LECTURE: Religion & Climate Change ~~ An Overview

by Duane Nichols on May 24, 2020

Webinar — Council on Foreign Relations (CFR)

Religion and Foreign Policy Webinar: “Religion and Climate Change,” Thursday, May 14, 2020

SPEAKERMary Evelyn TUCKER, Senior Lecturer, Senior Research Scholar, and Codirector of the Forum of Religion and Ecology, Yale University

HOST — Irina A. FASKIANOS, Vice President for National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations (CFR)

FASKIANOS: Hello and welcome to you all. I am Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at the Council on Foreign Relations. We’ve been convening these calls for a long time, but this is our first one with video. So it will be a new experience for all of us.

As a reminder, today’s call is on the record. The video and transcript are available as well as on our podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy.

We are delighted to have Mary Evelyn Tucker with us today. Mary Evelyn Tucker is co-director, with John Grim, of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale University, where they teach. This week, they have just released a new website for the Forum after a year of preparation. It has a comprehensive section on religion and climate change. You can find the website at Fore.Yale.edu. And they also announced a new partnership of the Forum with the U.N. Environment Programme’s Faith for Earth. So we will circulate the website at the conclusion of this event.

Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim have organized ten conferences and books on world religions and ecology at Harvard, and they convened the first conference on religion and climate change in 2000. As you all know, she’s co-author of Journey of the Universe, a book and an Emmy Award-winning film that aired on PBS. And this week, she, John Grim, and Sam Mickey have also released an online open-source book called Living Earth Community.

TUCKER: Well, thank you very much, Irina, and thanks to all who are on this call. And I also want to say from the very beginning that we recognize religions have their problems and they have their promise. We need not go into the problems historically or even at present, but we’re trying to concentrate, what is the moral force of religions, and how can we draw on that for climate change action and thinking and writing?

I also want to just say that for almost fifty years the field of interreligious dialogue has been hugely helpful for this coalition of religion and climate change. And there’s a number of people on this call — the Parliament of the World’s Religions’ Kusumita Pedersen; and Azza Karam from Religions for Peace; and people who have been working in Christian-Muslim dialogue and Jewish-Christian dialogue, John Polakowski and so on; and the Temple of Understanding, Grove Harris — so there’s been a lot of people working on interreligious dialogue and then trying to bring the religions forward towards the environment and climate change. And we thank them for this effort and just say that there’s many, many others, some of whom I’ll mention during this talk today, this little gathering.

I wanted to then go historically to say that probably one of the first conferences on religion and climate change came after we did the Harvard conferences in the ’90s, and this was in 2000 at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences which resulted in a book in 2001 in the journal Daedalus: Religion and Ecology: Can the Climate Change? And George Rupp was there. He was president of Columbia at the time. I think he’s on this call. We had a scientist, Mike McElroy, from Harvard. We had an ethicist, Baird Callicott. We had someone from law, Don Brown. And we had Bill McKibben as an activist and writer. And then folded into that context of other disciplines and other perspectives we had people from the different world religions speaking to what they offer to transition to climate change adaptation and so on.

And that’s the spirit that I want to just bring forward in this little moment of discussion, that dialogue is key. Religions in some ways are late to these various issues. Science and policy have been working on them for a long time, but religions are absolutely necessary. And more and more, science and policy are realizing that.

And I want to then just move to some leadership that has happened over the last twenty years, and to say that I’m going to concentrate here a little bit on the Christian churches, but much has been happening in the various world religions. But the World Council of Churches, with the work of Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, who’s also on this call, has helped to move the Protestant churches forward, and even towards divestment.

Two great leaders that we should note of the Orthodox Church. Bartholomew, who leads eight hundred million Greek Orthodox, and he has been one of the earliest spokespersons on the theology and the practice of climate change and so on, calling even what we’ve been doing ecological sin and crimes against creation. John Chryssavgis has been one of his great champions and writers and so on to bring this message forward. And he, the patriarch had conferences on climate change in Greenland, in the Amazon, in the Mississippi.

