One may easily argue that climate change represents the greatest ever threat to the continued existence of civilization. And such a threat, global and multi-generational in its scope, cannot long go unabated. Let me be very clear: We humans cannot, under any circumstances, afford to ignore climate change. Rather, we have to muster our very best efforts to combat it, both for our own safety and the safety of all future persons.
But how can we effectively communicate the kind of peril that a rapidly warming planet poses? Despite a nearly continuous stream of headlines referencing the dire reality of the environmental crisis, many people around the world continue to ignore climate change, simply do not know about or understand it—thus underestimating it—and still others deny its destructive capabilities, or even its very existence, altogether.
If there are inroads to be made for the cause of confronting climate change, they will be made through convincing individuals that it is in their best interests, and in the interests of their loved ones, to pursue environmental wellbeing. We must convince the people of the world that maintaining a stable climate is in line with their values. We must appeal to them on an almost spiritual level.
One of the most effective ways to open the hearts and minds of the masses is through religion. On an individual basis, religion represents our inmost principles: those concepts and ideals closest to and most comfortable for us. Religion usually provides, for those who adhere to it, useful notions for navigating and enjoying life in what is otherwise an indifferent and often unfair world.
However, despite humanity’s predilection for religion—the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life reported that, in 2012, 84 percent of all people adhered to some form of religion—religious values have not kept us from pursuing the selfish practices which have led to the ecological disaster we now find ourselves in the midst of. I think it best, then, that we review some of the world’s great faith traditions and see for ourselves what they have to say (or at least imply) about environmental stewardship:
One of Buddhism’s central tenets, a so-called brahmavihara—a cardinal virtue—is compassion (karuna). Indeed, the Buddhist tradition is built upon the fundamental principle of reducing suffering—an ethical concept that has come to be known as “negative utilitarianism.” According to the Buddha, an enlightened person is one who has relinquished the “three poisons” (trivisa) of ignorance (moha), ill-will (dvesha), and greed (raga), which together form the root of endless attachments or cravings (tanha), none of which can ever be fully satisfied in a world of impermanent phenomena, thus ultimately leading to suffering or dis-ease (dukkha). The enlightened person, overcoming his ego and attachments, renounces the pursuit of needless pleasures and looks upon the world—rife with the suffering of living beings—with an eye of compassion, as well as loving-kindness. (Metta.)
The spirit of renunciation, humility, love, and simplicity is totally anathema to the kind of wasteful consumer culture which has given rise to anthropogenic climate change.
Among the Buddha’s five precepts (pancasilani), which practitioners are expected to undertake in almost all schools of Buddhism, there is the vow “to abstain from killing,” with the following elaboration from the Cunda Kammaraputta Sutta, a section of the Buddhist Pali Canon: “There is the case where a certain person, abandoning the taking of life, abstains from the taking of life. He dwells with his rod laid down, his knife laid down, scrupulous, merciful, compassionate for the welfare of all living beings.”
The fourteenth and current Dalai Lama, the head of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism and probably the most well-known Buddhist in the public imagination, has repeatedly called for strong action to combat climate change.
In 2015, Thich Nhat Hanh, one of the world’s most renowned Buddhist monks, released a statement on climate change to the United Nations, saying: “The Earth is our mother, nourishing and protecting us in every moment… When you realize the Earth is so much more than simply your environment, you’ll be moved to protect her in the same way as you would yourself. This is the kind of awareness… that we need, and the future of the planet depends on whether we’re able to cultivate this insight or not.”
In the Old Testament’s Book of Jeremiah we read: “And I brought you into a plentiful land to enjoy its fruits and its good things. But when you came in, you defiled my land and made my heritage an abomination.” (Jeremiah 2:7.) Elsewhere in that book we read: “How long will the land mourn and the grass of every field wither? For the evil of those who dwell in it the beasts and the birds are swept away, because they said, “He will not see our latter end.”” (Jeremiah 12:4.)
Does this not suggest that God looks down upon—seriously judges—those who would abuse and destroy his creation? Christ himself speaks in near-poetic terms about the beauty and glory inherent in nature, God’s original providence: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” (Matthew 6:28-29.)
