In Theory: How should religion take on climate change?

A file satellite photo shows the minimum concentration of Arctic sea ice in 2005, when the sea ice extent dropped to 2.05 million square miles.

A file satellite photo shows the minimum concentration of Arctic sea ice in 2005, when the sea ice extent dropped to 2.05 million square miles.

(HO / AFP/Getty Images)

Panelists at the annual conference of the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science recently discussed how to talk to religious people about the effects of climate change, the Religion News Service reports.

“It’s vital not to soft-pedal the dangers that we face,” said the Rev. Fletcher Harper, executive director of GreenFaith, an interfaith nonprofit whose mission is to encourage religious people to be responsible stewards of the environment. “A great deal is at stake.”

Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist and Christian, said since religion is how many people understand their world, it’s important for scientists to talk about climate change in religious terms, referring to it as “connecting our heads to our hearts.”

Q. How do you convey the importance of taking on climate change with your congregation and other religious people?

Our earth is out of balance. We are endangering our own existence by accelerating climate change with the carbon emitted by our fossil fuel-driven economy. It seems humanity, particularly in the industrialized northern hemisphere, reveres mammon more than Gaia. We are fouling our own nest.

It’s not just environmentalists who think this. In 2015 the Department of Defense reported to Congress that “DoD recognizes the reality of climate change and the significant risk it poses to U.S. interests globally.” In 1994 Frank Nutter, president of the Reinsurance Assn. of America, stated, “It is clear that global warming could bankrupt the industry.” And as far back as 1970, weeks prior to the first Earth Day, a Republican senator asserted “I have about reached the conclusion that while large industry is important, fresh air and clean water are more important, and the day may well come when we have to lay that kind of hand on the table and see who is bluffing.” The Pentagon, the insurance industry and Barry Goldwater all recognized the threat posed to the planet. Darn hippies!

The awakening of people of faith and conscience to the challenge posed by global warming is essential to creating a movement to defend creation. The Interfaith Declaration on Climate Change has been endorsed by dozens of religious organizations and leaders. Interfaith Power and Light has collected statements from a wide range of faith traditions that illuminate a commitment to environmental stewardship. Among the key principles of Unitarian Universalists is “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” Many UU congregations have joined the Green Sanctuary program, a comprehensive effort to take responsibility, church by church, for achieving environmental sustainability in our lives together.

We have a choice: personal responsibility, collective commitment and unified action rooted in infinite reverence for humanity and our planet, or inequitable exploitation of finite resources distributed unjustly to the wealthy over the weak until it all runs out. Faith and conscience will be key to creating a humane, sustainable future for everyone.

Sen. Goldwater was more prophetic than we knew!

David L. Hostetter, Ph.D.
Vice President, Unitarian Universalist Church of the Verdugo Hills
La Crescenta


My simple response to this question is: I don’t. Rev. Harper says that, regarding the proper care of our environment, “A great deal is at stake.” And he’s right of course. This is the only planet God has given us to live on, and He has made us stewards of it. In a physical sense, how we take care of it is how it will in turn yield benefits to us. But the agenda for my ministry, what I speak about, and work for, has been set by God, having been clearly communicated in Scripture. So popular news stories or cultural “hot topics” or politically correct ideas will never set my agenda.

A great deal is also at stake with the issues God has called me to address. If people do not repent of their sins, claiming the forgiveness offered by God through faith in the shed blood of Jesus Christ, they will spend a horrific eternity separated from him. If members of my congregation do not know what the Bible teaches they will not live as productively or joyfully in Christ as they should. If I do not speak what God has told me to speak, or do the works that God has given me to do, I will still be saved and given a place in heaven, but I will not have the eternal rewards I could have had. So because such a great deal is at stake with these issues I focus on them and let other people concern themselves with other issues.

Pastor Jon Barta


It is the ultimate ambition of the religious and the nonreligious alike to convince the rest of humankind of the veracity of their personal life philosophies. This often accompanies an unwillingness to communicate in anything less than uncompromising absolutes. Far from the best way, and likely the worst way to enable another to hear and truly consider an argument, this type of communication is unproductive.

The world is not black and white. Common ground exists and, it is often within this overlap, the folds of our collective existential vestments, that we find mutualities exploitable to improve our lot. Protecting our common home is one of these things.

The recitation of obvious and provable facts and incontestable figures is enough, in my opinion, to come to the conclusion that climate change and global warming are real and imminent threats. However, it is just as obvious that this alone is not enough to convince many people of blind faith to dispense with religious shibboleths in order to reach consensus.

Rather than stubbornly refuse to accommodate this truism, scientists and anyone committed to saving the planet, if at all possible, must meet religion where it lives, not on a rational plane, but an emotional one. The Rev. Harper is right that speaking about why we should care, in the context of being righteous, is a much more productive argument to believers. It is not just scientists that will effect the change necessary to turn the tide of global warming. We are in this together, and there is little time to wait for people to come around.

Joshua Lewis Berg
Humanist Celebrant