fb-pixelWhat religion can teach climate scientists - The Boston Globe Skip to main content

What religion can teach climate scientists

Bill McKibben on the New England roots of religious environmentalism.

Activist Bill McKibben speaks about persuading universities to divest from fossil fuels.Photograph by Steve Liptay

Pope Francis's remarkable encyclical, Laudato Si', has been rightly hailed as a watershed moment in the climate debate, the moment when religion finally took note of what science had been saying for a couple of decades. As with all watersheds, though, the river at the bottom draws its power from all the creeks that feed in along the way — it's worth remembering just how many people (a large number of them in Massachusetts) have worked over the years to build a true faith-based environmental movement. How they've managed to do it holds lessons for all of us trying to spread the word about climate change.

Twenty-five years ago, when this work was just getting started, there was nothing easy about it: In liberal churches and synagogues, environmentalism was considered slightly elitist, a task to be gotten to once the serious business of war and hunger had been dealt with. In conservative congregations, anything green was considered a depot on the track to paganism.


But there were always a few people who read Scripture with enough care to find consistent threads of stewardship and ecological consciousness. To see, in fact, that war and hunger and poverty were deeply connected to the earth. And not just in the Judeo-Christian tradition: Harvard, under the leadership of Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, convened a series of remarkable conferences where theologians from Islam, Jainism, Confucianism, and a variety of other global faiths mined their traditions for contributions to an environmental worldview.

That early scholarly work put down roots and eventually began to bear fruit. Religious groups like Interfaith Power & Light — originally Episcopal Power & Light, cofounded in 1997 by Steve MacAusland of Dedham — focused at first on making sure churches installed efficient light bulbs and lowered their thermostats; political action was still a little way off. Within a few years, however, groups like Religious Witness for the Earth were springing up in Greater Boston and organizing some of the climate movement's initial acts of civil disobedience. In 2007, marchers were stepping off from the Unitarian Church in Northampton for one of the world's first religious pilgrimages on the issue, an 85-mile winter march. After nine days, it reached Old South Church in Copley Square, where Unitarian minister Fred Small told the crowd, in words that presaged the pope's, "When we look beyond the horizon of despair, we see however faintly a future of hope — a world where we live harmoniously and sustainably, where individual freedom is exercised with care for creation and community."


Small is one of the key figures in the religious environmental surge. In 2013, his Cambridge church was one of the country's first to divest from fossil fuels, and he helped persuade his entire denomination to make its decision to divest in June 2014. The United Church of Christ did the same in 2013, and the key player was another Bay Stater, Jim Antal. Antal has traveled Massachusetts from one end to the other, often by bicycle, preaching constantly about climate change. But he's also worn his clerical collar to jail, most notably at the first big mass arrests protesting the Keystone pipeline. In lockup, he helped celebrate a Sunday morning service in D.C.'s central cellblock for dozens jailed the day before (including me).

It's not just liberal Protestants, of course. Rabbis like Katy Z. Allen helped start Boston's Jewish Climate Action Network. Led by the "green patriarch" Bartholomew, many of the world's 400 million Orthodox Christians have been deeply involved in the climate fight. Until the pope's encyclical, Catholics had not been as institutionally focused, though colleges like Georgetown had begun divesting their fossil fuel stocks. (BC not so much. Student activists from the group Climate Justice at Boston College were disciplined by the school after demonstrating without a permit.)


This new wave of religious environmentalism hasn't crested yet. In April, Quakers organized a 12-day walk the length of a proposed natural gas pipeline through New Hampshire and Massachusetts. And just days after the pope's encyclical, the US Episcopal Church voted to divest itself from all fossil fuel stocks, following the lead of the Church of England some weeks earlier. (Again a Massachusetts cleric, Springfield's Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, played a leading role in the fight.) And as they divest, these religious organizations put pressure on more secular institutions. At Small's Harvard Square church, for instance, a huge banner on the steeple looked out across Mass. Ave. and proclaimed: "We divested from fossil fuels. Your turn, Harvard."

Religious environmentalism hasn't conquered every territory — many evangelical churches remain suspicious of the fight. Even that is changing, though: A former New England physician, Matthew Sleeth, organized a nonprofit called Blessed Earth and speaks to conservative congregations across the country. Polling data show such efforts find increasing favor with young evangelicals.


In the end, it may be less the political power of faith communities that matters and more their ability to transform the bleak message of scientists into something that more people can hear. Faith-based environmentalists, after all, are allowed to have some hope that if they work hard, the world might meet them halfway. But only if they work hard. Shoshana Meira Friedman finished a recent essay in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin with this 2,000-year-old verse from another rabbi:

The day is short,

the task is abundant,

the laborers are lazy,

the wages are great,

and the Master of the house is insistent.

It is not up to you to finish the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.

Bill McKibben is a scholar in residence in environmental studies at Middlebury College and cofounder of the international environmental group 350.org. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.