"Americans and Climate Change: Closing the Gap Between Science and Action" (PDF) is a report synthesizing the insights of 110 leading thinkers on how to educate and motivate the American public on the subject of global warming. Background on the report here. I’ll be posting a series of excerpts (citations have been removed; see original report). If you’d like to be involved in implementing the report’s recommendations, or learn more, visit the Yale Project on Climate Change website.

Below the fold is the beginning of the report’s second chapter, which is about transitioning the climate-change debate away from science talk and toward values talk. The first part focuses on the role that religious communities could or do play. I must admit I found some of it irksome — evangelical leaders said openly that their members are more likely to trust business leaders, don’t want to hear about gloom and doom, and don’t want to hear that they will have to sacrifice. Um … these are not exactly praiseworthy biases. Perhaps instead of asking everyone else to cater to them, evangelicals should change them. But don’t let me skew your perceptions — read it and let me know what you think.



Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.


Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free.

Given the challenges with propagating the science of climate change throughout society, many people now favor shifting to a values-based approach to motivating action on the issue. Religious communities, in particular, are increasingly adopting the climate change issue in fulfillment of their stewardship values. Yet a science-to-values repositioning, whether religious or secular, carries risks of its own that need to be understood and managed.

Many contend that science can only take us so far. At some point — and a number of our Conference participants believe we are now there on climate change — values must be invoked and the normative impulse must come to the fore.

Indeed, a number of religious communities and ecumenical initiatives have in recent years developed an emerging moral and spiritual outline of the climate change issue. Yet this impulse is now expanding: political, business, scientific and other leaders increasingly acknowledge the limits of standard rational discourse in portraying the risks and obligations associated with climate change and find themselves digging more deeply to find an authentic, values-based foundation for responding.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Educators at our Conference, for example, said that climate change must move beyond the science classroom and into the arts, humanities, and social sciences, where issues of human values, choices and tradeoffs are more actively discussed and engaged. Some of our participating politicians advised that only a moral appeal will break through the legislative torpor on climate change. Cognitive linguists told us that climate change must be connected to deeply-framed identities and values that condition how all issues — scientific or otherwise — are interpreted.

This is most apparent in the increasing view that religious communities in America, especially the fast-growing evangelical movement, may be the single most pivotal force in the U.S. for prompting societal action on climate change.

Religious Values and Climate Change

Connecting climate change to religious values, pivotal though it may be, faces significant remaining obstacles. Our Conference recognized the centuries-long break between religion and science, which persists to this day in religious suspicion of the scientific framing of climate change and other issues. Scientists are not always seen as credible messengers by religious groups, in part because they are often perceived to favor a meaningless, purposeless and Godless world that is anathema to religious people. The evolution/creationism debate, in particular, has continued to fuel religious distrust of scientists.

Related to the religious-science divide is the pronounced religious suspicion of environmentalists. Climate change has largely been framed as an environmental crisis instead of a moral or spiritual crisis, whereas religious constituencies are motivated especially by spiritual and social justice appeals. Many religious groups perceive that environmentalists are less concerned about human beings, including the risks of job loss. Accordingly, some religious leaders — though concerned with the environment — have avoided partnerships with environmentalists and instead fashioned their own distinctive approach and vocabulary, as in Creation Care magazine, which is produced by the Evangelical Environmental Network.

The religious leaders at our Conference, and others who engaged with them on what they believe is needed from religious communities, produced a set of compelling recommendations that could go a long way toward promoting societal action on climate change. The recommendations called on religious leaders and communities "to recognize the scale, urgency and moral dimension of climate change, and the ethical unacceptability of any action that damages the quality and viability of life on Earth, particularly for the poor and most vulnerable" (Recommendation #11). But more than this, other recommendations explicitly called on the leaders to communicate this concern, once recognized, to their memberships (Recommendation #13) and to the nation’s political leadership and broader public (Recommendation #14).

Religious communities have been at this awhile, of course — educating their memberships, issuing compelling public statements of concern, buying renewable energy from organizations like Interfaith Power & Light, and other activities. But there does appear to have been a recent acceleration in activity.

