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Placing Faith in Climate Activism: A Review of the Roles of Religions in Addressing Climate Change Ethically

by Sirca S. Gogus


Whenever I am asked why I chose to specialise in climate change (often over raised eyebrows), be it among a crowd of fancy suits or during a casual family dinner, I give one simple answer: because of its overarching nature. The more I delve into the topic, the more I am convinced that climate change is a melting pot of science, history, economics, governance, technology, politics, culture, and even religion. Responding to it entails not merely stabilising the greenhouse effect in the Earth’s atmosphere as targeted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and mandated by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), but also dealing with the entirety of its impacts within a playing field made up of an ever growing number of actors and differing interests. Consequently, there has not been a lack of interest in the debate as evidenced by an incessant series of reports, national plans, campaigns and the like. In fact, many a time a new “turning point” has been identified (Hulme, 2013: 158), such as when the Kyoto Protocol came into effect, or when Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize and an Academy Award, or when the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP-15) in Copenhagen drew an unprecedented number of participants. However, the same can hardly be said about the level of progress attained throughout the last three decades of the advancement of climate science and governance efforts (Gogus, 2014).

It is my understanding that there has been an omnipresent gap between the rhetoric and reality of the climate change debate. That is to say, the policy solutions crafted by the leaders of the world and experts in the interdisciplinary fields are not living up to the scientific framing projected by the IPCC and adopted by the UNFCCC. As such, there is a disconnect between the theory and practice in addressing climate change.

As part of a strategy to fill this gap, I want to draw attention to how religions could be utilised through an ethical framework to galvanise support for climate-friendly policies and their successful realisation. Over a series of articles starting with this one, I aim to, first and foremost, give an overview of the ethical dimensions in the climate change debate so as to set up a conceptual framework. Within this framework certain aspects of religion could then be tapped into in an effort to identify, promote, and implement ethical solutions to climate change.

This article focuses on introducing that ethical framework by defining the concept and introducing the underlying ethical dimensions in the climate change debate. In my next article, I will discuss the potential contribution of ethics to the successful formulation and realisation of climate solutions. This will be followed by an analysis of how religions could play a role in engagement and activism with climate policies.

Why ethics?

  1. Defining ethics

In their study that investigates the ethical dimensions of climate change, Brown et al. (2006a: 7) define ethics as a “field of philosophical inquiry that examines concepts and their employment about what is right and wrong, obligatory and non-obligatory, and when responsibility should attach to human actions that cause harm.” As opposed to the positivist method of science, ethical inquiry is a normative undertaking. As such, science and ethics fundamentally differ from one another on an epistemological basis. It is due to this distinction that ethics could provide a leap forward in terms of addressing climate change, because it deals with norms, values, judgements as well as their justification (Jamieson, 1992).

The interdisciplinary field of climate change science guides us in observing the changes and impacts attributed to anthropogenic climate change. However pointing to the level of progress, or lack thereof, attained thus far some argue that science alone does not suffice in terms of addressing climate change effectively (Garvey, 2008). In noting how the incontrovertible consensus among the scientific community on the reality of climate change “does not mean the science is accepted as the basis for policy”, Dryzek et al. (2011: 4-5) also highlight that “simply insisting on the rightful authority of science as the guide to action has failed”. It is in this context that ethics could be utilised, because its normative basis could justify and trigger climate action by shifting the attitudes and behaviours of actors (Light, 2012; Christie et al., 2010).

Another important feature of ethics is that, even though its translation to moral codes can vary from one individual to another, on a collective level it can accentuate the commonalities found therein (Fleischacker, 1999). Hence, an ethical framework, regardless of individual diversity, enables a macrocosm of values and principles through which global challenges can be addressed collectively (Kim, 1998). It is this trans-cultural and overlapping nature (i.e. its universal aspects) of ethics (Kim, 1999) that makes it a potentially fruitful framework, because climate change is quintessentially a global problem that transcends individuals, borders, generations and human beings.

  1. The ethical dimensions of climate change

In scrutinising how climate change instigates an ethical dimension Gardiner (2006: 398; italics added) explains:

“…we cannot get very far in discussing why climate change is a problem without invoking ethical considerations. If we do not think that our own actions are open to moral assessment, or that various interests (our own, those of our kin and country, those of distant people, future people, animals and nature) matter, then it is hard to see why climate change (or much else) poses a problem. But once we see this, then we appear to need some account of moral responsibility, morally important interests, and what to do about both. And this puts us squarely in the domain of ethics.”

Accordingly, the notion of responsibility, derived as a result of the understanding that actions have consequences and they might affect various interests, points to a dual role in terms of how an ethical framework fits into the climate change debate: one bears moral responsibility for actions or lack thereof. This suggests, in other words, that first and foremost we are responsible for our actions (i.e. causing climate change) and ought to at least strive to act upon our wrongdoing. Secondly, we are also responsible for what we deliberately omit doing[1]. As such, the failure to address our wrongdoing is as much, if not more, unethical. The fact that climate change has been dubbed “an inescapably moral and ethical issue”, then, is not surprising (Posas, 2007: 32).

