Religion and Climate Change

Hello, everyone, and welcome. My name is Jack Miles. I am Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English & Religious Studies at the University of California, Irvine, and my subject today is the role, if any, that religion may play in our search for solutions to the existential threat of climate change.


Let me begin with the fact that your “Bending the Curve” course builds on a report by the same title, produced by fifty researchers from the University of California. That report is structured as ten “Scalable Solutions” in six clusters whose collective goal is “to clean our air and keep global warming under 2 degrees Celsius and, at the same time, provide breathing room for the world to fully transition to carbon neutrality in the coming decades.”

Of the six solution clusters, the second, “Societal Transformation Solutions,” includes solutions #2 and #3, the latter being a call to deepen the global culture of climate collaboration by designing “venues where stakeholders, community and religious leaders converge around concrete problems with researchers and scholars from all academic disciplines, with the overall goal of initiating collaborative actions to mitigate climate disruption.”


The inclusion of “religious leaders” in a coalition to mitigate climate disruption may seem an unwelcome surprise to a good many, and we must begin our discussion by candidly addressing the reason for their surprise. Scientists have clearly led the way in raising alarm about global warming, but at key moments in the history of modern science, religion has undeniably been an obstacle to scientific progress. The memory of that conflict lingers, and matters.

In the seventeenth century, the great Galileo Galilei, whom Albert Einstein regarded as the father of modern science, was tried by the Inquisition under Pope Urban VIII, forced to recant his belief in the rotation of the Earth around the sun, and placed under house arrest for the rest of his life. According to legend, Galileo said under his breath but defiantly, "And yet it moves" (Eppur si muove, in Italian).

In England in 1860, just seven months after the epoch-making publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, a panel discussion took place during which Bishop Samuel Wilberforce asked the philosopher Thomas Huxley whether it was through the maternal or the paternal side of his family tree that he was descended from a monkey.

Huxley allegedly replied that he would not be ashamed to be descended from an ape but would indeed be ashamed to be connected with a man who used his gifts to obscure the plain truth. The memory of iconic moments like these reinforces to this day a widespread sense that mutual antagonism between religion and science is inevitable.With regard to religion and climate change, the Public Religion Research Institute and the American Academy of Religion conducted an extensive survey of varying attitudes here in the United States in 2014. A key finding was that 53% of Evangelical Christians do not believe that the globe is warming; 23% believe that though it may be warming, the cause is not human energy consumption but either natural fluctuation or some other unknown cause; and only 27% believe that human activity plays a significant or decisive causal role. These numbers come into perspective as regards societal transformation when we note that 81% of this one quarter of the American population voted for the candidate, Donald J. Trump, who, as President, announced on June 1, 2017 that he would withdraw the United States from the COP 21 Paris climate accord.

And yet statements from major Evangelical leaders, Roman Catholic leaders, and the leaders of various other religious traditions raise the hope that conflict between science and religion is neither inevitable nor insuperable. Focusing for the moment on this hope, what would be religion’s distinct contribution to the stabilization of the world climate?


Let me begin one possible answer to that key question with a famous and rather startling quotation from Albert Einstein. In a 1954 essay entitled simply “Science and Religion: Irreconcilable?” the great physicist wrote, “Religion without science is blind, science without religion is lame.” That religion without science is blind is a claim that I should think no one in this room would contest, but in what sense is science without religion lame? It is lame in the sense that correct scientific findings do not in themselves compel “correct” social action. Some mediating element other than data—something functionally like religion, whatever we choose to call it—must enable the leap from scientifically correct data to socially beneficial or socially salvific action. Thus, eugenics—the view that different ethnic groups belonged to different species and that these could be ranked by their varying excellence—was dead as science long decades before institutionalized racism began to be abolished by law. The educated, governing stratum of society knew quite well that all human beings belong to a single species, but that very governing stratum nonetheless sanctioned the segregation and stratification of society into separate classes, separate castes, as if its members belonged to so many different, hierarchically ranked species.

