Climate Exchange

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Could religious narratives play a role in shifting attitudes toward pro-climate policies? Examples from the U.S.

written by Sırça S. Göğüş

Narratives of climate change

The coining of the term “climate change” came about with the culmination of overwhelming scientific evidence, in an ever-progressive manner, on the occurrence of change in the Earth’s climate due to anthropogenic forces. On the one hand, we say climate change is happening, because we can observe, measure and model the shifting patterns in climate. This constitutes the underlying scientific basis of climate change.

On the other hand, when we talk about climate change, we also scrutinise the threats its impacts pose on our societies and the urgency with which these need to be tackled: we socially construct what climate change should entail for our polities, policies and politics.

When we talk about adaptation and mitigation, building resilient communities, responsibilities across temporal and spatial scales, financial mechanisms, international negotiations and global justice, we create narratives around the impacts of and possible solutions to climate change. Which actors should curb emissions, by how much, why, when and how? Who should pay to whom?

Such questions and the debate around them constitute the underlying narratives of the climate change discourse.

Narratives matter

But why do narratives and analysing them matter?..

It is through narratives that societies effectively create and shape rhetoric. And it is this socially constructed rhetoric around which we perceive, deliberate, communicate, debilitate or aid, and accordingly act upon the climate change discourse. So narratives matter, because narratives influence courses of action.

Religion as a narrative

Religion is a narrative within the climate change discourse, for many a rather counterintuitive one. The association of religious values with pro-climate policies may not follow automatically due to preconceived and systemically categorised political settings. What renders this association counterintuitive, according to my interpretation, is the partisan divide in practical policy-making processes whereby an emphasis on religious values is, more often than not, linked with socio-political conservatism that seldom entails pro-climate action or a perception component. Be that as it may, religious values have the potential to serve as a course of action.

In fact, in recent years we have seen the fruition of this unlikely ally joining the ranks of climate activism in the U.S., something that admittedly would not have caught my attention if I had not witnessed it at Capitol Hill on an idle spring day in 2012. I was perplexed, so curiosity ensued…

24 April 2012. An interfaith group rally in Washington, D.C. (source Baha'i Faith)

24 April 2012. An interfaith group rally in Washington, D.C. (source Baha’i Faith)

Since then I have learned that, several religious groups, both individually as well as acting together by way of forming interfaith alliances, have more visibly shown their support for the approval of pro-climate action policies in the U.S. Congress (Kearns, 2012)*. A closer inspection of the mission statements and argumentative basis of these groups (i.e. their rhetoric) yields parallels with some of the main elements in the climate discourse such as aiming for intergenerational justice, pro-poor adaptation and mitigation options, environmental stewardship and preservation of the intrinsic value of nature (Kearns, 1996; Acton Institute, 2007; Siegel, 2012; Gerten & Bergman, 2012).

* (To find out more about the groups, alliances and their activities you can check out the links provided at the end of this post.)

Religion as a course of action in the U.S. and on the international stage

So why is this movement important and how can we contextualise it?

If you have read this far I hope you would also probably agree to this statement: climate change is one of the most pressing challenges in the global policy agenda. Indeed there has not been a lack of interest in deliberating it, be it in the blogosphere, prestige media, academia, or the COPs.  But the same can hardly be said about the level of progress in terms of taking effective action.

The lack of progress in climate action has historically been attributed to the North-South divide that the climate discourse portrays (Parks & Roberts, 2007). Within the Northern bloc the U.S. constitutes a critical actor due to a combination of reasons. It is one of i) the biggest donors in climate finance, ii) the most influential nations in the decision-making process, and iii) the greatest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. That is why the U.S. represents a significant casestudy in terms of delving into how pro-climate action policies can be galvanised at the national level. Climate negotiations, after all, are yet another platform for Putnam’s (1988) logic of two-level games.

As far as the narratives surrounding religion, society and politics are concerned, Habermas (2010) posits that religions entail a social aspect which can translate into “sources of motivation” and provide “moral impetus” in informing political choices. It is important to recognise that the modern, post-secular and developed Northern country context is not immune from this and one should expect religions to continue to exist and influence individual attitudes, belief systems and worldviews.

In this sense, “seek[ing] to engage [religion] in a constructive dialogue” (Reder & Schmidt, 2010: 7) and utilising its social functions as an interpretative tool in developed country contexts could prove to be a fruitful effort with regards to achieving more robust climate policies (Reder, 2012). By proposing what constitutes ethically acceptable behaviour, it is assumed that religious values could guide individuals to think about the moral aspects of climate change.

So my meandering conclusion is this:

As far as the enormity of the toll climate change is taking on societies and the environment, tapping into the narratives of any religion to attain progress could prove to be a pragmatic stepping stone to action. This is especially so when the dynamics of the U.S. domestic politics are concerned (Siegel, 2012) and how they can in turn yield tangible results in international negotiations.

Links to Interfaith Groups and other relevant research

Environmental and Energy Study Institute, Fact Sheet: Faith Organisations and Climate Change

Interfaith Moral Action on Climate

Huffington Post, A Moral Challenge: Moving from F to A+ on Climate Change

US News, Religious Groups Push for Climate Change Legislation

The Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale, Climate Change Statements from World Religions

Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland, Faith and Global Policy Challenges

Carvalho, A. (ed.), Communicating Climate Change: Discourses, Mediations and Perceptions (a selection of articles)

Pew Research, Religion & Public Life Project, Religious Groups’ Views on Global Warming

© Sırça S. Göğüş

Suggested citing:

Gogus, S. S., 2014. Could religious narratives play a role in shifting attitudes toward pro-climate policies? Examples from the U.S. [Online]. Available at: http://climate-exchange.org  [accessed + date when the website was accessed].

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About Sirca S. Gogus

Sırça believes that living in an ever-connected globe, at the age of Anthropocene, not only yields opportunities in front of individuals, but also bestows certain responsibilities on them. That is why she has made the very conscious decision to devote her academic and professional career to the climate-development-energy nexus. With a background in social and political sciences, which she complemented with European governance and public affairs, she's been trotting the globe for the past six years. Sirca’s greatest ambition is to be a life-long learner. Her favourite pastime is being on the beach. She might or might not be daydreaming frequently the day she can engage in both simultaneously. In the spirit of fairplay, she thinks all fields of sport are equal as football being the most equal one.

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