Communicating about Climate Change with Religious Groups and Leaders
Summary and Keywords
Communicating about climate change with religious groups should recognize the diversity incorporated in the term “religion.” Diversity in practice, institutional forms, belief systems, values, and core narratives mean that climate communication cannot be formulaic application of communication techniques and social psychology tweaked for spirituality. Because all people see phenomena like climate change through the prisms of their existing ideas, values, influence of significant others, sociostructural position, and personal experience, and expect these to be respected, communication with religious groups should respect the particular religious tradition and draw on narratives and language that are meaningful to the particular faith. Emphasis is placed on the role of religion as a social space wherein people come together, form ideas, and act collectively. Social networks and established practice are likely to be as significant as the influence of a religious leader although such elite influence can also be important. Roman Catholic Pope Francis’ recent teaching document on the environment, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, serves as one example of communication about climate change. An understanding of the cultural assumptions, narratives, and framings relevant to a particular group is essential regardless of whether the people are secular or religious.
All social groups have particular ways of seeing the world. Obviously, communicating about climate change to doctors requires different approaches than communicating about climate change with business executives. Similarly, religious traditions—such as Sikhs, practitioners of traditional African religions, or Jews, and within the latter, Orthodox or Reform Jews—have differences that will affect how they receive, handle, and interpret communication about climate change. Communication theory has long recognized the role of audience interpretation in communication processes (Ballantyne, 2016). Participants in religious communities are situated within contexts that have their own practices of communicating ideas.
The value of this understanding about both communication and religion is the recognition that social situatedness matters, maybe even more so than narrow demographic variables. Situational or subcultural dimensions are also important because environmental awareness could be enhanced by certain congregational characteristics (Haluza-DeLay, 2008; DeLashmutt, 2011). That is, members of a Sikh gurdwara or Jewish synagogue that is “greening” its sacred space, will likely differ from Sikhs or Jews in faith communities that give no attention to environmental concerns.
Climate communication techniques are more effective when they are respectful of and oriented toward the cultural specifics of the target audience (Hoffman, 2015; Leshner, 2015). This means that communicating climate change to religious groups requires (a) respecting the particular religious tradition and epistemic orientation(s) of the faith group; (b) attending to the variability of religious traditions; (c) drawing on the narratives and language that are meaningful to the particular faith group; and (d) recognizing that religious people are situated in social contexts or networks that can both hinder and be useful.
Basic Principles about Religious Groups
That religions differ across traditions and within them increases the complexity of communicating climate change. This point cannot be stressed enough: religions are not societally interchangeable for each other. Islam in a majority Muslim country (e.g., Indonesia or Saudi Arabia) does not fill the role of Christianity in a majority Christian country (e.g., Ghana, Brazil, or the United States). A moderate Shi’a imam will likely have little influence on conservative Wahhabi Muslims. Conservative Pentecostal Christians and conservative Anglican Christians in the United Kingdom may have more in common with each other than they have with more liberal members of their own faith traditions. It is even more complicated to determine what characteristics associated with those U.K. Pentecostals and other Pentecostals in South Korea or Zimbabwe may affect communication about climate change. Despite some similarities in practices and beliefs within a religion, social histories and sociocultural context alters the practice of faith—as demonstrated by the contributors to an anthology about Pentecostalism around the world (Hefner, 2013). Terminology or approaches adequate for some faith-shaped people will fail with others; language that works for some religious groups—like a focus on “justice”—will fail with other groups (Marshall et al., 2016).
Religious groups have been active on environmental and climate issues (Johnston, 2013; Haluza-DeLay, 2015). Not all faith-shaped people oppose addressing climate change, although this perception persists in many minds and media reports. In the words of one colleague, “We are pessimistic because we pay too much attention to American evangelical Christians” (Szasz, 2011). In contrast, in a conversation on the topic, a senior administrator in the World Evangelical Alliance simply rolled his eyes at American evangelical climate skeptics and dismissed them as “an exception” while emphasizing how important the issue is to evangelical Christians elsewhere in the world. Much of the research about climate skepticism and religion has been conducted in the United States. This American research shows particular religious variables associated with climate skepticism, but it also shows that political ideology variables appear to be more predictive than religious variables (Veldman, Szasz, & Haluza-DeLay, 2012; Berry, 2013). Much of it also can be criticized on the grounds of methodological individualism, that is, that social phenomena are presumed to have their basis in the motivations and behaviors of individuals. This ignores the very important role of social institutions and the influence of significant others in people’s social networks.
