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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Climate Change and Christian Ethics

Event Recap

In an engaging lunch colloquium that packed our seminar room, Willis Jenkins, assistant professor of social ethics at Yale Divinity School, called for a new approach to climate change among Christian ethicists. Climate change, he argued, is an unprecedented moral problem because of its scope, duration, uncertainty and susceptibility to perverse incentives, yet the Christian community has mostly just issued broad blanket statements that do little to help Christians take concrete steps to address the problem. To maintain the relevance of their tradition to contemporary global issues, Christian communities must show how climate change is a theological problem, and how solutions to climate change fit into larger Christian moral commitments. Most importantly, Jenkins said, Christians must take actions to address specific problems in particular areas, for example by partnering with churches in less-developed nations threatened by climate change.

Creative responses to climate change must combine knowledge of climate change with theological reflection in the ecological dimensions of justice. Rather than merely a theoretical exercise, Christian ethics can be a springboard to creative, targeted approaches to this unprecedented global problem. Substantively, Christian ethics can better combat climate change by linking environmental issues to the churches’ stories of God, the experience of God and what Jenkins called the “ecologies of grace,” that is, the modes of understanding God’s grace in the context of environmental ethics.

During the lively discussion that followed, colloquium participants drew a wide range of disciplines from environmental science to business to discuss alternative strategies to address climate change. Participants struggled with the apparently simple question, “What is so difficult about this for Christian communities?” Jenkins responded that there are perverse incentives for individuals to ignore the issue—or existence—of climate change, and thus to defer responsibility to the next generation. He argued that those most able to do something are those with the least incentive to do so, such as owners of big businesses, and that human beings do not feel an obvious responsibility to animals and the environment. While some argued that religion might obstruct steps to address climate change, Jenkins replied that no one group has “the answer” and that Christian communities, as well as other communities, can all provide compelling, and effective, responses to climate change.