Religion and Justice in Climate Change
Religion, ecology and social change
Religion is an important aspect for understanding how humans shape their relations with non-human beings. In contemporary western societies, Christianity, in particular, has influenced the ways in which humans conceptualize their place in a more-than-human world. Lynn White Jr. was the first to make this argument in the late 1960s. He maintained that western anthropocentrism could be traced back to medieval Christian dogma, which placed humans in a transcendent position over the rest of creation. This belief, according to White, afforded humans the divine right to exploit nature.
White’s provocative argument has been challenged by theologians who emphasize care and stewardship in place of dominion and control. The concept of stewardship holds that humans have a responsibility to care for creation on behalf of God. Tripp York explains: “In Christian thought, there is God and there is creation. We, like everything else, are a part of creation. The only significant difference is that we have been charged with the task of naming and caring for creation.” Unlike the dominion model, humans as stewards do not exist above creation but as part of it. Those critical of stewardship note that it still maintains a hierarchy between humans (‘the stewards’) and the rest of creation (‘the stewarded’).
Nonetheless, the significance of White’s argument can be founded on his link between religious cosmology and the ways in which human/non-human relations are socially constructed. This point may seem less relevant in current day as allegiance to institutional Christianity decreases, and the number of people with no religious affiliation increases. The latter includes individuals who self-identify as atheists, humanists, agnostics and spiritual but not religious, and those who are indifferent to religion.
Yet the legacy of Christianity persists in ways that are not always overtly religious. For instance, regarding modern science and technology, White stated: “Both our present science and our present technology are so tinctured with orthodox Christian arrogance toward nature that no solution for our ecologic crisis can be expected from them alone.” Another example is the colonial legal system, in which non-human animals are still overwhelmingly treated as property.
Stewardship and climate justice
Overall, the study of religion offers insights into how humans—individually and collectively—construct their relations with non-human beings. The same holds true for nonreligion: how do the nonreligious view and orient themselves towards non-human beings? Is the rise of nonreligion shaping societal and legal responses to the climate crisis, or non-human animal exploitation? Do perspectives of climate change vary by (non)religious affiliation?
For my doctoral research project, I am investigating how religious and nonreligious individuals conceptualize their opposition to the construction of a bitumen pipeline in southwestern British Columbia, Canada. I use this as an entry point to consider broader questions related to human/non-human relations in an era of climate and ecological crises. Thus far I have conducted participant observation and in-depth, semi-structured interviews with settlers engaged in activism against the pipeline project. Those opposed to the project, called the Trans Mountain Expansion project, have emphasized its contribution to the climate crisis; its harms to the lives and wellbeing of animals, trees and water bodies; and its violation of Indigenous rights, for it crosses the unceded territories of Indigenous nations without their consent.
One prominent theme appearing in my interview data is that of stewardship. Although rooted in religion, stewardship can manifest without explicit ties to religion. Through her research on ordinary people eating animals, Anna Salonen found that “both religious and nonreligious people draw from a cultural imaginary that emphasizes responsible stewardship. […] In other words, identifying as nonreligious does not straightforwardly lead to the rejection of the idea of human dominion nor stewardship, views which have often been associated with religion, and in particular Christianity.” In relation to climate change, stewardship can look like addressing climate impacts and risks on behalf of other humans instead of God. Or, moral responsibility in the climate crisis is not owed to God, but to other humans of the present and future.
When asked about his motivations for protesting the pipeline project, one of my participants, Matthew, explained: “I feel responsibility for the future generations ‘cause it’s not looking good for them, and I have three little grandchildren, and um, I’m very, very worried for their future and the planet they’re going to live on […] so I feel a responsibility to them and to all future generations to do what I can.” In addition to stewardship, this approach resonates with the concept of intergenerational climate justice. This form of justice highlights that youth and future generations will face a disproportionate burden of climate-related harms, such as food insecurity and heat-related mortality.
Climate justice also highlights that certain populations are already experiencing inequal effects of climate change. The 2022 IPCC report notes, for instance, that Indigenous communities, ethnic minorities and other traditionally marginalized or vulnerable groups are most affected by maladaptive responses to climate change. This view of climate justice was echoed by another participant, Adam, who stated: “I think, what drew me to climate stuff [before] I ever heard of Trans Mountain, was just this like fundamental unfairness of the fact that the people who have done the least to cause this problem, the people who are least equipped to deal with it are the ones who experience the worst impacts.” Overall, climate justice approaches climate change from a human rights standpoint, as opposed to a strictly environmental one.
Of course, non-human beings suffer from anthropogenic climate change too. Through my ongoing analysis, I am finding that when harm to non-human animals is discussed, it is most often framed in relation to direct harms of the pipeline project. For example, when describing her experiencing of participating in a tree sit, Justine told me:
“I mean we have frogs that are hanging out, like little, two little adorable frogs, actually one’s quite big, um … hanging out next to the tree sit. And I always say hi to them when we go by and check to make sure, and try not to scare them and it’s like, find my route around to get there. And this is their home. This is where they live. They don’t have anywhere else to go […] They needed a place to be, and they needed a place just to, yeah just to live and have the right to have that just without us coming in and ripping it up to put in a pipeline so that a few people make some money.”
Justine mentions threats to the frogs’ home and their right to live there. Concern is not linked to other humans, but it is rather centred around the frogs themselves. I suggest this narrative reflects values of ecological justice. Like climate justice, theories of ecological justice often focus on the distribution of harms, but it shifts moral focus from humans to non-humans. It holds that non-humans have rights to the material conditions they need to not only survive but flourish. This includes what western thought traditionally deems to be sentient and insentient life, such as trees and waters.
Conclusions: The relevance of (non)religion
A comprehensive understanding of the social dimensions of climate change includes religion and nonreligion. The three individuals I quoted above do not identify as religious. Their narratives reflect notions of stewardship and climate justice without explicit reference to religion (or ‘nonreligion’). Still, they offer insights into conceptions of human/non-human relations among those who do not identify as religious.
Ecological justice diverges from dominant ideas of stewardship and climate justice by locating moral concern fully beyond the human. It can therefore be used to inform more inclusive visions of climate justice. Regardless, I suggest that ecological justice offers a conceptual tool to capture how (non)religious people imagine human/non-human in a more egalitarian way.
The movement for non-human justice or equality can be seen in other spheres, such as the expansion of legal personhood. There is also an extensive area of scholarship that advocates for reconfigured human/non-human relations in law or politics. To what extent do these ideas resonate with ordinary people ‘on the ground’? Reformulating how human/non-human relations are constructed involves accounting for (non)religion as social forces. Otherwise, efforts to comprehend and shape how people position themselves in a more-than-human world, particularly one experiencing planetary crisis, risk being limited.
- Lynn White Jr., ‘The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis’ (1967) 155 Science 1207.
- Tripp York, The End of Captivity? A Primate’s Reflections on Zoos, Conservation and Christian Ethics (Wipf and Stock Publishers 2015) 57.
- Lori G. Beaman, ‘Reclaiming Enchantment: The Transformational Possibilities of Immanence’ (2021) 10 Secularism and Nonreligion 1.
- Anna Sofia Salonen, ‘Eating Animals, Nonreligion and Reconciling Human-Nonhuman Relations’ (Nonreligion and Secularity 7 May 2020) https://thensrn.org/2020/05/07/eating-animals-nonreligion-and-reconciling-human-nonhuman-relations/.
- IPCC, ‘Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’ [H.-O. Pörtner, D.C. Roberts, M. Tignor, E.S. Poloczanska, K. Mintenbeck, A. Alegría, M. Craig, S. Langsdorf, S. Löschke, V. Möller, A. Okem, B. Rama (eds.)] (Cambridge University Press 2022).
- Anna Wienhues, Ecological Justice and the Extinction Crisis: Giving Living Beings their Due (Bristol University Press 2020).