Columns Ethics Institutions Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

Climate change brings scientists and religious leaders together in Massachusetts

Cardinal Seán O'Malley welcoming participants in conference on climate change at the Boston Archdiocese's Pastoral Center, February 8, 2018

On Thursday and Friday of last week, Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston hosted a meeting of Massachusetts religious leaders and climate scientists to explore the possibility of taking joint action to address the challenge of climate change in the Bay State.

Full disclosure: I helped organize the thing.

Last summer I happened to be discussing religion and climate change with Philip Duffy, head of the Woods Hole Research Center, internationally acclaimed as the world’s leading climate research lab. Duffy, who oversaw climate policy in the Obama White House, suggested getting such a coalition together. I agreed to lend a hand.

At a time when the national government is headed by an Administration determined to undermine existing policies to mitigate climate change, action at the subnational level—state and local—looks to be the only way forward. Where better to start than in Massachusetts, with its concentration of scientists and a faith community whose most prominent member is the North American prelate closest to Pope Francis, author of a clarion call to action on climate change?

The meeting, which took place at the Archdiocese of Boston’s Pastoral Center, included religious leaders from a wide spectrum of religious traditions. “We can do the science,” Duffy told them. “We need to summon the political will.”

“The time is ripe for a new initiative,” declared Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, an Episcopal priest who works full time on climate issues for both the Episcopal Church and the United Church of Christ. (Over the weekend, Bullitt-Jonas blogged a fine account of what transpired.)

It’s worth recalling that nearly three decades ago, 33 of America’s most distinguished scientists—including Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, Edward O. Wilson, and Hans Bethe—appealed to religion to work with science on environmental issues. At a meeting in Moscow in the bright glow of the end of Cold War, they issued a statement that read in part:

As scientists, many of us have had profound experiences of awe and reverence before the universe. We understand that what is regarded as sacred is more likely to be treated with care and respect. Our planetary home should be so regarded. Efforts to safeguard and cherish the environment need to be infused with a vision of the sacred. At the same time, a much wider and deeper understanding of science and technology is needed. If we do not understand the problem, it is unlikely we will be able to fix it. Thus, there is a vital role for religion and science.

The following year, 271 religious leaders from around the world organized by Notre Dame President Theodore Hesburg and Elie Wiesel replied in kind:

We are moved by the Appeal’s spirit and challenged by its substance. We share its sense of urgency. This invitation to collaboration marks a unique moment and opportunity in the relationship of science and religion.

The hoped-for collaboration never took place. The result instead was the National Religious Partnership for the Environment—an interfaith organization.

As O’Malley put it in his own blog post on the meeting, “While there have been scientific advisers to religious organizations, and scientists who seek religious inspiration, this would be a unique coalition with the goal of bringing the combined intellectual and moral authority of both groups to the task of caring for our planet.”

Stay tuned.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service


Click here to post a comment

  • But, but….abortion, cake bakers forced to bake cakes for gay weddings.

    You have to vote Republican. It is the only way, even if it desecrates the earth.

    And what does it matter anyway if forests are clear cut or wild life is killed in oil spills, if someone gets to make millions on the deal and those of us who want new kitchen cabinets and floors as household “fashions” change and want to drive our SUVs – if we can pay for it, hey, that is capitalism. And we all know that God shows His favor by rewarding those who follow Him and His rules – He makes then rich and the richer they are the more it is clear they have God’s favor.

    And, and – who really does believe in capitalism and rugged individualism but Republicans????

  • If you drive a car,
    or ride a city bus,
    Or use a gas furnace this cold winter,
    or send your kids on a school bus,
    or go to most doctors’ offices,
    or go to most churches,
    or visit most grocery stores (and those lower food prices are directly connected to lower trucking fuel costs, by the way!),
    then you’re enjoying the use of good ole fossil fuels. Lots of it. Today.

  • From National Geographic

    “According to the genetic and paleontological record, we only started to leave Africa between 60,000 and 70,000 years ago. What set this in motion is uncertain, but we think it has something to do with major climatic shifts that were happening around that time—a sudden cooling in the Earth’s climate driven by the onset of one of the worst parts of the last Ice Age. This cold snap would have made life difficult for our African ancestors, and the genetic evidence points to a sharp reduction in population size around this time.

    In fact, the human population likely dropped to fewer than 10,000. We were holding on by a thread.
    Once the climate started to improve, after 70,000 years ago, we came back from this near-extinction event. The population expanded, and some intrepid explorers ventured beyond Africa. The earliest people to colonize the Eurasian landma-ss likely did so across the Bab-al-Mandab Strait separating present-day Yemen from Djibouti. These early beachcombers expanded rapidly along the coast to India, and reached Southeast Asia and Australia by 50,000 years ago. The first great foray of our species beyond Africa had led us all the way across the globe.”

  • If you drive a car, do you really need to? There is frequently an attitude of putting oneself first b y insisting on the need to drive when transit is an option. Or one’s two feet. – even better as an antidote to obesity, lack of physical fitness and heart disease. Better for air quality too. Walking builds a sense of community and provides an opportunity for spiritual reflection. Cheaper to take a cab than to own a char for the purpose of grocery shopping. Use a ride share service.

  • Umm, in some places, having a car can mean the difference between living on $8 an hour versus $15 an hour. No car? Then your Zip Code may well affect the quality of your life. Cars give access to the better grocery stores, medical resources, daycares, better housing & laundromats, serious time-savings & safer travels. (And also whether one’s kids go to a B-plus or a D-minus school.)

    You would be surprised where buses do NOT actually go, and I say that as an experienced bus rider, long-distance walker, and car owner. Nor can everybody walk it out all-weather, or spend much time in a packed bus. And taxicabs, you say? At today’s prices and wait times? Oh no no. If you even want to regularly attend a house of worship — forget about cabs. (I

    But even most taxicabs, buses, cars, schools, stores, daycares, offices, jobs, and houses of worship, run on fossil fuels, yes? Not solar, not wind. These global warmers aren’t thinking about the impact of their ambitions on many folks.

  • A Roman Catholic Prelate speaks of ” moral authority ” !
    Comparable to ” grab em by the p-ssy ” and ” believe me ” Trump, speaking at a prayer breakfast.
    The RCC in it’s death throes is seeking identity with science, as it’s last gasp at legitimacy.

  • A lot of conjecture as the cause of climate change/global warming as to what is causing it . One could speculate, for example, that it is simply due to more active volcanoes under the oceans which is something we have no control over. Then there is that ball of energy aka the Sun that is slowly expanding and gets closer every year. Again something out of our control.

  • Are these global warmers trying to immediately get rid of fossil fuels? I don’t think that is the plan. Rather they are advocating for a long term solution to reducing the use of fossil fuels in lieu of more renewable energy sources. Where is the harm?