The Paris Agreement & Leveraging Religious Support for Climate Policy

The Paris Agreement & Leveraging Religious Support for Climate Policy| AAAS

"This Agreement, in enhancing the implementation of the [2015 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change], including its objective, aims to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change, in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty, including by: (a) Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change; (b) Increasing the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change and foster climate resilience and low greenhouse gas emissions development, in a manner that does not threaten food production; and (c) Making finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development. 2. This Agreement will be implemented to reflect equity and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances.” — A quote from The Paris Agreement

Climate change panelists taking audience questions. | AAAS / Rob O'Malley

Garnering support for climate action is most effective when it takes into account personal values and religious convictions, speakers said at DoSER’s AAAS Annual Meeting symposium on “The Paris Agreement & Leveraging Religious Support for Climate Policy” in Boston, February 19.

While religious groups and leaders, including Pope Francis, contributed to the success of the Paris Agreement, in general religious Americans are more doubtful about climate change than other Americans, Northeastern University associate professor of communications Matthew Nisbet said. For example, 45% of those who are dismissive of climate change identify as Evangelical Christians. Belief in the sovereignty of God over the Earth or in fatalistic eschatology narratives play a role, but overlap between religious and political identity is the strongest driver of evangelical doubt, he said. 

Matthew Nisbet | AAAS / Rob O'Malley

“In the U.S., over the last 15 years, we’ve become so ideologically polarized that if I ask you in a survey to tell me your positions on abortion, taxes, and gun control, I can predict with a fairly high percentage, 80-90%, what your position on climate change might be,” said Nisbet, who is also editor-in-chief of “The Oxford Encyclopedia of Climate Change Communication.”

 “The best predictor of what we believe about climate is not how much we know about the science; it’s simply where we fall on the political spectrum,” added climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, who served as a symposium discussant and had attended the 2015 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris, where the international treaty was signed by representatives from 195 countries and ratified by 134.

The Paris agreement is both hopeful and realistic, explained Jessica Hellmann, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota. It allows greenhouse gases to increase for another decade until the commitments each country made (known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or INDCs) mature in 2025 or 2030 and it provides very few specific targets with the exception of a financial target that “strongly urges” wealthy countries to contribute ($100 billion/year by 2020) to support developing countries that are suffering the consequences of climate change but don’t have the ability to adapt to it. Although resiliency in these countries is steadily improving, it will take more than a century for them to become fully resilient, she said.

Scientists would be wise to connect climate change to religious identity and engage with churches because houses of worship are not only engines for social action, but highly effective communication vehicles, said Nisbet.

“We have to think of religious identity as the central mental model and framework and belief system by which many Americans, if not a majority of Americans, are going to come to understand climate change,” he said. “Because of that, we have to develop narratives, frames of reference, language, and tools that connect climate change to people’s religious values and identity.”  

Fletcher Harper | AAAS / Rob O'Malley

The Rev. Fletcher Harper, executive director of GreenFaith: Interfaith Partners for the Environment, has been involved in interfaith environmental work for 15 years. Early on, leaders of the movement worked to establish the legitimacy of environmental concern within religious congregations. They did this by helping these communities connect environmental action with established spiritual values. Four approaches resonate with people of faith across religions and denominations:

The environment is a gift:  “Working off this theme of the natural world as a gift, which evokes a response of gratitude and of responsibility, is one way we saw religious communities begin to respond to this topic,” said Fletcher.
Moral or ethical responsibility: If the Earth sustains us, we have a clear responsibility to care for it.

The environment is out of balance: Connect people with their everyday experience; for example being in unseasonably warm (50 degrees in February) Boston for the AAAS Annual meeting.
It is time to wake up: For millennia, religious communities have leveraged the theme of awakening to exhort members to live consistent with their most enduring values.

Harper noted this kind of awakening among religious Americans after Hurricane Katrina and again after the United Nations’ 2009 climate negotiations in Copenhagen collapsed. Katrina “made suffering in relationship to a catastrophic weather event unavoidable,” he said. People were devastated to see that a major city in the wealthiest country was vulnerable and that the people most terribly affected were the poor and African Americans. It pierced the consciousness in a way nothing before had done regarding climate change, he said.

Before the Copenhagen negotiations collapsed, it was widely believed among environmental activists that well-done educational campaigns would raise awareness, lead to pressure on politicians and economic elites, and result in shifting policies that would reverse the trajectory of the emissions curve, said Harper. “That rational and hopeful narrative was fully shattered in Copenhagen when government leaders left with hardly anything to show for it,” he said.

For about 2 years, climate movement went into a deep funk. As a pastor, Harper recognized signs of grief, mourning, and shock among the activists. Then he saw a “spirit of resistance” emerge among college students that led to the fossil fuel divestment movement. Today more religious institutions around the world have pledged to some form of fossil fuel divestment than any other class of institution, said Harper. 

Although approaches like the fossil fuel divestment movement are not without controversy nor universally appropriate, Harper said they showcase how religious groups “help challenge the moral imagination of society.”

Katharine Hayhoe | AAAS / Rob O'Malley

Hayhoe, director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University, moved to Texas from Canada ten years ago with her pastor husband. Congregants at their church were skeptical of climate change and of his climate scientist wife.  Because there were few resources to “meet people where they were” with their climate change questions, the couple wrote “A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions.”

Invoking faith when talking about climate sparks human interest, said Hayhoe. This is vital because more than 70% of Americans say they talk about climate change less than 2-3 times a year and ~25% say they never talk about it all. It also connects the issue to values people already hold, she said. Because 85% of the world’s population and 75% of Americans are affiliated with a specific religion, linking environmental concerns to deeply held spiritual values can be more effective than trying to instill new values. Hayhoe frequently speaks to faith groups about climate change and has developed short “Global Weirding” videos to address common myths around it.

This was the third AAAS Annual Meeting symposium hosted by DoSER in recent years about engaging religious communities in environmental protection efforts.  In 2013, DoSRER hosted “Partners for the Earth:  Scientist and Religious Groups Working for the Environment" and in 2016, DoSER hosted “Biodiversity, Scientists, and Religious Communities: Conservation Through Collaboration.” In 2016, DoSER director Jennifer Wiseman issued a statement of support for Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical.