Q&A with Andrew Szasz, co-editor of "How the World's Religions are Responding to Climate Change"

We interviewed Andrew Szasz, co-editor of How the World's Religions are Responding to Climate Change, about his book and the Pope's anticipated encyclical on Climate Change. Read the Q&A today!

Why did How the World's Religions are Responding to Climate Change need to be written?

Climate science (which, itself, is founded on nothing more advanced than basic physics (nothing like quantum mechanics or general relativity required; just the basic physics one learns in high school) has demonstrated beyond any doubt that human activity – a regime of economic activity built on fossil fuels – is rapidly changing earth’s climate, with consequences for global society that are likely to be disastrous. At the same time, we have seen the rise of a powerful and organized resistance. Climate “skeptics” claim that the science is worthless, that the data has been manipulated to alarm the public, that doing something about climate change would hurt economic growth. Although such claims have been easily debunked, they have had an impact on public opinion and they have given ammunition to conservative politicians who seek ways to paralyze the policy process.

But, as Galileo was supposed to have muttered, “Eppur si muove,” “And yet it moves.” Politically it may be a time of gridlock, stalemate, paralysis, but the physics doesn’t care. The earth has a carbon budget – the amount of CO2 that can be pumped into the air before global temperature rise exceeds the barely tolerable limit of a rise of 2 degrees Centigrade – and we march inexorably toward exceeding that budget.

The question arises: how do we move beyond gridlock? One way forward may open up if environmental activists are able to build a broader political movement, in coalition with others not ordinarily considered part of the environmental movement.

The world’s great religions have great potential to focus their adherents’ attention, to speak to their adherents, to persuade them that climate change should matter to them and that it is their duty to do something about it.

And it was beginning to happen. In the United States, one could see attempts to “green” Christianity. Some American social scientists had already begun to write that greening. But the scholarship was limited, limited geographically to the US, limited to Christianity. This book was the first attempt to expand this field of research, to examine how the world’s other religions were reacting to the threat of climate change, and to ask what they were saying and doing about it.

Again, the point was not just scholarship (although that, in itself, was quite interesting), but to begin to ask if the greening of religion (to the degree that it was happening) could make a significant contribution to moving societies’ political responses to climate change in a new, more constructive direction.

How is it different from other books in the field?

The chapters are empirical, social scientific investigations, not philosophical/theological “think pieces.” The book’s chapters expand the study of religion and climate change, with a significant number of chapters devoted to societies in the Global South and to religions other than Christianity.

What findings in writing and researching the book surprised you?

I was the editor who did the African chapters and also the South Asia chapters. Reading these chapters I learned that the situation in other societies, with other religious heritages, is completely different that the situation that I was familiar with in the U.S. Here the process is one of theological interpretation, finding the green message in the Scripture, developing a discourse of “creation care” and/or of “Christian stewardship” of Creation, then bringing that new Word to the faithful. The situation in the Global South is quite different, I learned. There, climate change arrives at a time that societies are still suffering the impacts of colonialism, unemployment, poverty, an economic system that barely functions, rapid urbanization, and so forth. These are barely functioning societies, on the edge. Climate change arrives at a time these societies are poorly prepared for further stress. Climate change appears as changes in the amount and timing of rainfall, undermining people’s traditional ways of, for example, farming. These chapters show, typically, that the people are seeing the changes and are deeply concerned about the implications, but they don’t explain the changes they see in scientific terms. They don’t think, “burning of fossil fuels; rising CO2 emissions; greenhouse.” For them (and I’m simplifying quite a bit here), the cause is their collective moral failure. Too many have abandoned the old ways. They are hunting in the sacred groves (where tradition made hunting taboo); cutting down trees in the sacred groves; fishing in the sacred rivers. The young people have moved to the city; they don’t respect tradition. If nature is behaving badly, it’s because of people’s moral failure. At the same time, climate change further erodes faith in traditional religion: In the “old days,” the farmer turned to local religious leaders to get advice on when to plant, etc. In effect, the local religious leader was also the repository of accumulated traditional knowledge/wisdom about local environmental conditions, therefore how best to farm under those conditions. But as climate change alters local temperatures, local rain patterns, traditional knowledge of local conditions becomes less relevant, less of a reliable guide for the agriculturalist.

In sum, editing chapters from the global south taught me that the relationship between religion and the politics of climate change was much more complex than I had thought before.

What got you interested in this?

In about 2007 there were news stories about a controversy that had arisen in the National Association of Evangelicals, the NAE, in the U.S. Given the politics of the US, one expects Evangelicals to be politically conservative, to side with the most conservative tendencies in the Republican Party, to be fired up, more than anything, about abortion and gay marriage, to be suspicious of science, to want their children taught Creationism, not evolution. I was surprised, then, to read about Richard Cizik, the NAE’s top lobbyist in Washington, advocating that Evangelicals recognize the reality of climate change, to embrace Christian stewardship and “creation care.” I wondered if other faiths were engaging with the politics of the climate controversy. I recruited about 20 undergraduates here at the University of California at Santa Cruz to help me gather data on several other faiths. We focused most of our attention on the United Methodist Church, the Roman Catholic Church in the US, and the Southern Baptists, but gathered data on a dozen other faiths, as well. The more we looked, the more we found. Soon I was convinced that this phenomenon – faith communities grappling with environmental problems – was a very substantial development, indeed, and potentially of great importance to the future development of climate politics in the US and, indeed, in the rest of the world.

How does the book relate to the current relationship between religion and climate change?

There has been considerable political movement in the year since the book was published. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issues a new round of reports. The reports’ conclusions were quite frightening and they were widely reported in the media. Meanwhile, parts of the world continued to experience extreme weather events, heat waves, powerful, damaging storms, drought. Major international financial institutions, such as the World Bank, expressed concern, as did the insurance industry’s trade associations. The American military spoke louder than ever about climate change being a threat to national security.

Those are all important developments but they are overshadowed by anticipation about Pope Francis’s forthcoming encyclical on climate change. Since becoming Pope, Francis has emerged as someone with global stature and great moral authority, and not just for Catholics. He is, at this moment, I believe, the single greatest spokesman on Earth for justice, for compassion, for a more humane world. His encyclical will singlehandedly thrust climate change – and religions’ engagement with climate change – into the forefront of world conversation.