Religious groups have responded to climate change in various ways (Gerten & Bergmann, 2012; Veldman, Szasz, & Haluza-DeLay, 2014; Kim, 2016). Since the early 1980s, climate change and climate justice have been part of World Council of Churches (WCC) programs like the decade-long theme of “justice, peace and the integrity of creation” (Kerber, 2014). During the annual United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of the Parties (COP) meetings, the WCC has coordinated interfaith events and prayer and worship service, often with Muslim, Buddhist, and other faith groups. Another example is the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC), which has repeatedly brought faith leaders together to learn from each other and mobilize their adherents (Johnston, 2013). Rollosson (2010, p. 420) points out that in working with diverse religious leaders, ARC has been “incorporating a methodology that addressed their internal structures and highlighted the inherent strengths of each faith.” This means specific attention to the particular characteristics and narratives of each faith tradition.
A final example of religious environmental communication is the recent encyclical by Pope Francis (2015) of the Roman Catholic Church addressing ecological degradation including climate change. An encyclical is a very high-level teaching document. Since the release of Laudato Si’: On Care of Our Common Home, the encyclical has contributed to interfaith dialogue and collaboration. Buddhist, Muslim, and Jewish leaders are some of those who have directly referenced Pope Francis’ influence on their own efforts to articulate how to care for the earth (see the Global Buddhist Leader’s Declaration on Climate Change and the Islamic Declaration on Climate Change). Despite being addressed to “all people of good will,” the encyclical teaches responsibility for the environment in ways most familiar to Catholics because it is aligned with the central articulations of their theological tradition. The encyclical declares that ecological stewardship is decidedly not worship of nature, as it has sometimes been perceived and critiqued. Nor is human domination of nature consistent with Catholic Biblical teaching. Protecting the environment is framed as a duty to the Creator, and is repeatedly described as essential for caring for the poor, and that environmental degradation often impacts them first and most severely (Hulme, 2015). Addressing climate change, then, is a matter of social justice consistent with the principles of Catholic social teaching. In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis explains that this understanding is in line with centuries of Catholic teaching. The encyclical also refers to the national bishops’ conferences of more than two dozen countries, showing that this is a widespread concern of the church. Laudato Si’ connects caring for the Earth to an ethic of life, commenting on similarities of attitude between “misuse of creation” and treating some as “throw away people.” The encyclical was released at a press conference, marking a departure from releases of previous such documents. It has received widespread attention in both secular and church press. Heald (2016) describes the encyclical as an effort to undercut disengagement on climate change. The issue should be understood not merely in economic or scientific terms, but as a matter of morality also. Crucial in getting word out about the encyclical has been the Global Catholic Climate Movement, an example of an intrainstitutional social movement (Bruce, 2011).
Still, polling in several countries shows that many Catholics have still not heard about the encyclical in their own parishes, and may misunderstand what “caring for creation” means. North American Catholics have been among the most critical. These criticisms are most pronounced when pre-existing political ideologies legitimize free-market economics and higher than average lifestyles, both of which are criticized in the encyclical. Interestingly, Maibach et al. (2015) showed that only about 18% of American Catholics had heard about the encyclical in their parishes by October 2015. Laudato Si’ was released in June; the pope made a well-covered visit to Washington and New York where he addressed the U.S. Congress and the United Nations, respectively. This may not have been enough time for awareness to build, especially if mobilization on climate concerns is among the desired goals. However, an earlier survey in the United States showed that approximately 70% of Hispanic American Catholics have heard climate change discussed by religious leaders, but only 20% of white American Catholics (Jones et al., 2014). The reasons for this large difference points to situational factors, either within Catholic congregations in which Hispanics are more prevalent or perhaps because more Hispanics have personal experience of or have heard of climate effects in Latin American countries.
What makes Religious Groups Unique?
While there can be similarities between religious groups and other forms of social organization, religion does make normative claims that most other organizational types do not. Religions are deliberate about metaphysical commitments such as the nature of the more-than-human world and the human relationships with other than human beings, such as gods, spirits, animals or other creatures. For example, glaciers may be perceived as living beings or have other powerful sacred and symbolic meanings (Cruikshank, 2006; Allison, 2015). For some religious people “environmental degradation is not only a health danger, an economic catastrophe, or an aesthetic blight but also sacrilegious, sinful, and an offense against God [and such belief] catapults religions into questions of political power, social policy, and the overall direction of secular society” (Gottlieb, 2003, p. 494). The theistic underpinning of Gottlieb’s statement should be noted. His terminology and normative assumptions do not accurately convey the concerns of all religious traditions. Many religious environmental activists believe that secular philosophies and modernity are the proximate causes of exploitation of the Earth, leading to environmental degradation through such processes as desacralizing the natural world, technological hubris, or positioning human flourishing as the only ethical end (Khalid, 2010; Johnston, 2013). Other religious orientations may propose that the divine is ultimately in control despite the actions of puny humans, or that the end of time is near so nothing can or should be done to prevent the coming apocalypse. Laudato Si’ posited that the Earth’s environmental crisis was due to spiritual as well as attitudinal, cultural, technological, and economic causes. While they welcomed the intervention of such a prominent religious leader, authors in a special issue of Nature Climate Change (2015) criticized Pope Francis for missing what they considered more important factors than his call for an “ecological conversion” of the human spirit.
Religious orientations can differ from secular ones in very basic ways and these differences should not be ignored. Nor should natural science be assumed as the arbitrator for knowledge claims. Several studies have shown that many religious people believe that a conflict between faith and science does not exist for themselves, but that it does for other people (Baker, 2012; Pew, 2015). The much-rehearsed media discourse about a conflict between religion and science is probably overplayed, but it also cements public opinion of its “truth.” The role of values has become increasingly recognized as a basis for the interactive two-way process of genuine communication, but on science topics, a linear, knowledge deficit model still predominates (Ballantyne, 2016; Moser, 2016). Scientists often fail to recognize the role of values or pre-existing understandings of the topic (Yamamoto, 2012). Claiming epistemic priority or that science should drive policy excludes other citizens and gives scientific values a position of domination over all other claims about what is valued, reinforcing a conflictual relationship between the two domains.
In an essay on geoengineering, Clingerman and O’Brien (2014) provide practical advice about the relationship of scientific and religious knowledge claims:
We aren’t arguing that religion can verify or falsify scientific information. We are discussing how perceptions of science are formed. . . [S]imply saying ‘your religion is not science’ won't have much of an impact on some religious communities. As a result, if we wish to have a productive public discussion on geoengineering, then it is important to recognize that (whether we like it or not), religious beliefs act as an interpretive lens for many.
Clingerman and O’Brien point out that religion is one of the few social institutions that brings deliberate moral discussion to such issues. Similarly, Haluza-DeLay (2008) identified faith communities’ familiarity with the practice of moral discourse among the situational (or sub-cultural) factors that could facilitate environmental awareness in them. Climate communicators should deliberately draw on such characteristics of religious groups, especially by framing climate in moral terms. Beginning from discussion of shared values is what climate scientist and evangelical Christian Katherine Hayhoe attributes her communication effectiveness (Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, 2013). It should also draw on the way faith communities are organized so that climate communication allows reflexive engagement and deliberative dialogue (Ballantyne, 2016; Davidson & Stedman, 2017).
Skepticism of climate science can be associated with distrust of competing knowledge powers, especially if the science-religion conflict narrative is reinforced. Yamamoto (2012) called these “credibility contests.” Challenges to worldviews are not unique to religious groups. In her ethnographic study of a presumably secular population in Norway, Norgaard (2011) demonstrated that psychological denial of climate change appeared as a response to the threat to ontological security posed by changing climate. That is, the stability of the world is no longer so sure and considerable changes to lifestyle are implied, leading to a socially supported collective psychology of avoiding the issue. Ford (2011, p. 175) describes climate change as a secular metaphor for a broken human relationship with the world. Australian research by Connor and Higginbotham (2013) showed lay understandings of climate change to be shaped by a sense that “natural cycles” were more stable and resilient than human perturbation. As they put it, “established cosmological frameworks for contemplating the future in relation to the past” mitigated “science” (p. 1852) The point is that a deep understanding of the cultural assumptions, narratives, and framings relevant to a particular group is essential regardless of whether the people are secular or religious.
Most of this discussion has used broad strokes to provide an understanding of religious “culture(s)” as a critical element of the communicating of climate change. This approach helps avoid a technicist strategy that attempts to manipulate specific “frames” and social psychological principles. To conceive of any faith community or tradition as a culture, one must acknowledge that has its own language and discourses as well as structures and practices specific and relevant to each setting.
