Jesus Takes On Global Warming: How to Use the Church to Fight Climate Change
This article is part of theGIST Science for Society 2014 Article Competition. The top three articles will present their work at the conference. Vote for your favourite article here. Voting closes on Friday 31st October 2014.
A cursory glance through history certainly seems to suggest that the church and science have… some differences. That’s putting it nicely, of course. Clashes between the church and scientific developments are relatively common in history books – from the sun-centred solar system to the evolution-creation debate to the controversies surrounding the ethics of stem cell research. It’s easy enough to suppose that the church isn’t friendly to climate change, either – but that assumption may keep us from a valuable collaboration to fight climate change.
The church, as a whole, has largely been excluded from the arena that is climate change communication. There are many reasons behind this. Both sides – members of churches and members of the scientific community – tend to distrust each other, and attempt to keep their realms separate.  When interaction does occur, both sides tend to bring stereotypes and assumptions to the table, leading to a breakdown in discourse. Some even revert to name calling.  The politics of the matter don’t help much, particularly in the United States, where political schisms between liberals and conservatives bleed over into scientific and religious realms. 
The political disputes surrounding climate change, science, and religion need not prevent a combined action by scientific and religious institutions, however. People sceptical of scientists or the media may be more inclined to trust their ministers and other religious leaders [2-4]; people worried at about sticking out for their pro-environmental behaviour may be encouraged by the group dynamic of congregation-wide environmental action, the presence of which may inspire others to become engaged with environmental issues who typically wouldn’t. [5-7]
Churches get things done. The U.S. Civil Rights movement, the abolition and temperance movements here in the U.K. – all of these social movements accomplished by church congregations. The competence of congregational communities has historically been impressive.  Churches have consistently manifested their power in beginning and supporting social movements,  and what is climate change action if not potentially one of the most important social movements of our time? 
The church, as a whole, has shown over the course of its existence a strong ability to devote itself to causes much larger than itself – issues and events that extend far beyond the scope of a human lifespan or geographic space.  Climate change and global poverty could be compared at that level – both are so mind-bogglingly large, and perhaps impossible to cure altogether, but a strong effort can be made to reduce some of the effects. 
The potential support behind this social movement is strong in number – it is particularly staggering in the U.S., with 39% of U.S. residents attending some sort of religious service each week, the vast majority of them a Christian denomination.  Even more importantly, the people who by and large tend to go to these services are exactly the kind of people who are not currently taking action against climate change, [3, 11, 12] though they may be involved in many other charitable causes.
Presenting climate change as a social issue, rather than a purely scientific one, may well encourage church members to action they would not otherwise take.  This is consistent with the ideas behind framing theory, which suggest that people react to information and suggestions differently depending on the context in which they are presented. [7, 9] This particular frame, of climate change of a social issue, offers a different mental approach to climate change action,  and also serves to better connect climate change to the interests of the church.
The population most at risk from climate change are the populations already the concern of most churches inclined to global service – the poor, both domestically and globally. The same community that benefits most from the installation of a well or the construction of a clinic (common church mission trip projects) will also be one of the ones first affected by changes in global temperatures and the increasing numbers of severe weather events. [15, 16] It is not difficult to imagine a near future where the most common church mission trip task is the erection of sea walls, to limit the effects of sea level rise on low-lying island communities (again, popular destinations for mission trips).
The role church climate change action can take is potentially powerful at home as well, not just limited to external causes and projects. Individuals within churches have internalized a large number of lifestyle habits that may not make their lives easier, but make them more fulfilling.  (Examples of these include tithing and donations, the Lenten abstention from sweets, restraint from various worldly pleasures, and the act of devoting one day a week, if not more, to church attendance.) This ability to internalize and devote oneself to habits in the name of a cause greater than oneself has the potential to extend into the realm of climate change action. Connecting environmental tenants to the Christian faith – through the Genesis 1:27 mandate of global stewardship, perhaps – may lead to a large-scale adoption of support for environmental causes on an individual and congregational level.
