climate change: converging views of science and religion


Leonidas Petrakis


In December an international conference sponsored by the United Nations will be held in Paris to seek legally binding agreements for specific actions by all nations that will finally limit green house gas emissions and stem the environmental disaster that is rapidly unfolding. Agreed upon policies at previous international conferences have not been implemented. The Paris Conference is seen as the last chance for action before the planet approaches the “tipping point” for major and irreversible damage to its human and natural systems.

Scientists have compiled copious amounts of compelling evidence for the causes and effects of climate change, documenting the widespread harm already being done and validating model projections that the damage will worsen significantly if there are no policies put in place in time to curtail the use of fossil fuels, chief culprit of climate change. 

Scientists have been trying also to inform the public of the potential catastrophe, and to encourage policy makers to address the issue with the requisite seriousness instead of pious generalities and commitments that remain unimplemented. Many religious leaders (Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Dalai Lama, Archbishop of Canterbury, Bishop Tutu), concerned about the existential threat that climate change poses, have been calling for action. Recently Pope Francis issued his encyclical on the environment, “Laudato Si’“, thereby joining the other spiritual leaders, and greatly expanding their calls to save the planet. 

The energy for the Industrial Revolution has been provided primarily by fossil fuels, the remnants of earlier luxuriant plant and animal life. The extraction of these fuels, their use and conversion to various products (agricultural chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and countless consumer goods) have greatly increased polluting and climate-affecting byproducts, including the so-called green house gases. Carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane (natural gas) are the most important climate-changing chemicals. Methane (a cleaner fossil fuel but highly potent green house gas) is rapidly increasing in the atmosphere because of the melting of the permafrost and the aggressive use of “fracking” by the fossil fuels industry.

The evidence that climate change due to anthropogenic green house gases is ubiquitous and compelling: rising sea levels (NY City plans for hugely expensive sea walls to prevent such flooding as caused by the 2012 hurricane Sandy); growing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events (Katrina and the extended California and Midwest droughts); increasing temperature on land and oceans (permafrost melting, Arctic sea ice and Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets declining, glaciers retreating, and the diminished snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere melting earlier than usual); increasing acidification of oceans (as more carbon dioxide is being absorbed by the oceans from the atmosphere carbonic acid is formed and dissolves corals); and massive people migrations due to drought and food shortages (and wars of course).

Different cultures and epochs have provided varying attitudes towards the world and man’s relation to it, with the distrust between science and religion having played a significant role in shaping their views. 

The Greeks, as Erwin Schrödinger points out in his delightful and insightful book “Nature and the Greeks”, were free from this mutual distrust. He writes, “never before or since, anywhere in the world, has anything like their highly advanced and articulated system of knowledge and speculation been established without the fateful division which has hampered us for centuries and has become unendurable in our days.” To the Greeks the world around them was big and beautiful, “a rather complicated mechanism, acting according to eternal innate laws, which they were curious to find out.” Of course this is the central tenet of modern science, and it is in this context that the massive scientific evidence on the cause and effects of climate change has been amassed and presented, most eminently by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, under the aegis of the United Nations. The validity of the scientific evidence is accepted by over ninety five percent of scientists.

In sharp contrast to the Greeks, Genesis provides a different view of the world and man’s relation to it: “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth”. 

This adversarial relationship between man and nature found colorful expression in the works of Francis Bacon (in language offensive to modern sensibilities, nature is “a strong woman that needs to be subdued”!) His famous treatise “Novum Organum“ (titled to signal his break with Aristotle and the rest of the Greeks) played a significant role in shaping Western attitudes towards science. The notion of man subduing nature for his own aggrandizement characterized the Industrial Revolution, with science the means of conquering herThis view has led to the rapacious plundering of resources by applying brutal technologies, their consequences rationalized and dismissed by economists as mere “externalities”. The ongoing extraction of fossil fuels from the North Dakota oil shale and the Alberta tar sands are examples of the terrible damage to human and natural systems wrought by man’s extreme attempts to “subdue” nature. 

This chasm between science and religion is what Patriarch Bartholomew and the other religious leaders are attempting to bridge in the case of climate change. Patriarch Bartholomew speaks of course in religious terms even as he addresses specific environmental issues, such as the degradation of water resources, the stuff of life. He considers that caring for the environment is a religious imperative, declaring, “to commit a crime against the natural world is a sin. For human beings to cause species to become extinct and to destroy the biological diversity of God's creation; for human beings to degrade the integrity of the Earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the earth of its natural forests, or by destroying its wetlands; for human beings to injure other human beings with disease by contaminating the Earth's waters, its land, its air, and its life, with poisonous substances – all of these are sins”. He has preached widely to sensitize not only his Orthodox flock but also influence peoples of all faiths; has undertaken pilgrimages and field trips; and has organized conferences bringing together theologians and scientists. For his untiring efforts he has been recognized with the US Congressional Gold Medal, Norway’s Sophie Prize, honorary degrees from many universities, and has gained the nickname of “Green Patriarch”. 

Pope Francis in May 2015 issued his environment encyclical, a powerful and moving call for urgent actions needed to halt the developing environmental disaster. The Pope (a chemist by training) declares that the ecological crisis is “ a small sign of the ethical, cultural and spiritual crisis of modernity”; insists on the moral case for caring for the Earth (“our common home”); distances himself from the adversarial view of man’s relation to nature; recognizes the anthropogenic origin of climate change; focuses on specific issues (water, transportation, loss of biodiversity, global inequality); advocates a new partnership between science and religion to combat the human-driven climate change; and he is particularly mindful of the poor and disadvantaged peoples who are bearing the brunt of the adverse effects of climate change. His encyclical is an astonishing document. Incidentally, in it he also pays tribute to Patriarch Bartholomew’s pioneering efforts for the environment. 

The obstacles to a Paris Conference agreement for meaningful policies appear almost insurmountable: the huge investment in infrastructure that the fossil fuels industry has in place as well as its political power; the deep divide between developed and developing nations; the co-opting of “environmental” and “green” as concepts even by egregious environmental offenders; and the puzzling and stubborn denial of the very existence of climate change by a cadre of influential politicians. This is an almost uniquely American phenomenon –the Chair of the US Senate Committee on the Environment, Mr. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, has penned a book on climate change entitled “The Greatest Hoax”, and has invoked Genesis 8:22 as the basis of his denial.

Not withstanding these impediments the threat posed by climate change is so high that it may force political leaders to finally move towards meaningful agreements at the Paris Conference. The timely convergence of views between modern science and religious positions that do not deny scientific evidence may prove a key for the success of this crucial meeting. 


  ΧΡΟΝΟΣ 30 (10.2015)