Climate change: a Christian response in theology and action. Part 4: What can theology offer?

Posted on

There are a variety of audiences for theology on climate change, and we must be able to speak to each of them in accessible language. ‘Public theology’ is a gift to society at large of ideas, arguments, insights and wisdom, drawn from the resources of the Christian faith and tradition. This contribution is made through communicative, persuasive and respectful conversation, neither insisting on nor ignoring responses to the claims of Christ. The practice of public theology is action—it is doing theology, not holding blindly to long-established dogmas, but working with (and within) the community to the mutual benefit.

Environmentalism has long been motivated by religion.[1] Ben Wisner argues that current religious concern with climate change is an extension of a much longer environmental activism by faith communities.[2]

Most current scholarship on religion and climate change is theological, pastoral, or normative. Much has focused on making the case for action on climate change as a duty of a particular faith tradition. Only recently has research sought to examine what the world’s religions at large and their adherents are actually saying or doing about climate change.[3]

The online Philosophers’ Mail, overseen by Alain de Botton, modestly offers “advice for those who want to change the world.” [4] It says that—leaving aside the occasional work of genius—we have enough books. The urgent need is to connect good ideas with effective organisational tools.

The world as it currently stands isn’t held together simply by ideas … its muscles are made up of institutions … Revolutions in consciousness cannot be made lasting and effective until legions of people start to work together in concert for a common aim and … begin the unglamorous and deeply boring task of wrestling with issues of law, money, long-term mass communication, advocacy and administration. [5]

Although “avowedly secular”, the Philosophers’ Mail says that religious institutions are “distinctive and inspiring” in this context because of “their genius for getting organised.” They are “enormous agglomerations of people with a relentless appetite for administration and bureaucracy” that has enabled them to survive and flourish. “From a completely secular starting point, it can be worth studying religions to learn how to alter behaviour.” [6]

In the light of this lauding of its capabilities, it is surprising how little impact religion seems to have had on climate change policy and national action. Many religious leaders have a broad audience that respects their authority and leadership—although this is less the case in the West and in China. Some religious institutions have significant resources. Religions also have the potential to provide the connection that fosters the achievement of collective goals. Local faith communities, for example, are often highly motivated to respond in situations of need. [7] Many religious groupings have issued statements on climate change, [8] there is a plethora of journalism (sometimes by or quoting senior religious leaders), and a steady flow of academic material. [9] Conferences and gatherings of various kinds talk about religion and climate change [10] and there is inter-faith consensus on the importance of action. The recent World Assembly of Religions for Peace, for example, declared climate change to be among the “common threats to peace” that all religions have a “shared calling to confront,” calling on all “religious leaders and people of faith to … address issues of responsibility and accountability for the causes of climate change.” [11]

Rather than promoting the dominance of humanity over nature and the rest of creation, the Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches (WCC)—the two largest international Christian bodies—promote the view that human beings are responsible for creation, that it is our task to care for, protect, nurture and be good stewards of the world around us. Science and rationality are not seen as the enemies of faith, but as gifts from God that enable us to make good and responsible decisions. [12] The WCC has long warned of the dangers of climate change and its advocacy has, for example, included statements to the Conference of Parties to the UNFCCC. At its 10th General Assembly in Pusan in 2013, the WCC adopted a Minute on Climate Justice that advocated action, but it seems to have been little noticed. The WCC has a small Working Group on Climate Change, which meets only annually—most recently on 12-16 May 2014 in Wuppertal, Germany. [13] It has been little publicized and does not seem to have to have reached many outside its own sphere.

An Interfaith Summit on Climate Change will be held in New York on 23 September 2014 in conjunction with a Climate Change Summit 2014, which is an initiative by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to supplement the formal negotiating process with discussions between invited leaders in government, business and civil society. [14]

The churches and Christian organisations have a commendable record in aid, social development and environmental action, including help to those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. However my conclusion is that their efforts towards action specifically on climate change have been sporadic, slow and severely under resourced. Again in my view, these efforts will be effective only if well resourced and publicly, collectively, and frequently supported by the most senior Christian leaders. Local church action has often been valuable but may largely be ‘preaching to the converted’.

