Involving religion in discourse could help address climate change

Professor James Walters, academic at LSE’s Religion and Global Society Unit, are currently researching the role of inter-faith dialogue in resolving modern global challenges in a project grant funded by Templeton Religion Trust

For those of us based in the largely secular West, it is easy to forget how prominently religion features in the lives of most people on the planet. Eighty-four per cent of the world population is estimated to follow a major faith tradition and in many parts of the world, religious community, ritual, ethics, and storytelling are woven into the fabric of daily life. This is particularly true of regions already most acutely affected by climate change such as Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.

With COP taking place in Egypt and UAE this year and next, we have an important opportunity to draw on religious values and ideas in galvanising a broader public support for climate action. Government climate policy should always be grounded in scientific research and analysis. But our research has found that narrowing climate change to its technocratic and scientific aspects excludes more religious populations from connecting with or engaging in climate activism.

Information about climate change is generally produced and disseminated by the West and is therefore closely tethered to the logics of Western secular modernity that elevates rational and scientific knowledge above ethics, culture, and religion. Consequently, much of the conventional climate change discourse has been met with disillusionment, reluctance, and suspicion from those for whom religion plays a greater role in their political and economic realities.

This perception of climate change as a Western agenda is combined with a mistrust of potentially authoritarian governmental policies related to climate change, particularly in areas which have faced conflict in recent years. There is a sense of suspicion and apprehension around calls to extend state authority, couched in the language of emergency, which echoes previous recent infringements of religious freedom in some regions.

So, we need different languages to articulate the climate emergency to different peoples, some of which must speak more directly into religious imaginations. Our research has found many believers wary of environmentalist language which attributes agency to the natural world, drawing for example on the Greek mythological concept of Gaia.

This can be seen in the response to a Sky News Arabia report on the July 2021 floods in Europe, produced in the West and then translated. The report drew hundreds of online commenters dissatisfied with the way they had attributed God’s anger to nature. For them, nature does not act on its own accord; nature responds to God’s command. It is part of God’s creation and not an independent agent.

More theological discourses around climate change may, therefore, frame the current crisis as manifesting the judgement of God. This need not necessarily be in an arbitrary, antiscientific way, but rather as a more holistic moral critique of unmoderated consumptive capitalism. We see a good example in the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar’s inaugural address at the Third International Scientific Conference on Environment and Sustainable Development.

He described climate change not only as a biophysical phenomenon, but also as the latest manifestation of centuries of moral decay, domination, and devastation of nature, implicated in the technological advances fuelling economic progress. Contrary to the mainstream understanding of climate change as a sudden, unexpected crisis, he framed the current moment as a religious ordeal and tribulation that requires each one of us to respond to God rather than to nature.

While God and religious ethics are marginalised within global climate change discourses, they play a very important role in people’s perceptions and responses to climate change in the Middle East. When we open our discussions to consider that for some people, natural phenomena like the movements of the oceans, plagues and pandemics, or an oasis in the desert, may be just as rooted in the spiritual as they are in scientific analysis, then climate action can more effectively involve and engage a wider breadth of global civil society. To build consensus and support for both government policy and societal behavioural change, we need to engage with religious imaginations and motivations.

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