I want to move then to Pope Francis, who is a good friend of the patriarch, and they’ve worked together on many things. And we know that we’re coming up on the fifth year anniversary of Laudato Si’, which means “praise be.” So this was an encyclical address to the Christian churches, but to all peoples around the world, and this encyclical has been able to, when it was launched, illustrate this importance of dialogue, because the pope wasn’t there at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences but there were three key people who were. One was the key Orthodox theologian, John of Pergamon, indicating we need ecumenical and interreligious dialogue. Secondly, there was John Schellnhuber, who was a German scientist, head of the Potsdam Climate Research Institute, the largest in the world, over two hundred scientists, and he helped with the encyclical. And third, Cardinal Turkson, who’s originally from Ghana, to indicate the developing world, issues of equity, and so on need to be synergized. So that was very, very symbolic.

And the encyclical has helped bring together in remarkable ways a sense of climate justice, of ecojustice, and that’s because the pope in this encyclical was able to really synergize people and planet, especially in this phrase “cry of the Earth, cry of the poor,” which came from Leonardo Boff, a liberation theologian from Brazil. And that was a book published in 1997 in a series we’ve been working on from Orbis called Ecology and Justice. And that phrase, that the vulnerable are going to be most affected certainly by climate change, and so are ecosystems — as we know, they’re unraveling, their fragmented qualities, and the increase of weather-related—hurricanes and so on. So this synergy of climate justice and ecojustice has been so important from the encyclical and from this blending of humans and earth.

Now, that statement — that encyclical got statements and response from all the world’s religions, which is on our Forum website. But even prior to that, there have been statements of climate change, climate justice, and so on from the world’s religions. So this has been going on for at least twelve to fifteen years.

Now, broadly speaking, the Baha’is, the Sikhs, the Asian traditions, the Abrahamic traditions, and certainly indigenous traditions, have been more and more active, and that’s what I just want to highlight a little bit here. Even in 1990, the Catholic bishops had a statement on global warming. The Evangelical Environmental Network and Mitch Hescox, who has a book on this, has been very active for more than twenty years. Katharine Hayhoe has been speaking out on climate change, especially for Evangelical groups.

Now, we can say, then, going forward we have theology moving forward, all kinds of books, and books that also illustrate people’s transformations. One I just want to mention is Rooted and Rising, which are case studies of people who have this ecological conversion that the pope is talking about. And Leah Schade and Margaret Bullitt-Jonas did that book. Jim Antal did one of the best books, I think, on Climate Church, Climate World.

And next week — I want to give a special shout-out because sermons by these people and Nancy Wright as well are up on the website. Next week there’s going to be a whole festival of homilies. Eleven thousand people signed up to hear homilies on climate change. This is a watershed moment, and a lot of people have been involved in creating that.

Greening of seminaries have been going on for fifteen years. We’ve got a lot of people working on that, Laurel Kearns and so on. And that means both changing practices of carbon footprint as well as curriculum.

Now, again, let’s move to action, and then I’ll finish up so we have time for questions. But let me say some of the early movements here— Interfaith Power and Light, these interreligious groups, the Green Faith movement, Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary, Blessed Tomorrow, and so on, in the Climate March in 2014, at Union Theological Seminary, Karenna Gore with Earth Ethics Center there brought together a huge number of religious leaders, and into the march ten thousand religious leaders were very much part of it. Fletcher Harper helped to organize that as well.

But what I want to say is we’re moving from theological statements and so on, from protest movements, to action. We have still a long, long way to go. But I want to highlight one movement that I think is very, very important, and that’s the financial leverage of religious institutions and so on. Now, the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility in New York has been working for almost fifty years on this issue, and Seamus Finn is here, and they’re trying to do shareholder engagement with corporations on climate change and a variety of issues. And that’s because religious communities helped to start CSR, corporate social responsibility, when they said, how are we going to invest our pension funds? So they’ve been spurring this movement for a long, long time. There are three hundred members of this organization.