What, then, can theology bring to the table?

Ethics, theology, and moral insight

At the New Delhi assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1961, Joseph Sittler called the ecumenical movement to the “care of the Earth, the realm of nature, as a theatre of grace.” [15] Peter Hetzel writes that Sittler’s call was heeded, but in the framework of an ethics of responsibility in which environmental problems became yet another task to manage in tandem with other ethical concerns. [16] In 2004, philosopher Stephen Gardiner was able to write that, “Very few moral philosophers have written on climate change.” [17] That is no longer the case; there is a steady stream of publications. [18]

The moral challenges of climate change are considerable, a “perfect moral storm” as Gardiner describes it in a book title. [19] In ethical debate on climate change, public theology engages with questions of justice, equity, freedom and peace. Equity is at issue, for example, because the countries and peoples now called on to restrain emissions are those who have emitted the least and still do so. Among them are some of the countries most vulnerable to climate change. Just one of the challenges to justice is the intergenerational character of climate change; the harm we do now will touch generations to come. Climate change raises questions about the moral value of nonhuman nature [20] and our obligations to other living things and the natural realm. [21] We have noted serious concern that climate change is a threat to security and peace. Rebecca Solnit argues persuasively that climate change is violence; its consequences make people subject to violence and lead others to perpetrate violence. [22]

Stefan Skrimshire argues that, “ethical bases for taking action must think beyond thresholds assumed by calculations or traditional probabilities of risk such as the precautionary principle or cost-benefit analysis. … For an ethics that places imperatives for faith in action prior to epistemic certainty (doing, in other words, comes before knowing) lies arguably at the root of many religious or otherwise utopian traditions.” [23] Richard Wollin observes that religion may be the only other comprehensive belief system able to challenge the dominance of self-centred laissez-faire consumerism that contributes greatly to carbon emissions.

The religious values of love, community, and godliness help to offset the global dominance of competitiveness, acquisitiveness, and manipulation that predominate in the vocational sphere. Religious convictions encourage people to treat each other as ends in themselves rather than as mere means. [24]

Religion offers moral insight on climate change, by suggesting values to help determine who must act and how they should act. It helps us to think well about climate change and to respond well, suggesting ways for the experience and consequences of climate change to be more concrete and understandable for individuals and communities.

Scrimshire says that climate change discourse—especially the notion of tipping points in the Earth’s systems—draws deeply on metaphors of irretrievable and inevitable loss. We can feel that humanity’s time is running out. Stories of the end of life, Scrimshaw believes, can have as much power and influence on the moral imagination as the facts of climate science. Religious narrative thus has an important role in thinking about future crises and the possibility of human extinction through climate change. [25]

In addition to theological ethics, there are many fields of theology that have a bearing on climate change—each an entire discipline in itself. Thus, for example, The Lincoln Theological Institute of the University of Manchester is undertaking a project in which an international group of theologians, convened by Peter Scott and Michael Northcott, is working on a multi-authored systematic theology that takes climate change as its “primary interlocutor”. The Institute says that the work of theology and the study of religions to explore the complexity of climate change has “barely begun” and is “daunting in its scope and complexity.” [26] The extent to which such work can become public theology is difficult to say.

Northcott says that the church must offer a theological critique of the “preference for anonymous algorithms as managers of human affairs over face-to-face political communities and shared engagement of citizens and corporations in practices that promote the common good of a stable climate.” Northcott advocates a “spiritual theology of cooperative action &help; in which love for near and distant neighbours, and creatures, is the key metaphor.” [27]

Celia Deane-Drummond argues that a broad vision of human goals, of the ‘good life’, is important for international negotiations on climate change.

