingdon: Routledge.

Wilson, E K (2012):After Secularism: Rethinking Religion in Global Politics, Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Wolf, J and S C Moser (2011): “Individual Understandings, Perceptions and Engagement withClimate Change: Insights from In-depth Studiesacross the World,”WIREs Climate Change, Vol 2, No 4, pp 547–69.

Updated On : 14th Jul, 2017


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