And then I want to suggest that the divest-invest movement — there’s $14 trillion now committed to this area, started ten years ago, spurred by Bill McKibben and many, many others. But religious communities have been central. The Unitarians, the United Church of Christ with Jim Antal’s help, the Shalom Center, the World Council of Churches, the Church of England, all of these have divested. And the religious communities have a very high percentage in this number that I’ve just mentioned. Religious institutions—Union Theological Seminary, Georgetown University, Dayton University, Seattle University—150 Catholic institutions and foundations have pledged to divest.

So to divest is also to invest, of course, in green technology, alternative technologies, and so on, and the religious communities have been helping in this movement, like Stop the Money Pipeline, right? Now JPMorgan Chase is being pressured to stop investing in oil and pipeline. BlackRock, the investment firm, tremendous pressure. And Liberty Mutual, the insurance company. So Bill McKibben just did an article in the New York Times, as well; between the moral force of divestment and the economics of oil prices collapsing, we’re seeing some very significant changes.

And finally, I want to give a huge shout-out to the youth movement, again, supported by the moral force of religious and spiritual and ethical people around the planet: the Sunrise Movement, Fridays for Future, certainly Greta Thunberg—what a moral force she is—and this broad coalition of Extinction Rebellion.

Finally, let me say that the voices of indigenous peoples, especially through the Indigenous Environmental Network, have been persistent, relentless, and courageous, because they have understood that the deepest sensibilities of human-Earth relations comes from the voice of the Earth, from the magnificent water systems, ecosystems, mountains, forests, and so on that speak to us, and that’s part of this Living Earth Community book that we’re talking about. But across North America and around the world, we can look at Standing Rock in the Dakotas with the Hunkpapa Sioux saying water is sacred — water is sacred. That was the dimension and the basis of their protest. We’ve got Anishinaabe people in Minnesota, across British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest these protest movements linked with indigenous peoples and other groups.

Finally, the statement that came out of Bolivia, Cochabamba, thirty thousand indigenous peoples who gathered there and released the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth in 2015. Such a magnificent and powerful statement. And now we have an interfaith rainforest initiative sponsored by United Nations Environment Programme, the Norwegian government, and many religious groups, like the Forum on Religion and Ecology, to say: These are the caretakers of our forests. These are the people that we must unite with and support. Other religious communities, Christians and others, must give the voice of indigenous peoples their due.

So let me end with this note. There’s so many things we could have mentioned, and we’ll get to some of them in the discussion. But thank you all for being here.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Evan Berry May 24, 2020 at 11:14 am

Center for Latin American & Latino Studies |

American University, Washington, DC

About the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies

The Center for Latin American & Latino Studies (CLALS), established in January 2010, is a campus-wide initiative advancing and disseminating state-of-the-art research. Our faculty affiliates and partners are at the forefront of efforts to understand economic development, democratic governance, cultural diversity and change, peace and diplomacy, health, education and environmental well-being. CLALS generates high quality, timely analysis on these and other issues in partnership with researchers and practitioners from AU and beyond. Learn more about us.



Religion and Climate Change | American University, Washington, DC

Climate change is dramatically altering the planet and affecting human livelihoods in ways that elicit religious response.

Building upon earlier CLALS work focused on forms of religious engagement with environmental conflict in Latin America, this project deepens understanding of the relationship between religion and the effects of climate change across multiple regions of the world.

In the process it addresses three interrelated questions: the role of religion in ongoing public discourse on climate change, religious sources of environmental knowledge that inform community responses to climate change, and the ways that climate change also drives religious change.

A collaboration between Latin Americanists and Caribbeanist researchers along with scholars and practitioners focused on South Asia and the South Pacific, this project transcends the geographic barriers which too often constrain conventional area studies initiatives.

Dialogues across regions and religions have given special attention to three features of climate change, with a focus on water: the effects of glacial melt in the Andes and Himalayas, climate-related stress upon urban water systems in South America and South Asia, and the vulnerabilities of small island archipelagos in the Caribbean and the South Pacific.

With generous support from the Henry Luce Foundation, this project is led by Evan Berry, an Assistant Professor of Environmental Humanities at Arizona State University. Project co-principal investigators include CLALS Director Eric Hershberg and CLALS Research Associate Professor Robert Albro.



Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: