Sword or rod? Should religious leaders wade into the climate debate?


Do not let the efforts of Trump or the Republicans convince you otherwise, Joseph R. Biden Jr is deeply religious. The most powerful man in the world famously attends Mass regularly. As only the second Catholic to ever hold the office of the President and having met the two previous popes as Senator and then Vice President, Biden made it a priority to meet and talk to Pope Francis before attending the COP26 conference and meeting any of the 25,000 delegates attending. A decision made more significant in light of the Pope’s recent comments urging political leaders to adopt a ‘radical’ and ‘effective’ climate response, becoming the latest senior religious figure to call for political agreements on climate change. 

The interaction between religious and politics is a challenging and contested topic.

For Christianity, questions on the disputes between spiritual and earthly authorities date back to at least the New Testament, whereby Jesus is challenged about the morality of Jews paying taxes to their Roman overlords. Jesus’s response, ‘Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s’ has become shorthand for an answer to these questions for millennia. For most religions, these issues remain current, as can be seen with religious involvement and statements on the climate conference in Glasgow.

Religious leaders have come to a position of common unity focused on global responsibility for our changing climate

Some of these comments have proven inflammatory – the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, recently apologised for insensitive comments equating climate inaction with ignoring the warning signs of Naziism in 1930s Europe. Although intended to highlight the urgency with which the primus inter pares head of the global Anglican Church feels is an existential crisis, the offence these comments caused, and the subsequent reaction ended up overshadowing his initial point.   

The Dalai Lama has also commented on the urgency of the climate crisis, composing a message for attendants of COP26 emphasizing the need for “taking realistic action founded on scientific understanding” and the power of individual actions. Religious leaders have come to a position of common unity focused on the global responsibility for our changing climate and the need to leave a habitable, safe world for future generations. 

But what impact, exactly, can religious figures have beyond the weightless declarations of the other jet-setters, and celebrities taking private jets to a climate conference with no sense of irony? If you are in the western world, your answer would probably be not much. ‘Generation Z’ in western Europe and the United Kingdom is set to be one of the least religious demographics in our history. 

While many people report positive perceptions of Christianity and religion, fewer practice it year on year. Cards on the table: I’m religious – but that puts me in the minority against the 71% of British respondents aged 18-24 who had no religion when asked in a 2018 survey. The institution of religion has suffered much in the same way as the institution of the monarchy; once considered an unshakeable pillar of society it has been rocked by scandals and myriad change to an extent many would say they are unable to respond or adapt to.

In the face of potentially permanent environmental change and cascading catastrophe, a case can easily be made to explain the diminished impact of faith leaders’ statements. Of course, it’d be unthinkable for them to close shop and say that there’s nothing we can do, but the alternative is not much better.

Some will say its preaching where it is not wanted, others will say too many words and too little action

I do not hold this view for several reasons. Firstly, you’ll notice I singled out western Europe; that’s because elsewhere, faith and religion are growing. One of the reasons for this is simple demographic change. In the developing world and countries with the highest predicted population growth over the next half-century, religious fervour is widespread. Nigeria, predicted to almost double in population to 400 million by 2050, is a country where more than 99% of the population follows an Abrahamic faith. As the ‘secular North’ declines in population and the demographic poles switch, the loss of faith in these countries is likely to be offset by the growth elsewhere. 

Secondly, and more importantly even for non-religious peoples, the climate crisis is a global crisis. National leaders can only claim sovereignty over their own territory, and with the non-attendance of Xi Jingping, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, over a billion people are left unspoken for. Religion offers a way beyond that; in a way that heads of state can only dream of, the Dalai Lama, the Pope, and other religious leaders can claim a direct spiritual connection to any person on Earth regardless of jurisdiction emphasising the importance of protecting our shared world.

Some may consider it preaching where it’s not wanted, others will say that there are too many words and not enough activism. These can be legitimate criticisms; but what religious leaders – educated, charitable, morally driven people – can achieve in speaking about how climate affects all of us is to try and drive beyond petty squabbling and division. Given some of the representatives that we find ourselves burdened with, how can that be a bad thing?

Image: Ashwin Vaswani via Unsplash.

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