In a similar way, atmospheric science as such does not obligate the climate scientist, much less anyone else, to work to preserve the human species from extinction by global warming. So far as pure science is concerned, the extinction of the human species by the suicidal destruction of its unique habitat would be, in and of itself, a splendid research project if only the scientists were not so inconveniently doomed to die before the project could reach completion. People are exhorted to support climate stabilization for their children’s or their grandchildren’s sake or, as it is commonly phrased, “for posterity.” For a good many, scientists and non-scientists alike, this motive may be instinctively appealing. But what if you have no children? Family is a powerful motivator for some but not necessarily or automatically for all. How is an aspiring activist to respond to the wry but cutting objection, “What has posterity ever done for me?”

Answers to such questions are available, but the answers—even for scientists themselves—do not proceed from their science alone. Some scientists may turn to art, some to philosophy, and many, whether reflectively or unreflectively, to the professional culture of their place and time. Perhaps scientists, like most of us, most often resort simply to “how I was brought up.” But if, for a large—and, significantly, an organized--segment of the general population, commitment to climate stabilization can be rooted in a sense of religious or moral obligation, then religion—despite its historical record of conflict with science in the West—deserves a second look; and the question that we must then be asking of it is not whether its cosmology is up-to-date but rather, “What motivations does it provide? What values does it cherish?”

Organized religions are the largest non-governmental organizations on the planet. Besides the world’s two billion Christians, there are more than a billion and a half Muslims, close to a billion Hindus, hundreds of millions of Buddhists, and so forth. It should seem unlikely prima facie that any major societal transformation could be accomplished without their participation. Each of these religious traditions enables or contributes to a way of life, and there is no need for these in all their variety to be abandoned in favor of a single, Western, secular worldview and way of life in order for them to make common cause in responding to the global ecological crisis. In Module Three of this lecture (below), we will consider the powerful motivations that Roman Catholicism and American Evangelical Protestantism provide for climate activism, but I want to stress here at the outset that these two religious options are far from the only two available.

Having made this much of a case for Bending the Curve’s inclusion of religious leaders in its proposed alliance for societal transformation, let us now, in the second module of this lecture, address an inescapable prior question: with or without religion, why pursue societal transformation in the first place? Why not proceed directly to the report’s third cluster of scalable solutions, “Governance Solutions”? Why not “cut to the chase,” as the saying goes, and engage immediately in direct political action?

Review and discussion:

    • What history underlies suspicion of religion as a potential partner in a coalition for climate stabilization? Give an example.

    • Do you yourself trust the motives of religious leaders? Do you trust the motives of leading scientists? Among people you know outside the university, which set of leaders is more trusted?

    • Why are Evangelical Christians of special importance in this connection? What portion do they constitute of the American population?

    • In what sense is science without religion lame? Do correct data compel “correct” social action in an area like climate change? If your goal is to motivate “climate change warriors,” what values, if any, can you assume that you and your target audience have in common?

    • How would you reply to someone who intends to take no action to stabilize the climate because, he asks, “What has posterity ever done for me?”



The question I left you with at the end of Module One was: Why worry about societal transformation in the first place? Why not proceed directly to “governance solutions” and immediate political engagement?

I readily concede that the climate information provided by science and the motivations that religions might provide, even taken together, will matter little for the stabilization of the world’s climate if they do not eventuate in one form or another of political action. So, let’s talk about the real prospects that the world faced as of late Spring 2017 for short-term action by the federal government of the United States to stabilize the world climate.

Why do I stipulate “short-term” action?

Because, to cite the Bending the Curve report:

Unless we act within a few years, 2 degrees Celsius warming will be upon us by 2050. Unlike in a game of chess played with a compassionate opponent, we cannot take back our flawed moves when checkmate is imminent. [p. 26]

The case for dispensing with societal transformation and proceeding directly to political action thus rested in Spring 2017 to some significant extent on the prospect for rapid mitigation within the four-to-eight years of the Trump Administration. Just how great was that prospect?


On June 1, 2017, President Trump announced that he would withdraw the United States from the pivotal COP 21 Paris climate change accord. The withdrawal process was expected to take as long as four years. But actions that the Trump Administration had taken even before withdrawing from the Paris accord had already made compliance with the agreement impossible unless other state or local governments, major business interests, or other social actors could accomplish what the federal government was now not even going to attempt. During the first one hundred days of his administration, President Trump had revoked many federal rules aimed at mitigating global warming. Of these, the most important was his executive order directing the Environmental Protection Agency to pursue the legal rollback of the Clean Power Plan, President Obama’s principal instrument for meeting American goals under the COP 21 Paris climate accord. What was clear, then, even before President Trump’s June 1, 2017 announcement was that there was no prospect of the revival or implementation of the Clean Power Plan.

