Columns Eco-Spirituality Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

Religion’s role in the climate emergency

Pope Francis' new encyclical titled "Laudato Si (Be Praised), On the Care of Our Common Home", is displayed during the presentation news conference at the Vatican on June 18, 2015. Pope Francis demanded swift action on Thursday to save the planet from environmental ruin, urging world leaders to hear "the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor", plunging the Catholic Church into political controversy over climate change. In the first papal document dedicated to the environment, he calls for "decisive action, here and now," to stop environmental degradation and global warming, squarely backing scientists who say it is mostly man-made. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Max Rossi *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-ENCYCLICAL-FUTURE, originally transmitted on June 18, 2015.

As faithful visitors to this space will know, I spent some time last year helping put together a coalition of religious leaders and climate scientists in Massachusetts to advance the cause of combatting global warming in the Bay State. Along with promoting public policies on Beacon Hill, the idea was to use the combined moral and intellectual force of religion and science to focus public attention on an issue that didn’t elicit a single question in the presidential debates of 2016.

A year later, it’s fair to say, public attention is focused. Thanks to alarming reports from the United Nations and our own federal government, and to the election of a slew of climate-concerned Democrats in the 2018 midterms, climate change as a clear and present danger has become daily fare throughout the honest media.

So preaching the imminent end of civilization as we know it is no longer Job One. What’s on the table is demonstrating the extent of the crisis and determining how best to address it.

Top of the charts these days is the Green New Deal resolution proposed by congressional superstar Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Massachusetts Sen. Edward Markey. This has received a good deal of heat, and not only from the right, principally for throwing into its climate agenda a kitchen sink of basically unrelated progressive programs—medical care, employment guarantees, anti-discrimination protections.

Less well recognized, however, is that on the climate front itself the resolution is a highly political document which, as political documents do, pulls some critical punches. In deference to organized labor, it is soft on putting an end to fossil fuel infrastructure. In deference to environmentalists, it gives the back of its hand to nuclear power and refuses to acknowledge a role for carbon recapture. In deference to eco-justice advocates, it has only the tiniest good word for carbon pricing.

All the above issues are tough and will have to be fought through. But the biggest political punch-pulling has to do with the GND’s deference to the American belief that it’s possible to have it all. It paints the future as rosy with great new green jobs. It promises an era of growth and prosperity, just as the original New Deal (aided and abetted by World War II) ushered in the postwar boom.

As if we could save the planet without sacrificing a thing.

We can’t. Any serious look at averting catastrophe recognizes that the kind of lifestyle Americans now embrace, or aspire to, is unsustainable. And here is where religious leaders are well positioned to make their voices heard.

Not, of course, those leaders who preach the Prosperity Gospel. They are part of the problem—or the problem itself.

But Christianity, like other religious traditions, has rich resources to combat it. As Jesus told the man who asked what good thing he should do to merit eternal life, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

The contemporary model for this kind of preaching is Pope Francis, whose encyclical on climate change, Laudato Si’, incorporates a vigorous critique of what he calls “compulsive consumerism.” Here are a few of the choicer quotes.

“Many people know that our current progress and the mere amassing of things and pleasures are not enough to give meaning and joy to the human heart, yet they feel unable to give up what the market sets before them.”

“If we acknowledge the value and the fragility of nature and, at the same time, our God-given abilities, we can finally leave behind the modern myth of unlimited material progress. A fragile world, entrusted by God to human care, challenges us to devise intelligent ways of directing, developing and limiting our power.”

“Human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational. This has made it easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology. It is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit.”

“When people become self-centered and self-enclosed, their greed increases. The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume. It becomes almost impossible to accept the limits imposed by reality.”

Politicians are never good at preaching limits, and these days the idea of sacrificing for the common good is very much out of fashion. Our liberal divines are good at preaching eco-justice, but not so good at talking to their flocks about limits and sacrifices themselves.

That may not win them applause, but the prophecy gig was never supposed to be easy. And if not them, then who?

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

109 Comments

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  • I’d be happy if Religious Leaders simply stopped spreading lies and mis-information. It would be nice if they would become pro-active but I don’t want to expect too much from them!

  • Alexandra Cortez and the rest of the climate change alarmists should take her train from NYC to Europe.
    What a bunch of clowns.

  • Religious leaders can start by vocally supporting the scientific community who overwhelmingly concur that climate change is real and that it is man-made. The problem of course as that many religious leaders lead flocks who don’t believe climate change is real because their “news sources” (Fox, Rush, et al) are telling them it’s not real because that would be bad for the bottom line of Big Oil with whom Republicans (who overwhelmingly rely on Fox for “news”) are in cahoots, and so they refuse to believe it. These faith leaders either agree with their flocks because they too are deceived watching these bogus sources of “news” or because they’re too afraid to confront their ill-advised flocks for fear that they will find themselves without a job, pension, and health benefits. And so they say nothing to challenge the status quo, or if they do, their response is tepid at best. I would not look to faith leaders to solve the problem of climate change, unless you’re talking about the sliver of religion that considers itself liberal, which would be preaching to the choir, so to speak.

  • Uh, no. I believe this has a little something to do with “stewardship of the earth,” which involves religion.

  • Preaching Christ and Him crucified is more important. Endorsing climate change will not get anyone into a relationship with Jesus, or Heaven.

  • One thing I noticed in a Pew Poll charting religious affiliation to belief in global warming. Across all categories the I Don’t Know percentile was between 0 and 3 percent – heavily polarized. Interestingly 77%, the highest, of Hispanic Catholics are in agreement. The biggest disagreement came from (surprise) white Evangelicals.

  • No planes….. fake?
    Rebuild every structure in 10 years…..fake?
    No nuclear….. fake?
    Money for people who don’t work….fake?

  • Whoopi Goldberg is an ardent Global Warming devotee. Of course, she flies around in her Private Jet anytime she wants. Mm-Hmm.

  • It shouldn’t.

    “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

    This the sum of instructions on managing the planet? Why not more detailed instructions and warnings? Obviously we can’t rely on religion for an understanding of our planet or any solution to our problems. An entity that sends a devastating global flood because he can’t be bothered to smite the guilty ones should not be relied on regarding the environment.

  • Yup. So does Pitt, Gore, Jolie, pelosi, Obama, Bezos, Soros, Macron and the rest of the democrat hypocrites.
    For me; but not for thee.
    The elites telling the peasants what they can and cannot do.

  • None of this politicizing, hoopla, exaggeration or denying from either side changes the solid underlying science.

  • Just because Hollywood hypocrites exist doesn’t mean the rest of us have carte blanche permission to trash the planet – that is, unless you reason like a third-grader.

  • Solid what?
    Manipulated testing for desired outcomes?
    Studies that are suddenly stopped because the desired results are not coming to fruition?
    Big Green sponsoring studies to support their agenda?
    Pffft…..
    Fake news.

  • Maybe if conservative religious figures weren’t entangling and debasing themselves to political leaders for cheap power grabs, they would not be such an impediment to sane evidence based policy on the subject.

  • If you don’t know the answer, try doing some homework from actual news sources instead of rehashing fake talking points and flat out lying.

    Donald Trump encouraged the trashing of our National Parks
    https://www.businessinsider.com/national-parks-damage-government-shutdown-2019-1

    https://www.newsweek.com/despoiling-our-national-parks-betrays-our-democracy-742261

    Conservatives have no reasonable arguments to make on this subject. They evidently support wanton destruction and vandalism to “stick it to the libs”.

  • Oh?! Interesting point of view you seem to have.
    I guess you won’t be worrying about trump, Republicans, the RCC, bob arnzen or anyone else that you disagree with in the future;,unless you are a third-grader.

  • So you have to flat out lie in order to pretend there is no scientific consensus on the subject. What else is new?

    I guess making stuff up is far easier than trying to understand how scientific research is done and consensus formed in a given field.

    You have built up a nice fort of bullcrap to insulate yourself from any facts on the subject.

    When NASA and the Dept of Defense are talking about Global Warming, it means you have zilch
    https://climate.nasa.gov/

    https://warisboring.com/the-pentagon-is-still-worried-about-climate-change/

  • You lie like a cheap rug and love to make stuff up about the position of others. Your word isn’t worth very much here. Plus it was already refuted by Elagabalus

  • God commanded us to care for creation. We cannot be in a proper relationship with Jesus while disobeying that fundamental command.

