CLIMATE CHANGE BRINGS MORAL CHANGE
MARY EVELYN TUCKER
Mary Evelyn Tucker is
co-director with John Grim of the Yale Forum on Religion and
Ecology, with the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental
Studies and Yale Divinity School.
Pope's encyclical, Praised Be: On the Care of Our Common
Home, is a global call for creating an “integral
ecology” that brings multiple disciplines together for
a sustainable future. This movement reflects a major shift in
thinking regarding environmental issues – one where religious,
cultural and secular values are seen as crucial for social transformation.
decades the public has assumed that scientists or policymakers
would solve environmental problems like climate change. Market-based
and technological solutions were also pursued. While these approaches
are necessary, we are realizing they are not sufficient to resolve
pressing environmental challenges. Ecological issues are no
longer viewed as simply scientific or policy issues, but also
moral concerns. That is the significance of the encyclical and
why it is provoking such strong reactions. Ethics is meeting
ecology – a powerful formula for change.
encyclical marks a historic moment. An encyclical is the highest-level
teaching document in the Catholic Church, and this is the first
in 2000 years concerned with the environment. It is addressed
to the faithful, some 1.2 billion Catholics. Pope Francis makes
it clear, however, that he is speaking not just to Catholics,
or the larger Christian community of another 1 billion members.
Rather, he is speaking to all people on the planet about our
before its release there was a flurry of news stories –
on its meaning and long-term significance – with attention
from both supporters and detractors. The debate will continue
for years to come for we are witnessing a historic moment.
message has world-changing potential. The Pope is a popular
leader who speaks simply and yet authoritatively, drawing on
his MA in chemistry and his theological training as a Jesuit.
And the encyclical was delivered as there is growing consensus
that the human community needs to make changes on both global
and local levels. The encyclical was released before the December
climate talks in Paris and before the pope speaks at the United
Nations and the US Congress in September.
pope is calling for an integral ecology that brings together
concern for people and the planet. He makes it clear that the
environment can no longer be seen as only an issue for scientific
experts, or environmental groups, or government agencies like
the US Environmental Protection Agency alone. Rather, he invites
all people, programs and institutions to realize these are complicated
environmental and social problems that require integrated solutions
beyond a “technocratic paradigm” that values an
this framework, for example, he suggests that ecology, economics
and equity are intertwined. Healthy ecosystems depend on a just
economy that results in equity. Endangering ecosystems with
an exploitative economic system is causing immense human suffering
and inequity. In particular, the poor and most vulnerable are
threatened by climate change, although they are not the major
cause of the climate problem. Within this integrated framework,
he calls for bold new solutions. This includes what he calls
a “cultural revolution” of values from Christianity
and the world’s religions.
to contribute to global warming and compromise our planetary
life systems is seen by the pope and many others as morally
problematic. This is a watershed moment – a broadening
of ethics that encompasses both humans and nature. The move
in the United States from segregation to civil rights in the
1960s was sparked by moral voices, such as Martin Luther King.
So, too, ethical concerns now led by the pope encourage the
growing turn from unsustainable environmental and economic practices.
Indeed, he calls for “ecological virtues” to overcome
“ecological sin.” No wonder there is pushback; it
is not surprising that climate skeptics are wavering. And just
as with civil rights, this moral shift will take time.
25 years, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and
the US National Academy of Sciences have issued numerous scientific
reports. All warn about irreparable damage to ecosystems with
human-induced climate change. The US Pentagon has acknowledged
that climate change is a major security risk and urged efforts
at mitigation. Yet, citizens of the United States along with
others in the developed world have not changed our consumptive
habits regarding energy use. Moreover, political gridlock dominates
on both national and international levels, preventing enforceable
agreements from being negotiated.
Pope Francis, a penetrating moral message is emerging. This
man who washes the feet of prisoners and lives in simple quarters
has captured the hearts of millions yearning for authentic leadership
and genuine change. And he follows in the footsteps of his namesake,
Francis of Assisi from eight centuries ago, a man who abandoned
family wealth and spoke of Brother Sun and Sister Moon recognizing
the kinship of humans with nature and the cosmos.
Francis has also embraced the poor, threatening the status quo
of privilege and power.
is encouraging transformation in religious, spiritual and secular
communities working for ecology and justice. In doing so, he
acknowledges the need for believers and non-believers alike
to help renew the vitality of Earth’s ecosystems and expand
systemic efforts for equity. He is making visible an emerging
worldwide phenomenon of religious environmentalism already working
on greening seminaries and houses of worship as well as developing
new ecotheologies and ecojustice ethics. This diverse movement
is evoking a change of mind and heart, consciousness and conscience.
is the focus of the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology, which
has worked for two decades to highlight the diverse ecological
and cultural values embedded in the world’s religions.
The work began at Harvard from 1995 to 1998 with 10 conferences
and then 10 edited volumes on World Religions and Ecology published
at Harvard. The forum has since moved to Yale, continuing research,
education and outreach; its website documents the publications,
statements, and engaged projects that have emerged in the religious
communities around the world.
pope’s encyclical also happened to run in tandem with
a conference in Beijing on the efforts in China to create an
interdisciplinary “ecological civilization” drawing
on science, business, education and cultural values –
sponsored by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, the Yale
School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and the Yale Forum
on Religion and Ecology. The conference is among more than 25
organized by the forum.
rising moral force for ecological and social transformation
can be witnessed on every continent and in every religious tradition,
as covered in my book Ecology and Religion, co-authored with
John Grim: Indigenous communities preserve forests in the Amazon
and in North America; the film Renewal examines eight
case studies of religious environmentalism in the United States;
Buddhist monks protect forests in Southeast Asia. Hindu practitioners
restore sacred rivers in India; Jews, Christians, and Muslims
conserve the Jordan River.
examples of religious communities caring for our common home
offer hope that Francis' message will not only be heard, but
acted on. Indeed, the future of the Earth community may depend
© 2015 YaleGlobal
and the MacMillan Center