The dilemma exists that as long as there are disparate visions of what the good might be, and what justice making requires, there is likely to be limited consensus. Yet achieving some sort of overlapping consensus is vital if international agreements are to have any meaning and the global commons of climate health is to be addressed. [28]

Attention to the “religious and natural ground for human flourishing” helps us understand why nations fail to come together and points us to a deeper sense of global responsibility. [29] To bring about a greater account of the religious dimension in discussion on climate change, Deane-Drummond suggests, is a task for public theology. [30]


Religions can encourage climate change action through their worldviews or cosmologies, which explain our place in the world and give a context for ethics by establishing what is sacred and to be preserved. [31] Mike Hulme argues that climate change evokes fears and beliefs grounded in ancient Biblical myths that, taken together, have given us a misguided belief in our ability to control nature (although, I would add, not necessarily the weather and climate). “We have lost the sense of transcendent mystery and gratitude that once offered us conduits for defusing these fears.” [32] Climate change is “revealing the limits of our individual moral authority” [33] and the “limits of our science-saturated and spiritually impoverished wisdom.” [34] Thus, Hulme considers that the “idea of climate change can provoke new ethical and theological thinking about our relationship with the future”. [35]

The affective dimension

As ethicist David Olsson Kronlid argues, climate change threatens not only the material dimensions of human wellbeing but also its qualitative dimensions and the abilities we need for a good life—such as appreciation of beauty, self-determination, transcendence, and compassion for non-human species. [36] Response to climate change should therefore include a wide range of vocations and occupations, including theologians, religious leaders and people of faith. Each has insights for both high-level policy and our more personal, intimate and lived connections. Religious teaching, reflection and practice can contribute to helping us develop climate change strategies at both levels. [37]

Sheila Jasanoff says that facts arise from impersonal observation but meaning emerges from embedded experience. Science gives us knowledge of climate change but, for some, that knowledge is detached from meaning, seems to contradict common sense and undermines existing social institutions and ethical commitments. “When it comes to nature,” Jasanoff says, “human societies seem to demand not only objectively claimed matters of fact but also subjectively appreciated facts that matter. Environmental knowledge achieves robustness through continual interaction—or conversation—between fact-finding and meaning-making.” [38]

Enhancing moral intuitions about climate change may motivate greater support for ameliorative actions and policies. But evidence suggests that the human moral judgement system is not well equipped to identify climate change—a complex, large-scale and unintentionally caused phenomenon—as an important moral imperative. [39] Consequently, climate change does not motivate us as do other moral imperatives. Markowitz and Shariff find a need for research to understand “how to connect the very global and abstract issue of climate change to our very local and human moral intuitions [to] play a critical role in rallying first our hearts, and then our hands, to action.” [40] Australia’s National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility also calls for more research on the ‘affective dimensions’ of climate change adaptation. [41]

Research by Amy Luers to reassess climate advocacy strategies for the Skoll Global Threats Fund suggested increased focus on medium and longer-term goals, a focus on people, not carbon, a focus on values as much as science, and self-evaluation grounded in a culture of learning and knowledge sharing. [42]

Hulme proposes that we think of climate change not as single solvable problem—or even as a ‘problem’ at all. The multidimensionality of climate change and its complex connections to social and economic concerns mean no single, comprehensive, course of action. Climate change is a state of affairs, a condition, “in which we are now embroiled … not merely a physical boundary condition for human action … [but a] more fluid, imaginative condition for human existence.” [43] We can use our response to climate change to “rethink how we take forward our political, social, economic, and personal projects over the decades to come.” [44] Climate change, Hulme says, “demands that we focus on the long-term implications of short-term choices, that we recognize the global reach of our actions, and that we are alert both to material realities and to cultural values.” [45]

Change may be motivated by a need to believe that others will be born to follow us. Samuel Scheffler argues that in certain important respects, the future existence of our descendants matters more to us than our own survival and that of people we know. We have a need to take the fate of future generations into account. [46]

Repentance through action

Repentance is an essential response by Christians to climate change. Senior UK church leaders, for example, made a call for such repentance when dedicating Operation Noah’s Ash Wednesday Declaration [47] in 2012. It is well understood that ‘repentance’ (metanoia) in the New Testament is a not simply sorrow, but a change of mind expressed in conversion and action. [48] A frequently used Anglican prayer of confession says, for example, “Merciful God … we have sinned against you … in what we have failed to do: … we repent, and are sorry for all our sins … strengthen us to love and obey you in newness of life.” [49] The clear intention is both a change of heart and mind and action in obedience to God.