President Trump himself, when still campaigning for election, had said during one campaign speech:

"This very expensive GLOBAL WARMING bullshit has got to stop. Our planet is freezing, record low temps, and our GW scientists are stuck in ice."

On another occasion, he tweeted out his further conviction that “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” Consistent with this latter view, the President characterized the Paris agreement on June 1, 2017 as “a massive redistribution of United States wealth to other countries,” most notably to China and India, while never once addressing the catastrophic damage and immeasurable dollar losses that can result from runaway global warming. As of late Spring 2017, the President enjoyed the full support of the majority leader of the Senate, the speaker of the House, the majority leader of the House, and the chairmen of the relevant congressional committees.

All doors, in sum, were locked against significant federal action to halt or reverse global warming.


Anticipating such an assault on federal climate change mitigation, a stunning 2300 scientists representing all fifty states had written an open letter to President-elect Trump, immediately after his election, and to the incoming, Republican-dominated 115th Congress as well, calling on them to maintain adequate funding for scientific research and to “support and rely on science as a key input for crafting public policy.” But this letter had proved entirely without effect. All of the measures just enumerated—including the culminating withdrawal from the Paris climate accord—were enacted after it was sent.

Of particular note was the fact that the Trump Administration’s proposed budget eliminated funding for the crucial Clarreo data-gathering mission of NASA’s Langley Research Center. Adam Frank, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester, wrote on April 23, 2017 in the New York Times:

"The cancelling of Clarreo and other climate missions would damage our ability to study global warming for decades, hobbling our capacity to prepare for its dire challenges—and infecting the whole of America’s scientific enterprise."

The budget was issued, by the way, a month after a massive “March for Science,” which was also, quite clearly, without measurable political effect. The Trump Administration seemed determined not only to exacerbate global warming but also to do what it could to undermine the study of the phenomenon.

In the first sentences of the first module of this lecture, I said that my central subject was “the role, if any, that religion may play in our search for solutions to the existential threat of climate change.” I noted that Bending the Curve included religion in its call for “Societal Transformation Solutions,” the second of its six scalable solution-clusters. In the rest of that module, I first addressed the objection that religion and science were so incompatible that no alliance between them was possible and then turned to Albert Einstein’s provocative contention that science without religion was lame.

In this second module, we have been addressing a second objection—namely, that to involve religion in a broad effort at societal transformation is to take the long way around and that the wiser course would be to proceed directly to political engagement. But the conduct of the Trump Administration, as just reviewed, strongly argued that—at least as of late Spring 2017—the pursuit of rapid mitigation of deleterious climate change through the American federal government was demonstrably a lost cause and a fool’s errand. This unhappy conclusion had then two corollaries.

First, the center of gravity for political activism in defense of climate stabilization must shift from Washington to states like California, to coalitions of states and municipalities in alliance with foreign governments, and to major corporations that recognize how, in this domain, the public interest and their private interest can stand in substantial alignment.

Second, however, the default of significant engagement by Washington threw into relief the importance of working from the bottom up rather than from the top down. Why waste time trying to change the made-up minds of current federal officeholders? Why not, instead, labor to transform the society in which they live, including, of course, the electorate to which they report? Paradoxically, this roundabout path could be the shorter path to a serious, lasting American commitment to climate stabilization.

Forging an alliance between climate scientists and religious leaders, definitely including Evangelical Protestant leaders—however improbable or even outlandish such an alliance might initially seem—could prove a more promising path to a culturally transformed electorate within the foreseeable near future than mustering an even larger squadron of Nobel laureates for yet another open letter to the White House or a yet another “March for Science.”

Let me turn now, in the third and closing module of this lecture, to the question that, as I said in the first module, must be asked of religion at this juncture—namely, not whether its cosmology is up-to-date but “What motivations does it provide?”

Review and discussion:

    • Why is it important to pursue rapid climate mitigation?

    • Does President Trump believe that global warming is a danger?

    • Where does he believe that claims of global warming originate?

