Religion and the Roots of Climate Change Denial
Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life
On April 8 the Boisi Center hosted Texas Tech University’s Katharine Hayhoe t o address the topic of “Religion and the Roots of Climate Change Denial.” Co-sponsored by the Institute for the Liberal Arts, the Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences, and the Environmental Studies Program, the event generated much buzz on campus and—thanks in part to actor and environmentalist Don Cheadle’s tweets about it—online, as hundreds tuned in to watch the live-streamed event.
In her talk Hayhoe argued that science and religion are complementary rather than alternative approaches to climate change. Science is about facts, whereas religion is about belief. “To not believe in climate change is akin to not believing in gravity,” she said; these observable phenomena are simply not a matter of belief. But when couched in the language of belief, climate change can be seen by some Christians as in competition with religion, which in turns leads people to presume that one cannot be Christian and also accept the scientific consensus around climate change. Indeed, polls show that scientists are actually more likely than academics in general to identify with a particular religious label.
A central theme of Hayhoe’s talk was that the source of climate change denial in this country is not religion so much as political ideology and party affiliation. Claims put forth by religious climate deniers misinterpret Scripture and the notion of God’s sovereignty, which can- not be interpreted in a way that denies human responsibility as stewards of creation.
Citing Galatians 5:6 and 2 Timothy 1:7, Hayhoe argued that faith requires love through action, and especially action that utilizes the mind that God has given to humans. In this way, religion can be part of the solution: We need science to inform us about the problem of climate change, but we need our values to drive us toward a solution. These solutions will challenge the social and economic foundations of our lives, and thus require radical action, which Hayhoe likened to a form of “modern-day abolitionism.” She emphasized the need to reach out to the faithful who are open to learning from science, rather than those who dismiss it dogmatically.
Boston College theology professor Stephen Pope then offered a Catholic theological perspective on the topic. Striking a similar note to Hayhoe’s, Pope explained that climate change is the central moral challenge of our time, and he outlined principles of Catholic moral teaching that can motivate action. He cited St. Thomas Aquinas in reiterating Hayhoe’s point that the sovereignty of God over creation is not threatened but rather strengthened by human autonomy and action. He also cited the long tradition in Catholic thought dating to St. Augustine of viewing science as a source of truth that should inform our reading of Scripture. When natural science demonstrates something contrary to what is written in Scripture, one ought to defer to science. Accordingly, the last three popes have spoken out strongly in favor of action on climate change as a moral imperative.
Pope expressed hope that Francis’s forth- coming encyclical might help to motivate faith-based action. Pope, like Hayhoe, highlighted the relative silence of Evangelical Protestant and Catholic churches, and emphasized the need for priests and pastors to talk about climate change in homilies and sermons.