Jewish commentator Jay Michaelson’s observations also apply to Christians in pointing to one avenue of repentant action:

Climate change is a sin, but it’s a special kind of sin. It’s not a personal failure but a societal one … and if we are to repent, we must repent collectively. That means re-engaging with the people we can’t stand—including people who talk about “sin”—and finding ways to communicate with them, rather than preach to the already converted. [50]


  1. See: Joachim Radau, “Religion and Environmentalism,” in A Companion to Global Environmental History, edited by J. R. McNeill and Erin Stewart Mauldin. 493-512 (Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).
  2. Ben Wisner, “Untapped Potential of the World’s Religious Communities for Disaster Reduction in an Age of Accelerated Climate Change: An Epilogue & Prologue,” Religion 40 (2010): 128-131.
  3. Randolph Haluza-DeLay, “Religion and Climate Change: Varieties in Viewpoints and Practices,” Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change 5, no. 2 (2014): 261–279
  4. “Advice for Those Who Want to Change the World,” The Philosophers’ Mail (website) (London: The School of Life, 2014).
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Robin Globus Veldman, Andrew Szasz and Randolph Haluza-DeLay, “Social Science, Religions and Climate Change,” In How the World’s Religions are Responding to Climate Change: Social Scientific Investigations (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014), 5.
  8. Religious statements on climate change have been collated by the 8,000-member Forum on Religion and Ecology hosted by Yale University; see
  9. See the bibliography of recent English-language materials at
  10. For example, a symposium on religion and climate held in Potsdam in 2010 included presentations on: global change and the need for new cosmologies; the social function of religion in the context of climate and development policy; religion and the future of climate research; climate justice from a Christian point of view; evangelicals and climate change; and climate change and the fate of religions—as well as religious perspectives on climate change from a variety of cultural and historical sitting settings. See: Dieter Gerten and Sigurd Bergmann, eds., Religion in Environmental and Climate Change: Suffering, Values, Lifestyles (London: Continuum, 2012).
  11. Religions for Peace, 9th World Assembly, 22 November 2013, Vienna, The Vienna Declaration: Welcoming the Other: A Multi-Religious Vision of Peace (Vienna: 2013).
  12. World Council of Churches, ‘Statement on Just Finance and the Economy of Life’, 2009. Available at…sources/documents/centralcommittee/geneva-2009/reports-and-documents/report-on-public-issues/statement-on-just-finance-and-the-economy-of-life.html. World Council of Churches, Alternative Globalization Addressing Peoples and the Earth (AGAPE). Geneva: World Council of Churches, 2005. Available at The Pontifical Academy of Sciences has sponsored conferences and the publications of serious scientific research, particularly on the impacts of climate change, for example: Marion Molina and Durwood Zaelke, “A Comprehensive Approach for Reducing Anthropogenic Climate Impacts Including Risk of Abrupt Climate Changes,” in Fate of Mountain Glaciers in the Anthropocene (Vatican City: Pontifical Academy of Sciences, 2013) (Scripta Varia 118) accademia/pdf/ sv118/sv118-molina-zaelke.pdf; and Peter H. Raven, Global Climate Change and Biodiversity (Vatican City: Pontifical Academy of Sciences, 2010) Extra Series; 35.
  13. See:
  14. See:
  15. Joseph Sittler, “Called to Unity,” Ecumenical Review 14, no. 2 (1962): 186.
  16. Hetzel, “The World House,” 40.
  17. Stephen M. Gardiner, “Ethics and Global Climate Change,” Ethics 114, No. 3 (2004): 555-600.
  18. See, for example: Stephen M. Gardiner, Simon Caney, Dale Jamieson, Dale and Henry Shue, editors, Climate Ethics: Essential Readings (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010); Eric A. Posner and David Weisbach, Climate Change Justice (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010); Simon Caney, “Justice and the Distribution of Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” Journal of Global Ethics 5, no. 2 (2009): 125-146; Lukas H. Meyer, and Dominic Roser, “Climate Justice and Historical Emissions,” Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 13, no. 1 (2010): 229-253; Derek Bell, “Does Anthropogenic Climate Change Violate Human Rights?” Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 14, no. 2 (2011): 99-124; Dennis G. Arnold, editor, The Ethics of Global Climate Change (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011); Carol S. Robb, Wind, Sun, Soil, Spirit: Biblical Ethics and Climate Change (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010).
  19. Stephen M. Gardiner, A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Challenge of Climate Change (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).
  20. See: C. Palmer, “Does nature matter? The place of the nonhuman in the ethics of climate change,” The Ethics of Global Climate Change, ed. Denis G. Arnold, 272-291 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).
  21. Stephen M. Gardiner and L. Hartzell-Nichols, “Ethics and Global Climate Change,” Nature Education Knowledge 3, no. 10 (2012).
  22. Rebecca Solnit, “Call Climate Change What it is: Violence,” The Guardian, 7 April 2014, commentisfree/2014/apr/07/climate-change-violence-occupy-earth.
  23. Stefan Skrimshire, “Approaching the Tipping Point: Climate Risks, Faith and Political Action,” European Journal of Science and Theology 4, no. 2 (2008): 9-22.
  24. Richard Wollin, “Jürgen Habermas and Post-Secular Societies,” Chronicle of Higher Education 52, no. 5 (2005): B16.
  25. Stefan Scrimshire, “What Are We Waiting for? Climate Change and a Narrative of Apocalypse,” in Religion and Dangerous Environmental Change: Transdisciplinary Perspectives, edited by Sigurd Bergmann and Dieter Gerten, 205-226 (Berlin: Lit Werlag, 2010).
  26. See
  27. Michael S. Northcott, “The Concealments of Carbon Markets and the Publicity of Love in a Time of Climate Change,” International Journal of Public Theology 4 (2010): 294.
  28. Celia Deane-Drummond, “Public Theology as Contested Ground: Arguments for Climate Justice,” Religion and Ecology in the Public Sphere, edited by Celia Deane-Drummond and Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, 190-209 (London: T&T Clark, 2011), 200.
  29. Deane-Drummond, “Public Theology,” 203.
  30. Deane-Drummond, “Public Theology,” 202.
  31. Veldman, Szasz and Haluza-DeLay, “Social Science,” 4-19.
  32. Hulme, Why We Disagree, 360.
  33. Ibid.
  34. Hulme, Why We Disagree, 361.
  35. Hulme, Why We Disagree, 362.
  36. David Olsson Kronlid, “Mapping a Moral Landscape of the IPCC,” in Religion and Dangerous Environmental Change: Transdisciplinary Perspectives, edited by Sigurd Bergmann and Dieter Gerten (Berlin: Lit Werlag, 2010), 177-194.
  37. Wilson, “Religion and Climate Change,” 24.
  38. Sheila Jasanoff, “A New Climate for Society,” Theory, Culture and Society 27, no 2/3 (2010): 248.
  39. Ezra M. Markowitz and Azim F. Shariff, “Climate Change and Moral Judgement,” Nature Climate Change 2 (2010): 243-247.
  40. Markowitz and Shariff, “Climate Change and Moral Judgement,” 246.
  41. National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, National Climate Change Adaptation Research Plan: Social, Economic and Institutional Dimensions (Gold Coast: NCCARF, 2010).
  42. Amy Luers, “Rethinking US Climate Advocacy,” Climatic Change 120 (2013): 13-19.
  43. Hulme, Why We Disagree, 363.
  44. Ibid.
  45. Hulme, Why We Disagree, 362-3.
  46. Samuel Scheffler, Death and the Afterlife, edited by Niko Kolodny (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).
  47. Operation Noah, Climate Change and the Purposes of God: a Call to the Church (London: Operation Noah, 2012). See:
  48. See: Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friederich, eds, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, one-volume edition abridged by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 639; William Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Christian Literature, second edition, revised by F. Wilbur Gingrich and Frederick W. Danker from Walter Bauer’s fifth edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 512.
  49. Anglican Church of Australia, A Prayer Book for Australia (Alexandra, NSW: Broughton Books, 1995), 126.
  50. Jay Michaelson, “Climate Change is a Sin—Here’s How to Repent For It,” Religion Dispatches (website) 15 January 2014.