For example, in February 2006, 86 evangelical Christian leaders issued a manifesto entitled "Climate Change: An Evangelical Call for Action," encouraging the education of Christians about climate change and urging the U.S. Congress to enact legislation establishing a market-based cap-and-trade system. The manifesto appeared to significantly elevate climate change on the evangelical agenda when it said:

"With the same love of God and neighbor that compels us to preach salvation through Jesus Christ, protect unborn life, preserve the family and the sanctity of marriage, defend religious freedom and human dignity, and take the whole gospel to a hurting world, we the undersigned evangelical leaders resolve to come together with others of like mind to pray and to work to stop global warming."

Yet despite this strong statement, the evangelical community remains divided. Days before the release of the manifesto, 22 conservative evangelical Christian leaders, including particularly prominent ones like James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, Charles Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries, and Richard Land, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote to their umbrella group, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), asking that its leadership refrain from signing the statement — an appeal that succeeded. Their stated rationale was that "Global warming is not a consensus issue…." Some of the dissenters noted that, by comparison, the poverty issue was not as controversial and that action on climate change could undermine their anti-poverty agenda by diverting dollars needed to lift the poor.

Although they did not cite it, the dissenting evangelicals’ position bears similarities to the ranking exercise conducted by the Copenhagen Consensus initiative, which put a high priority on investing in immediate poverty alleviation (malnutrition, disease, sanitation) over allegedly distant, and economically discounted, threats like climate change. Anecdotally, leaders of foundations have also privately described the moral difficulty of navigating this tradeoff as they make funding decisions. While they might recognize the seriousness of climate change and the importance of funding a successful strategy, the same dollar could be spent directly on pills to save African children from river blindness — a relatively more concrete, quantifiable outcome. This suggests that more work needs to be done to clarify the exacerbating impact of climate change on poverty, on one hand, and to advance a coordinated basis for setting and measuring concrete progress in addressing climate change so that it can compete for a place on the agenda.

At the Conference, religious evangelicals spoke as well about obstacles that relate back to our earlier discussion of whether communications about the threatening consequences of climate change are less likely to motivate a societal response than positive messages. Some contended that the formulation of climate change as an issue requiring sacrifice and changes in lifestyles has undermined its ability to break through to certain religious communities.

Evangelicals, in particular, are often repelled by gloom-and-doom messages on matters like population control, which imply a need for big government. They noted at the Conference that this resistance might be overcome if the climate change issue were reframed as an opportunity to live a more morally and spiritually fulfilling life.

Given such obstacles, it is not reasonable to assume that all religious leaders and communities will readily respond to the Conference recommendation that they recognize the moral dimension of climate change or that they should establish religion-science and religion- environmentalist partnerships across longstanding lines of distrust (Recommendation #19). Some have succeeded in blazing this path — see, for example, the National Religious Partnership for the Environment’s 2004 statement "Earth’s Climate Embraces Us All," which was co-signed by religious and scientific leaders.

Such cross-domain statements and partnerships should be created or expanded where and when all sides are ready. But some at our Conference noted that doing so prematurely may cause the taint associated with environmentalism to slow down the nascent religious impulse to adopt the climate change issue. In such cases, it may make sense to start with exploratory dialogues across these domains on a discreet, low-profile basis.

The eminent Harvard University biologist E.O. Wilson writes of having attended such a dialogue — a two-day retreat of the U.S. Roman Catholic Bishops to discuss the relation of science to religion. He notes that one professor of theology said there: "Science went out the door with Aquinas and we never invited her back" (Edward O. Wilson, The Future of Life, Alfred A. Knopf, 2002: 159). But after days of vigorous discussion, one of their highest priorities for post-conference study was environment and conservation. Indeed such study and research can help pave the way for cross-domain partnerships to develop and thrive, and accordingly, Conference Recommendation #17 calls for further expanding the scholarly field of Religion and Ecology so as to create a deeper base of mutual knowledge to supply nascent dialogues and understandings.