Getting the Climate Message to the Audience
Religions differ dramatically in terms of their forms of organization. For Roman Catholic Christians, the Vatican operates as a central site of hierarchical organization and most Christian groups identify with a denominational structure or at least a historical tradition. In contrast, for religions like Hinduism and Islam, there are few or no central authorities. The organizational absence becomes even more pronounced for indigenous and folk traditions. Communicating climate change will vary amid such structures, although it should be emphasized that even in seemingly hierarchical religious structures attention to the topic will differ, as demonstrated by the example of Catholic response to the teachings in Pope Francis’ encyclical.
Brulle et al. (2012) showed that among the most relevant factors affecting public opinion about climate change is that of elite cues, primarily political figures of the party respondents supported. These cues were more important than extreme weather events, accurate scientific information, media coverage or the advocacy efforts of civil society organizations. Significant figures in a religious tradition could have an effect on the opinions of those in that tradition, especially when coupled with relevant advocacy organizations. Ellingson’s (2016) analysis of the religious environmental movement showed that religious people were much more likely to accept the advocacy of tradition-specific organizations than interfaith or multifaith organizations or organizations outside their own denominational orientation even within the same religious tradition. In the case of Laudato Si’, the impact of elite cues has been labelled “The Francis Effect” because of the favorable opinion many have of the Pope (Maibach et al., 2015). This nationally representative survey showed that Pope Francis’ influence varied in relative proportion to recognition of his religious authority among religious Americans. The Pope’s position on “global warming” influenced respondent views among all Christians, but to a greater degree among Roman Catholics (35%) and much lower degree among evangelical Christians, with nonevangelical Protestants in the middle (people of other religions were not reported). Considerable media attention to the encyclical facilitated more than half of all Americans hearing about the Pope’s position, which was further enhanced by his much publicized trip to the United States 3 months after the release of the encyclical (Maibach et al., 2015).
On the other hand, the pope’s views were still not talked about in places of worship: only 18% of Catholics (still probably higher than most encyclicals, which are detailed theological treatises), and lower numbers among mainline Protestants and evangelicals were familiar with the encyclical. This corresponds with another public survey which found that relatively few American Christians had heard about climate change in their churches, but those who did held higher levels of opinion about the seriousness of the issue (Jones, Cox, & Navarro-Rivera, 2014).
Crafting Climate Communication
While religious structure can matter to communicating climate change, so can the language used. The George Mason/Yale study showed a marked increase in American and especially Catholic American opinion that the poor will be harmed by climate change (Maibach et al., 2015, pp. 21, 23). The “preferential option of the poor” is one of the most significant concerns in the contemporary Catholic tradition and one of the unique contributions that it provides for environmental policy decisions (Schaefer, 2011; Kolmes, 2016). Because of moral orientations toward charity work or social justice, many religious groups want to understand how the marginalized may be impacted by the seemingly remote phenomenon of climate change. People are usually more concerned about the effect on people than effects on “nature” or the planet because of longstanding moral traditions attending to ethical treatment of others. Therefore, the IPCC language of climate change as a “threat multiplier” will be especially salient with religious groups.
Various ways of communicating about environmental or climate concerns have been identified in Christianity. For example, Rasmussen (1991) articulated several “living streams flowing together” that form the complex of Christian attitudes toward nature. “Dominion” models have been largely replaced by “stewardship” models, and more recently to “creation-care” among Christians (Danielsen, 2013). “Eco-Justice” is another prominent orientation, in which social justice is seen as integral to environmental sustainability. Other discourses are human “partnership” with nature, emphasis on the “immanent” presence of the divine, and science-theology “integration.” Other religions will have their own diverse orientations. A key point is that one or another “framing” may be relevant to a particular religious audience, with variation even within a religious tradition. Frames are cognitive schemes that provide explanatory and prescriptive analyses of the matter of concern and how the problem should be resolved. These varying theological expressions may be seen as a form of framing. However, religious ideas or theologies are not strategic choices about communication strategies, but deeply normative statements (Williams, 2006). That is, these orientations and corresponding communication efforts are expressions of trying to live faithfully according to values and religious practices and not just pragmatic choices to achieve maximal effectiveness.
To demonstrate how language matters, one of the more interesting studies is a series of focus groups conducted by Climate Outreach (formerly called COIN) to examine language effectiveness according to faith tradition (Marshall et al., 2016). The organization convened six focus groups in the United Kingdom in five faith traditions: Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Judaism, and both male and female Muslim groups. Additional expert interviews were added to the focus group data to compile an international online survey testing specific language frames. Drawing from all these sources, the report describes five “narratives that work” among all the groups and several that did not. The five narratives are (a) Earth care—a precious gift; (b) climate change is a moral challenge; (c) climate change is disrupting the natural balance; (d) we live our faith through our actions; and (e) I take a personal pledge.
These frames place climate change within the common orientations of faith practices, which usually expect moral discourses and corresponding motivated action. The first narrative has several important components. Gift is a multifaceted religious motif. It is important to speak of “the Earth,” rather than “creation” because not all faiths have a Creator figure or a moment in which Earth came into being (i.e., was created). The term “narrative” is selected partly because faith groups often speak in stories, such as recounting sacred scriptures, tales of the Buddha, Jesus’ parables, or hadiths of the Prophet Mohammed. Storytelling climate change, especially by associating it with the moral duty to help already marginalized people, can be effective communication.
More surprisingly, perhaps, are the examples of “language that did not work across faiths” (Marshall et al., 2016, p. 15) Framing the climate message as justice or “natural limits” or in terms of disobedience, sin or blame did not have traction among all religious groups. As the report writers state, “This does not mean that it is bad language—in fact, it may score highly with some audiences—but it clearly does not work across all faiths” (Marshall et al., 2016, p. 14). Justice for example, can be highly polarizing. While it may be a fair generalization to say that all religious traditions place value on doing charity work for the poor, religious groups diverge over what may constitute justice, especially as social justice may be viewed as taking the place of divine justice, which is often perceived as judgment for sin or evil. The concept of justice has strong Abrahamic associations that people from Hindu or other non-Abrahamic religions may consider inconsistent with their own understanding; an expert panel on Hinduism and the environment at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 2015 engaged in an extensive discussion of whether Hinduism has a concept akin to Western notions of social justice, especially as applied to environmental justice. The word can also be considered political or left-wing. Even in the climate movement, there are many conceptualizations of “justice” (Klinsky & Dowlatabadi, 2009).
Similarly, the notion that the causes of climate change involve disobedience to one’s religious duty was described in the report as polarizing. Again, this is a more Abrahamic (or even just Christian and Muslim, but not Jewish) way of understanding religious responsibilities. Buddhism, for example, rather than considering sin or disobedience as being in opposition to faithfulness, frames human life as lived poorly due to ignorance or delusion. In this epistemology, humans have let the truth of the universe (i.e., Dharma) be obscured, and the spiritual quest is to come to know this truth and reduce attachment to the illusion, which, as a consequence, leads to moral behavior and an effective response to the root causes of climate change (Stanley, Loy, & Dorje, 2009). Notions of harmony or balance have broader resonance across faith traditions.
Religions may focus on abundance and blessing rather than divine scarcity; this illustrates why Climate Outreach discovered some religious people rejecting framing about “natural limits.” How can one find the limits of God or the full goodness of the divine? Rejection of natural limits was particularly prevalent in the Muslim focus groups, but conservative Christians would think much the same way. The Climate Outreach report suggests, instead, discussing the need to limit human desires, which most religions will frame as an impediment to faithful following of the spiritual path.
Communicating about such a serious issue as global climate change has its challenges. There is no single or simple solution to the communication of climate change with the tremendous variety of religiosity that exists in the contemporary world. Religious people are shaped by their faith but that faith is lived in sociocultural contexts that also vary widely. Conceptualizing religious involvement as a form of collective action rather than a matter of individuals with beliefs leads toward climate communication that can draw on faith networks and shared values and narratives. Evangelical Christians are more likely to listen to an evangelical such as climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe than the encyclical of Pope Francis or a leader of another religious tradition. Each is an elite person who is valued differently by different social groups. Their language and the traditions that they draw on will also differ. This does not mean that there cannot be interreligious cross communication, but that the salient narratives, values, images, institutions and even solutions may not resonate with different religious backgrounds, even within the same religious tradition.
These characteristics are effective “accelerators of action,” according to Leiserowitz, Kates, and Parris (2006). All are present in religious environments, but in vastly different ways. At the same time, religious actors are used to trying to address pressing issues faced at the individual, congregational, and denomination levels, and have histories of working together. Framing climate change as a moral issue with serious consequences for people around the world and the ways that it will multiply existing threats and misery is likely to have resonance with religious people of many types.
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