Pope Francis, the current head of the Catholic Church, has, on many occasions, called on the world to better protect the environment. Notably, in 2015, Francis released the papal encyclical Laudeto si’, a critique of unabated consumerism and continued ecological harm.
In September of 2017, Pope Francis released a joint message alongside the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church—the largest Christian church after the Catholic Church—urging humanity to “care for the whole of creation”. In their message they state: “Our propensity to interrupt the world’s delicate and balanced ecosystems, our insatiable desire to manipulate and control the planet’s limited resources, and our greed for limitless profit in markets – all these have alienated us from the original purpose of creation.”
Hinduism, arguably the world’s oldest organized religion—or, more realistically, a complex of many different religions bound together by similar ideas and origins—places a special emphasis on the value of the natural world. On this topic, Dr. Pankaj Jain, associate professor of philosophy and religion at the University of North Texas, writes in the Huffington Post, “Our environmental actions affect our karma. Karma, a central Hindu teaching, holds that each of our actions creates consequences — good and bad — which constitute our karma and determine our future fate… Moral behavior creates good karma, and our behavior toward the environment has karmic consequences.” Dr. Jain, a leading expert on the intersection of environmentalism and the Hindu faith, also writes, “The earth — Devi — is a goddess and our mother and deserves our devotion and protection.” He goes on to note that, “Non-violence — ahimsa — is the greatest dharma,” dharma being one’s moral duty or obligation, that, “Ahimsa to the earth improves one’s karma,” and that, “For observant Hindus, hurting or harming another being damages one’s karma and obstructs advancement toward moksha — liberation.”
On a related note: There is a profound, sacred phrase which comes to us from the Isha Upanishad of the Shukla (“white”) Yajurveda, itself one of the Vedas, the foundational texts of the Hindu tradition: Ishavasyam idam sarvam. This roughly translates to “The entire cosmos is to be seen as being one with God.”
So, if God inhabits everything, and God is worthy of reverence, should we not, then, give due respect to all existence? And if all existence is sacred, then surely the Earth itself—the one place in the entire universe that we know can support life—must be so utterly sacred that it is impossible to overstate its importance!
I will cap off this section by mentioning the Assisi Declarations on Nature: In 1986, the World Wildlife Fund, via its president Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, invited five leaders representing five of the world’s great religions to assemble in Assisi, Italy, discuss how their respective faiths could help preserve the environment, and make declarations on the issue thereafter.
The Hindu declaration included the following statements: “Nature is sacred and the divine is expressed through all its forms. Reverence for life is an essential principle, as is ahimsa (non-violence)… Nature cannot be destroyed without humanity destroying itself… The divine is not exterior to creation, but expresses itself through natural phenomena.”
Just as in the Bible, we find examples of environmental concern in the Qur’an. In the Qur’an’s fifty-fifth chapter (surah), ar-Rahman (“The Most Merciful”) we read: “He raised the heaven[s] and established the balance / So that you would not transgress the balance. / Give just weight – do not skimp in the balance. / He laid out the earth for all living creatures.” (Qur’an 55: 7-10.)
The Prophet Muhammad himself understood the value of nature, and saw that the mindful use of its bounty, by humans, represents a form of charity—indeed, almost a sacred duty—on behalf of both God’s creation (the ecosystem) and other human beings. As we read in the hadith of Sahih Bukhari: “If any Muslim plants any plant and a human being or an animal eats of it, he will be rewarded as if he had given that much in charity.”
The Prophet is also reported to have said, as recorded in the Ibadi Jami Sahih, “If the Hour is about to be established and one of you was holding a palm shoot, let him take advantage of even one second before the Hour is established to plant it.”
In 2015, 60 high-ranking Islamic clerics gathered together to issue the Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change, which states: “Our species, though selected to be a caretaker or steward [khalifah] on the earth, has been the cause of such corruption and devastation on it that we are in danger of ending life as we know it on our planet. This current rate of climate change cannot be sustained, and the earth’s fine equilibrium [mizan] may soon be lost.”
The Islamic declaration at the aforementioned 1986 Assisi Declarations on Nature included the following statements: “For the Muslim, mankind’s role on earth is that of a khalifa, vice-regent, or trustee of God. We are God’s stewards and agents on Earth. We are not masters of this Earth; it does not belong to us to do what we wish. It belongs to God and He has entrusted us with its safekeeping. Our function as vice-regents, khalifa of God, is only to oversee the trust… His trustees are responsible for maintaining the unity of His creation, the integrity of the Earth, its flora and fauna, its wildlife and natural environment. Unity cannot be had by discord, by setting one need against another or letting one end predominate over another; it is maintained by balance and harmony.”
In the Jewish Tanakh, which is the source of the Christian Old Testament, we find a passage from the Book of Psalms, which reads: “For every beast of the forest is Mine, the cattle on a thousand hills / “I know every bird of the mountains, and everything that moves in the field is Mine / “If I were hungry I would not tell you, / For the world is Mine, and all it contains…”
This statement clearly show’s God’s dominion over all of nature—and that he is intimately connected to it. To destroy it, then, is a sin against god. Thus observant Jews follow the doctrine of bal tashchit, which means “do not destroy”—rooted in the Book of Deuteronomy—the injunction originally used in the context of cutting down an enemy’s fruit trees during a siege in wartime. Bal tashchit implies refraining from engaging in any kind of destruction unless the situation absolutely warrants it, a sort of mindfulness towards one’s actions insofar as they may include damage to or waste of resources.
In 2015, the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Ephraim Mirvis, gave the following statement (edited for brevity) ahead of the COP21 Paris climate accord: “World leaders convene in Paris this week to agree a global response to Climate Change. The challenge before them is unprecedented in scale and of the greatest consequence. The planet is experiencing a long-term warming trend… this due in part to the injurious actions of mankind. Many nations and major corporations are making admirable pledges to scale back greenhouse gas emissions… These are vitally important steps in safeguarding our collective future. Our planet is a beautiful web of ecosystems, weather patterns and natural resources upon which we depend.
“With the freedom to sample the fruits of God’s creation comes the responsibility to protect and steward, not abuse, our environment. I pray that the efforts of those participating will be blessed with the far-sighted wisdom to agree outcomes that reflect what is, undeniably, in all of our best interests.”
The Jewish declaration at the aforementioned 1986 Assisi Declarations on Nature included the following statements: “Now, when the whole world is in peril, when the environment is in danger of being poisoned and various species, both plant and animal, are becoming extinct, it is our Jewish responsibility to put the defence of the whole of nature at the very centre of our concern. We have a responsibility to life, to defend it everywhere, not only against our own sins but also against those of others… We are all passengers together in the same fragile and glorious world. Let us safeguard our rowboat — and let us row together.”
… In conclusion:
The world’s major religions all stress, in some way or another, the value of the environment, and mindful stewardship of the Earth. Thus the imperative to fight climate change, on behalf of both the environment and the countless species—including our own—which it supports, is, in this time, stronger than ever: Today, the carbon emissions which we have released into the Earth’s atmosphere practically guarantee, in lieu of global-scale “negative emissions” (a speculative technology and form of geo-engineering), a dramatic reshaping of the Earth’s biosphere, including a major loss of surface ice across the world, with all the knock-on effects—both known and unforeseen—that those will bring. Continued emissions, basically inevitable for the foreseeable future, will add unthinkable damage to our world on top of these already devastating effects.
Yes, sadly, awfully, we continue to pump ever more carbon into the air: Not only are our overall carbon emissions increasing—the rate at which they are increasing is accelerating. We have already passed 403 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 in our atmosphere—a critical threshold—and will soon blow past 405 ppm. The level of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is over 100 ppm higher than at any time in the past 3 million years.
The time to stop climate change and, if possible, to reverse it, is now. It has always—that is, since humans realized climate change is a global issue—been now. And our faith leaders, and our faiths themselves, can pave the way for the development of truly sustainable ways of life, those by which we may exist in harmony with our environment, instead of destroying it.
Ryan V. Stewart is a student and writer concerned with environmental issues. A seventeen-year resident of Connecticut, he originally hails from Austin. He believes in a God who likes to laugh at himself. He sometimes writes under the pseudonym “Vincent St. Clare”.