  • Thought so…
    Tell me where I’m wrong….
    Can’t wait for every building in Chicago to have solar panels. It will be great in winter.

  • The operative sentence is highlighted:

    But air travel was mentioned in various FAQ materials produced by Ocasio-Cortez’s office. In one FAQ that was given to NPR, one of the highlighted projects was to “totally overhaul transportation by massively expanding electric vehicle manufacturing, build charging stations everywhere, build out high-speed rail at a scale where air travel stops becoming necessary.

  • Of course, in the Pew World, black evangelicals aren’t allowed to exist. Not allowed to Self-Identity as evangelicals

    Whites only, as it were.

    Otherwise some of US, might openly question what will happen to black, white, & brown Poor People (and their kidstoo!), when the fossil fuels are priced clean outta their daily reach.
    UN-IPCC = Malthusian Kool-Aid KultI

  • There is a HUGE difference between caring for creation and the absolute nonsense of programs being put forth. The green new deal is so outlandish, it defies any attempt at intelligence. Every supporter of the gnd now has the taint of being so far gone from reality they can be lumped in with all the other flakes humanity has rightfully dismissed.

  • You were already refuted by reliable fact checking.

    You were wrong on everything. Everything. Not a single coherent or honest point was made by you. Just blank phrases and denials.

  • Stupid idea.
    Planes can go anywhere; trains can’t.
    Planes are cheap. Trains require government subsidies.

    How about this?
    How about she focuses on building nuclear power plants across the USA and rebuilding the power grid.

    Once people see that pollution can be reduced without inconvenience; they will buy into electric cars.

  • You are correct. Only white Evangelicals are listed in the polls I’ve seen.

    Don’t worry. Nothing drastic is going to be done. It will go slowly and we will have to deal with the consequences.

  • Oh yeah – union jobs for all…. fake too? Nope.
    Guaranteed income, healthcare, medical leave …… fake too? Nope.
    Organization of vulnerable communities and workers (ie. voter ID)…. fake? Nope.

    Read the bill.

  • This Green New Deal is a utopian dream not based on reality or common sense. Not a chance in Hades of passing. I think most of the old guard knows this. Maybe this can be a spark to open dialog and look for real, practical solutions to global warming.

  • Yes we get that you don’t read closely or honestly. Totally and deliberately misread the quote. Typical trolling.

    Since when are planes cheap?
    I bet you think jet fuel is cheap and plentiful as well. Does any airline or the Air Force know that? Seriously it’s like you are daring us to see how badly you can make garbage up.

    Your argument is ridiculous.

    Airlines rely on government subsidy and infrastructure as well. Plus most train travel is commuting. It has less to do with planes and more to do with putting less cars on the road.

    You miss the point deliberately. Conservatives are entirely full of crap on this issue.

    Why do you hate the expansion of our infrastructure and the jobs it would create?

  • What’s absolute nonsense about conserving resources, reducing pollution and increasing general qydlity of life?

    What about the GND is so outlandish?

    Please specify?

  • Not refuting anything but yuh are telling me:

    You support people who oppose living wages for blue collar work.

    You support creating costly public hazards due to neglect and predation of those who work for a living.

    You are a raging bigot who wants to attack political minorities for its own sake.

    Your views are garbage.

  • You’re a clown.
    NY to LA in 4 hours by plane.
    How many by train?
    Bullet trains from EVERY city to EVERY city??! Not in your lifetime; not ever.
    The socialist green environmental weenies couldn’t make it work for 100 miles; and you want the feds involved??!
    Do us all a favor – YOU drive your mini-cooper. YOU take Amtrak. YOU unplug your air conditioning. YOU work your union job. YOU install solar panels and use them and your wood burning stove in winter (oops; can’t cut trees) – and leave the rest of us alone.

  • So electric cars have been around for some time. Can people afford them? Not really, they are still too expensive. Where are all the charging stations now? I have yet to see any at any gas station or any charging stations. Same thing can be said for solar power. That is a major expense again and in many cases the companies putting in solar for homeowners have stipulations that make them a liability such as having the home owner lease them.

    So with all the troubles we see today with renewable energy, and the fact that it is highly expensive, what makes anyone want to believe that suddenly everything will change and renewable energy will just take off. People can talk about tax breaks and other such incentives, but people still can’t seem to wrap their head around the fact that people cannot afford them to begin with. I guess the environmentalists need to sit down with 99% who are not getting paid enough, are getting nickel and dime to death. Or has the growing poverty in not only this country but across the world taken a back seat. More magical thinking coming from the left whose solutions are as plausible as finding a unicorn.

  • I had a “solar engineer” aporoach me years ago to install solar panels on my roof.
    After her sales pitch, we got down to dollars.
    To place panels on my roof would cost approximately $20k – in 2007 dollars.
    The kicker was that the storage was poor and the power supplied would run only a few lights.
    I told her my rate of return was negative and my break even was about 45 years…
    She told me things were better than they seemed because Obama was giving me tax credits…
    I told her later.

  • “The divine blessing is now pronounced upon man. It differs from that of the lower animals chiefly in the element of supremacy. Power is presumed to belong to man’s nature, according to the counsel of the Maker’s will Genesis 1:26. But without a special permission he cannot exercise any lawful authority. For the other creatures are as independent of him as he is of them. As creatures he and they are on an equal footing, and have no natural fight either over the other. Hence, it is necessary that he should receive from high heaven a formal charter of right over the things that were made for man. He is therefore authorized, by the word of the Creator, to exercise his power in subduing the earth and ruling over the animal kingdom. This is the meet sequel of his being created in the image of God. Being formed for dominion, the earth and its various products and inhabitants are assigned to him for the display of his powers. The subduing and ruling refer not to the mere supply of his natural needs, for which provision is made in the following verse, but to the accomplishment of his various purposes of science and beneficence, whether towards the inferior animals or his own race. It is the part of intellectual and moral reason to employ power for the ends of general no less than personal good. The sway of man ought to be beneficent.”
    https://biblehub.com/commentaries/barnes/genesis/1.htm

  • Hey, a minor correction for you. The correct designation is not “The Green New Deal.”

    The correct terminology is “The NO-GOOD COMMIE Green New Deal.”

  • “The sway of man ought to be beneficient.”

    Even that outdated theology finds the truth, for all its awkwardness.

  • Exactly. Then when you factor in the fact that people do not need solar panels until something breaks, only those who have the money to spare, or get suckered have them. With large value items one is not going to replace anything unless it is cost effective or other options are more expensive. Same thing with cars. A lot of people, including myself, would buy a hybrid or electric car but there is no where to recharge, the cost is prohibitive. I don’t have the money to dole out $30,000 (which is minimum) on a car. Then when you factor in that where people live such as areas that get a good amount of snow, a taller vehicle or one with AWD/4×4 is needed. Now we’re talking $50,000. Same thing goes for just about all green items right down to green laundry detergent.

    Do people believe that a cloud is going to descend and all of a sudden this is going to be affordable? That all that nonsense with the gnd is even if it would work, that it is achievable? I so amazed that people will suspend logic and reality and support that idiocy. No, the reason some support this malarkey is because of who its coming from and magical thinking. Then they’ll force people into doing this if they had this way, by making everyone even more poor. They would have a better chance of digging a 1,000 mile hole in the middle of the country to fill for water reserves.

    What really bothers me is that all of a sudden humans have become the cockroaches of the planet. That by killing off the next generations they think they are saving the world. It is the new eugenics, the new classism because it is not the poor and ignorant that will survive or allowed to reproduce, but the wealthy and powerful. So what this boils down to is that the future is not about people, but about making the rich and powerful able to continue as they see fit.

  • Yup – big climate change companies and the socialists want to tell you what you can and cannot do while they live in luxury.

  • That humanity is obligated to care for creation. As much as that odd commentary beats around the bush, it ultimately agrees.

  • If you think all religious leaders are climate change deniers you must be fresh out of a long term hostage situation.

  • Still completely missed the point entirely and are making a ridiculous strawman point than address what was said.

    Improving our rail infrastructure means updating our mass transit commuter systems. Reducing traffic, reducing pollution, improving quality if life. It’s nothing to do with air travel.