The topic is indeed inherently value-laden and embedded with notions of ethics (Gardiner, 2010). An oft-quoted passage from the IPCC (2001: 2; italics added) also acknowledges that while “natural, technical, and social sciences can provide essential information and evidence needed for decisions . . . at the same time, such decisions are value judgments determined through socio-political processes, taking into account considerations such as development, equity, and sustainability, as well as uncertainties and risk.” Various aspects of climate change ethics have been explored with increasing reflection and publication since the early 2000s (Posas, 2007). In the main, and for the purposes of this article, these are categorised under three headings: emissions reduction, damages and governance.

          2.1. Emissions reduction

Reducing emissions warrants action, but who should take it? Who should curb their emissions by how much and in which time frame? How do we get to decide on these “inconvenient” questions bearing in mind the answers we give will determine issues ranging from who gets to prosper to which species go extinct (Brown et al., 2006b; Gardiner, 2004)? Considerations are diverse and so are their ethical implications, because decisions need to be made on grounds of distributive justice, which does not necessarily mean equality (Garvey, 2008; Grubb 1995). Even though climate change is a global problem, not every nation has equally contributed to the build up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (Meyer, 2000). The greatest percentage for emissions increase is attributed to the developed countries (Miguez, 2002). Moreover, what makes it particularly difficult to reach common ground on emissions reduction is the fact that historically, industrialisation and burning of fossil fuels has been the gateway to economic development (Becker & Brown, 2013). An ethical framework, then, underlines the importance of not only acting upon the responsibility to curb emissions, but also doing so whilst ensuring the transformation of the global economic system into a fairer one guided by the principles of sustainable development.

          2.2. Damages

Who is responsible for the consequences of climate change? More specifically, who should bear the costs of preparing for and responding to climate change, and for the “unavoided damages” incurred now as well as those that might occur in the future (Brown et al., 2006a: 10)? Economic analysis of the market impacts of current adaptation and mitigation strategies, coupled with the uncertainty faced in estimating future impacts, confirm the profound distributional aspects of addressing damages (Tol, 2002; Mendelsohn, 2011). This is noteworthy from an ethical standpoint for three main reasons. First of all, while no country will be immune to the impacts of climate change, it is those that have contributed to it the least that will be negatively affected the most[2] (Roberts and Parks, 2007; Estrada-Oyuela, 2002). Second of all, those that are rendered the most vulnerable are those that are the least able to pay for the damages they incur. Last but not least, causes and effects of climate change are temporally and spatially dispersed (Gardiner, 2006). That is to say, what we decide to do here and now has implications for the people and places that are elsewhere and in the future.

CO2 emissions per capita vs vulnerability. (Image: SkepticalScience, Source: Samson et al. 2011)

CO2 emissions per capita vs vulnerability. (Image: SkepticalScience, Source: Samson et al. 2011)

          2.3. Governance

Is the global nature of the problem being tackled appropriately with regards to mitigation and adaptation decisions across all levels of governance (Brown et al., 2006b, Adger, 2001)? Who decides to take which action on behalf of and/or at the expense of what other interests? Is the international climate regime representative of the various interests or does it serve to heighten the differences? In other words, can the international institutions and their decisions be deemed just, equitable and fair? These are important matters to ponder, because the legitimacy of the climate regime carries considerable weight when it comes to implementing the actions decided therein. An ethical framework, in this sense, serves to highlight and address a) the structural differences, and b) the capacity gap between the developed and developing nations. It is argued the structural differences[3] between these two blocs feed into their worldviews, causal beliefs and interests, reiterate their dichotomy, and therefore make it “difficult to coalesce around a socially shared understanding of what is ‘fair’” in the climate change debate (Roberts & Parks, 2007: 6). The “capacity gap”, whilst mainly embedded within the structuralism discourse, refers more specifically to the inequitable practices throughout the institutions as well as interest representation and decision-making processes of the climate regime (Schroeder et al., 2012).

All in all, it is argued that an ethics lens allows a deeper scrutiny on all such issues that make climate change a “perfect moral storm” (Gardiner, 2006). But it could also serve to provide common ground by generating a sense of mutual agreeableness on notions of responsibility, justice, equity and fairness of the climate change debate across spatial and temporal scales. In my next article I will discuss how the ethical issues arising from climate change could be utilised to reframe the debate so as to generate public awareness needed for policy action.

[1] To accentuate his philosophical argument on the matter Garvey (2008: 113) cites a purposeful passage from Molière: “It is not only for what we do that we are held responsible, but also for what we do not do.”

[2] More specifically the bulk of damages will be felt the most among the developing and least developed countries primarily located in lower latitudes, and within them the poorest segments of the society.

[3] Structuralism, while emphasising the importance of historical economic analysis in making sense of the current international system, posits that particular mechanisms of inequality and dominance continue to exist today and contribute to the uneven development among and within nations (Viotti & Kauppi, 2012; Mejia, 2010).

© Sirca S. Gogus

Suggested citing:

Gogus, S. S., 2015. Placing faith in climate activism: a review of the roles of religions in addressing climate change ethically. Part I. [Online]. Available at: [accessed + date when the website was accessed].


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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