    • How did he characterize the COP 21 Paris climate accord when announcing that he was ordering American withdrawal from the accord?

    • Does the Trump Administration favor gathering further data for the study of the phenomenon of climate change?

    • In these views and actions, do President Trump and his Administration enjoy solid congressional support or not?

    • If no significant action can be expected from the federal government on behalf of climate stabilization, are there other American actors who aspire to take up the slack? If so, who are they?

    • Which is easier: persuading officeholders whose minds are made up about climate change, or changing the public mind and thus transforming the electorate as happened, e.g., in the Civil Rights Movement?



How might religions motivate Americans or others around the world to dedicate themselves to climate stabilization? Rather than speak first of religious belief or doctrine, let me speak in a more general way about dreams. It is striking that though dreams play a significant part in virtually every religious tradition that I know of, the dream as such is not thought of as an inherently religious experience.

Thus, when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., speaking in 1963 before the Lincoln Memorial on the Washington Mall, said, famously, “I have a dream,” Americans did not hear him speaking as a Christian but as an American. He was not speaking of something that already existed but dreaming of something that did not yet exist, something that he wanted to bring into existence. That something was the broad societal transformation of American culture so dramatically and so courageously begun by the Civil Rights Movement, which he led and which climaxed (but did not conclude) in 1964 with the federal government’s passage of the Civil Rights Act. The Civil Rights Act did not bring the Civil Rights Movement into existence. Change came the other way around: first the movement, first a change in the society; only then, through the state, a change in the law.


The societal transformation that King sought was by no means the conversion of America to Christianity, but his Christianity played a crucial generative role in the personal transformation that turned him into an agent for societal transformation. King had to trust a personal dream, in other words, before he could turn it into a national dream, and in conversation with the Rev. Chip Murray, pastor of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles, he revealed how that crucial act of trust came about.

“At first,” he said, “I was not driven to follow the dream given to me,” and one can only too easily imagine why. Racism was massively institutionalized in Georgia, where he began. Anyone challenging it—challenging segregation and the other oppressive, racist laws and practices of the American South—knew that he would attract immediate, vitriolic, even murderous hatred. The epiphany that led King to follow his dream, despite the forces arrayed against it, came as he heard the words of an old hymn:

I do not know how ‘twill be,
Nor what the future holds for me,
But this I know,
If Jesus leads me,
I shall get home some day.

“I shall get home some day”: With that line in his head, as King explained to his fellow minister, and with Jesus on his mind, he changed his whole spiritual disposition and began the process of turning his personal dream into a national dream.


My point, as I move on to share some of the motivations that two notable religious statements advance for deep, personal, moral commitment to climate stabilization, is that these motivations rest on realities that have no scientific status. Such a reality is dignity as you encounter it in the following long quotation from Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’:

"What is the purpose of our life in this world? Why are we here? What is the goal of our work and all our efforts? What need does the earth have of us? It is no longer enough, then, simply to state that we should be concerned for future generations. We need to see that what is at stake is our own dignity. Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is, first and foremost, up to us. The issue is one which dramatically affects us, for it has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn." [Laudato Si’, clause 160, emphasis added.]

What is at stake, the Pope tells you, is your own dignity, but do you believe in dignity? Do you believe that it exists? What is the evidence for its existence? Do you believe, more particularly, in your own dignity? If you do, then the Pope invites you to see yourself at the end of your life looking back and seeing that by working to preserve life, you were working to be worthy of life—to be a man or woman of real dignity, whose life, at the end, will have been worth it.

Dignity bears an interesting relationship to a concept with a central place in American thought and rhetoric—namely, that of equality. “All men are created equal,” we read in the Declaration of Independence. In innumerable ways, American society and the American state rest upon the foundation of human equality, but is it not evident that men and women are not born equal? Are they not unequal in health, in wealth, in intelligence and other native ability, and in social status?

But if I offer such an objection to a loyal American, will he or she not answer, “Yes, but they are equal in dignity.” The answer is a good one, for in what other way could they possibly be equal? Yet the answer carries us back to the question of the reality of dignity. Does it exist? What is the evidence for its existence? Does the Declaration of Independence not dream a fiction and then set out boldly to turn it into a fact? This is what religions often attempt, and such is the boldness that the current moment requires.


