Using religion to further the climate conversation

Margalit Patry-Martin

As reports on the acceleration and risks of human-caused climate change are multiplying, and activism and awareness are increasing, American activists continue to be frustrated by unmoving climate denialism in white religious Christian communities. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2015, only 28% of white evangelicals believed climate change was human-caused. To secular people, we seem to be at an impasse, since religious Christians don’t find climate science-backed arguments convincing; as a secular Jew concerned about climate change, I completely understand that feeling. However, I think the issue is not with religious Christians, but with our refusal to acknowledge their perspectives when making arguments.
One of the key reasons for our stubbornness is the idea that religion and science are inherently in conflict. There were, and still are, many religious people who are scientists. Gregor Mendel, who established the rules of heredity that became the foundation of modern genetics, was an Augustinian friar in the 1800s, and conducted his experiments at his monastery. Clearly, religious people aren’t automatically unable to use reason and facts. But if we believe that science and religion are at war, then secular people, of course, believe “our side,” science, is always the winner. Our superiority complex comes from the belief that science is purely rational; if scientific theories were determined experimentally, how could they be anything but factual? However, science doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and scientists are influenced by the society they’re in. Most recently, in 2019 a decision-making computer software in the US, created by Optum, was revealed to assign lower medical risk scores to black patients than white patients with the same disease; this was not a calculation error. The implicit bias of the program’s makers affected how the program worked. If we can lower ourselves from a delusional platform of pure rationalism, then we can start to engage with religious climate skeptics as equals and make progress.
Even in the secular community, using arguments outside of science has been helpful for climate change advocacy. Greta Thunberg isn’t making the pure-science “save the polar bears” plea now, because it’s not an effective motivator; instead the risk of humanity ending has shown to be a very compelling argument. We can similarly pair scientific proof of climate change with religious motivators (once we internalize that science and religion can go together). Religion has historically been a major motivator; why not use it? There are currently two major arguments in the growing Christian environmentalist movement for acting against climate change. First, humans’ dominion over the earth, as told in Genesis, has been interpreted as stewardship, making humans responsible for taking care of what God gave them. Statistics on carbon emissions alone aren’t moving, but a stewardship perspective can compel people to act against irresponsible use of the earth’s resources. Second, connecting the charity aspect of Christianity to the disproportionate harm poor people will suffer from climate change’s effects can encourage people to help those in need by joining efforts against rising temperatures. In fact, religious organizations would be uniquely helpful in mitigating some inevitable effects of climate change; as natural disasters threaten to break apart communities, religion can help keep the social fabric intact in ways the scientific community cannot.
The best way to convince a religious Christian to combat climate change may be to connect them to someone with a similar background. If someone feels uncomfortable and threatened by secular liberals, then it will be completely unproductive for a secular liberal to argue with them. Instead, point them in the direction of religious Christian climate scientists, or pastors leading their own environmentalist movements. By stopping treating religious Christians as a roadblock, we can make actual progress on climate drawdown while acknowledging our differences.