It’s all too easy to dismiss Christian communities in today’s humanist society (and particularly in post-Christian European countries, where church-goers are in the minority of the population),  but assuming these groups can’t be involved in climate change activism is a mistake. Some religious groups are already on board – Interfaith Power and Light, for instance, has mounted a U.S.-wide campaign for climate justice.  Much potential remains, however, as the tension between science and church linters unnecessarily. Combined with the history of taking a powerful stance of issues of social justice, the devotion of church members to seeing through commitments offers a strong argument for increased communication between Christian communities and scientific institutions and non-profits. Perhaps the climate change battle can be the first step toward reconciliation for these long-conflicting institutions.
Article by Mary Kristen Layne
1.Evans JH. Conservative Protestantism and Skepticism of Scientists Studying Climate Change. Climatic Change. 2013; 121: 595-608.
2.Hargie D, Dickson D. Skilled Interpersonal Communication. 4th Edition. London: Routledge; 2004.
3.Malka A, Krosnick JA, Langer G. The Association of Knowledge with Concern About Global Warming: Trusted Information Sources Shape Public Thinking. Risk Analysis. 2009; 29(5): 633-646.
4.Brulle R, Carmichael J, Jenkins JC. Shifting public opinion on climate change: an empirical assessment of factors influencing concern over climate change in the U.S., 2002-2010. Climatic Change. 2012; 114: 169-188.
5.Wendling Z, Attari S, Carley S, Krause R, Warren D, Rupp J, Graham J. On the Importance of Strengthening Moderate Beliefs in Climate Science to Foster Support for Immediate Action. Sustainability. 2013; 5(12): 5153-5170.
6.French JRP, Raven B. The Bases of Social Power. In: Cartwright D, editor. Studies in Social Power. Ann Arbor, Michigan, Institute for Social Research: 1959.
7.Bolsen T, Leeper T, Shapiro M. Doing what others do: norms, science, and collective action on global warming. American Politics Research. 2014; 42(1): 65-89.
8.Johnson MA, Mullins P. Community Competence in Religious Congregations. American Journal of Community Psychology. 1990; 18(2): 259-276.
9.Wirbeck V. Enhancing learning, communication, and public engagement about climate change – some lessons from recent literature. Environmental Education Research. 2014; 20(3): 387-411.
10.Morton T. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World. Where, Who: 2013.Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
11.Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Summary of Key Findings. U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. 2012.
12.Hamilton LC, Keim BD. Regional variation in perceptions about climate change. International Journal of Climatology. 2009; 29: 2348-2352.
13.Bain PG, Hornsey MJ, Bongiorno R, Jeffries C. Promoting pro-environmental action in climate change deniers. Nature Climate Change. 2012 Aug; 2: 600-603.
14.Markowitz EM. Is climate change an ethical issue? Examining young adults’ beliefs about climate and morality. Climate Change. 2012; 114: 479-495.
15.Appeaning AK, Larbi L, Amisigo B, Ofori-Danson PK. Impacts of Coastal Inundation Due to Climate Change in a CLUSTER of Urban Coastal Communities in Ghana, West Africa. Remote Sensing. 2011; 3: 2029-2050.
16.Sarà G, Milanese M, Prusina I, et al. The impact of climate change on mediterranean intertidal communities: losses in coastal ecosystem integrity and services. Regional Environmental Change. 2014; 14: 5-17.
17.Warren DI. Power, Visibility and Conformity in Formal Organizations. American Sociological Review. 1968; 33(6): 951-970.
18.Lipka M. Cameron’s ‘Christian Country’: What the numbers say about religion in the UK. Pew Research Center. 2014 Apr 24.
19.Interfaith Power and Light. A Religious Response to Global Warming [internet]. 2014 [cited 2014 Oct. 20]. Available from: http://www.interfaithpowerandlight.org/