    You are a troll. There is no point in pretending you have a point to take. Have fun 😋

  • We should not take undue care of the Earth, but we don’t worship it either, Scripture doesn’t say anything on the matter.

  • Laudato Si is a fine encyclical. I particularly like article 218: “In calling to mind the figure of St. Francis of Assisi, we come to realize that a healthy relationship with creation is one dimension of overall personal conversion…” This does not have to be big — this can be small, and extends to help those in poverty.

  • Did I say anything about ALL religious leaders? Of course I didn’t. You are fresh out of a long term hostage situation. Try actually reading what people write.

  • Yep. Keep reading and he admits everything I am saying is accurate. So then he responds with the usual name calling.

  • Generally, those religious leaders in the “Every Word Of This Bible Is True” camp are climate change skeptics—–OR—–are just silent on the issue. That single belief and claim about the Bible itself is a predicter of where ministries will fall on a host of real issues including environmentalism, education, health care, wealth divide, human rights, global focus, and science in general.

  • Revelation 11:18 English Standard Version (ESV)

    18 The nations raged,

    but your wrath came,

    and the time for the dead to be judged,

    and for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints,

    and those who fear your name,

    both small and great,

    and for destroying the destroyers of the earth.”

    try again

  • Perhaps. But they are the reason Donald Trump is president. The way we know that beyond a shadow of a doubt is that they and their flocks are the constituency Donald plays to—–nonstop. We need to wake up to the same “data-driven” realization that Donald and his people woke up to before we admitted they were on to something.

  • Overpopulation is driving climate change. So opposition to universal access to contraception and abortion by the Vatican and far right evangelical leaders actually endangers our whole planet.

  • Sure you have.
    Typical liberal – doesn’t know a thing about accounting nor finance.
    Just went to web. Most site talk about 10-25 years to break even.
    Get this – they also want you to finance the $25k to install; so they make more money on financing then on the actual product!
    Big Green is a big joke.

  • His favorite lines;
    You are full of crap…
    You are a nazi…
    Provide your sources….
    I don’t read alt-right (Fox) sources; they’re crap…
    He cracks me up….

  • See what I mean folks? The Global Warming Religion needs Human Sacrifices pronto.
    This global Fright-Night Malthusian Cult needs blood — namely YOUR blood, if your Income Bracket ain’t high enough to please them !!

  • We need a Spuddie bingo card.

    I think, if you count a free space, there might be just barely enough Spuddie lines to fill one.

  • Unfortunately. What we are learning is that most of them like the pugnaciousness better than any of the rest of us thought——even now that they see it ever more egregiously. We can blame church, but it’s really more with the Fox News, the Talk Radio, the Tabloids, the Facebook Groups (and the chain e-mails that preceded them.) It’s a religio-culture.

  • Trump wants William Happer to chair his new climate panel. Mr. Happer once likened the demonization of CO2 to that of the Jews in Nazi Germany. So I guess he doesn’t acknowledge the Greenhouse Effect.

  • You can argue about cause all you want but the accelerated melting of the Greenland ice cap, the changes in Arctic sea ice are due to increasing temperatures. The melting now is greater than many current models predicted.

  • Snow in AZ.
    Snow in Saudi Arabia.
    Falling average temperatures-which is why they market climate change instead of global warming.
    Just a cycle Jim; nothing more.
    20 years ago Al Gore told us NYC would be flooded if we didn’t do XYZ.
    Unfortunately, that fact that Alexandra orosco Cortez was elected proves his alarmist rhetoric was and still is false.
    BTW; the changing climate should be accepted just as easily as the modernists wish to change the constitution and the RCC.

  • So none. You were full of it. Fair enough.

    All I have to say about that is:
    30 years of investigating Clintons = nothing to show for it
    2 years of investigating Trump = 44 indictments so far

    Get back to me when I have to give a flying fig.

  • LOL! Changing the subject because you lied. How fun

    30 years = Nothing
    2 Years = 44 and counting

    M0r0ns
    Are
    Getting
    Agitated

  • If Trump has to replace Justice Ginsburg before he leaves office, his legacy will live on for a long time.

    Hopefully the separation of power/checks and balances will limit the damage Trump can do.

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