Argentine-born, Pope Francis is a man of the global South, and Laudato Si’ in many ways presents the world as seen, so to speak, from below. For a statement more in the American idiom, let me turn to the brief but cogent manifesto “Climate Change: An Evangelical Call to Action.” This American statement moves through four boldly simple claims:

Claim 1: Human-Induced Climate Change is Real

Claim 2: The Consequences of Climate Change Will Be Signifiant and Will Hit the Poor the Hardest

Claim 3: Christian Moral Convictions Demand Our Response to the Climate Change Problem

Claim 4: The need to act now is urgent. Governments, business, churches, and individuals all have a role to play in addressing climate change—starting now.

Among these four, it is the third that offers specifically Christian motivations for climate stabilization. Three broad motivations are named: “love of God, love of neighbor, and the demands of stewardship.”

Regarding love of God, the statement notes simply, “This is God’s world, and any damage that we do to God’s world is an offense against God Himself.” Three biblical texts are cited as representative. One is Psalm 24, which opens:

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
the world, and those who live in it;
for he has founded it on the seas,
and established it on the rivers.

The cosmology here is the obviously outdated ancient Semitic cosmology according to which dry land floated on a great sea (explaining, of course, how springs could bubble up from below). Few if any Evangelicals really believe in that cosmology, but they adhere nonetheless to reverence for God as creator, and from that they infer a duty to revere and not to damage what he has made.

Regarding love of neighbor, the statement asserts that Christians are called “to protect and care for the least of these as though each was Jesus Christ himself. Here as well, three biblical texts are cited, of which the third, Matthew 25:31-46, contains the iconic phrase, “the least of these,” from the King James Version: “Verily, I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of these the least of my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” Matthew 25 lists various works of charity, including feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, visiting the imprisoned, and others. To this list, the statement adds defending our human “brethren” against the harm they will suffer from environmental degradation.

Finally, with regard to stewardship, the statement cites the Book of Genesis and asserts:

Christians, noting the fact that most of the climate change problem is human induced, are reminded that when God made humanity he commissioned us to exercise stewardship over the earth and its creatures.

Climate change “constitutes a critical opportunity for us to do better.”


Parallel spiritual resources from an impressive array of different religious starting points are accessible through the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology ( Moreover, the two documents just cited could be supplemented by many other texts and elaborated in many non-textual ways from the two respective Christian traditions. But before concluding, I would repeat one practical observation already made in passing.

Many young Americans characterize themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” What this usually means is that even if much of the traditional subject matter of religion continues to interest them, organized religion no longer attracts them. But if the goal is societal transformation, organization is indispensable, and the support of longstanding, well-established organizations of all kinds, including religious organizations, is much to be desired. Religion is only one element within societal transformation, and societal transformation itself is only one element in the needed response to the climate-change crisis that faces us. But to the extent that religion can be a part of the needed solution, the organizational element in it—clearly, not always its most appealing feature—must be regarded as on balance a strength and not a weakness.

Review and discussion:

    • Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. electrified America with his “I have a dream” speech preached on the Washington Mall in the nation’s capital. That was a civic dream that originated, however, in a private, religious dream. Can you imagine something similar happening in other domains than civil rights?

    • What is the scientific evidence for human dignity? Is there any? If none, then is the American ideal that “all men are created equal” a delusion?

    • Pope Francis argues that your dignity, your own self-respect, dictate that you should be committed to saving Planet Earth from global warming. Do you agree? Do you feel that working to mitigate global warming is a moral obligation? If so, on what basis? The pope offers one. Can you think of another?

    • Laudato Si’ is about ninety pages long, the Evangelical “Call to Action” is far briefer. Does the briefer statement, which originated in the United States, strike you as “more American”? If so, why?

    • Of the Christian motives for climate change that the “Call to Action” enumerates, which, if any, speak to you? Which can you imagine using to “convert” a friend to climate change activism?

    • Many who are “spiritual but not religious” have no particular hostility toward religion but no interest in being part of organized religion. Does this description fit you? If so, can you devise a new way to combine more “humanistic” motives with effective organization of the sort that served the Civil Rights Movement so well in the 1960s? Can you imagine a “secular church” coming into existence with climate stabilization as part of its mission? Where would you turn for leadership in such a movement?