Christians and Climate Change: A Social Framework of Analysis

By Curry, Janel | Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, September 2008 | Go to article overview

Christians and Climate Change: A Social Framework of Analysis


Curry, Janel, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith


Scholars have studied the relationship between religion and environmental attitudes over the past forty years and have found a great deal of complexity. Presented here is a framework for understanding the range of Christian responses to the current debate over global climate change. The three major factors identified that influence attitudes toward nature and approaches to this environmental problem include (1) eschatology; (2) levels of integration in theological constructs of the relationship among humans, nature, and God; and (3) views on responsibility for social change. While this group of factors influences the relationship between Christian traditions and responses to climate change, no straightforward causal relationship between any one factor and attitude can be found. A more nuanced understanding of the range and source of Christian attitudes toward nature and climate change can aid in political and theological debate over this important issue.

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The relationship between religion and environmental attitudes has been studied over the past forty years primarily in response to Lynn White's thesis that a Judeo-Christian belief system has a negative impact on attitudes and actions toward the environment. 1 Yet research has continued to find, generally speaking, weak relationships between Christianity and particular environmental beliefs/behaviors and a great deal of complexity in these relationships.

Let me share a few quotes from my own research to illustrate the complexity and range of attitudes. (2) These quotes, along with others in this article, come from my published empirical research which has involved the systematic collection of data on attitudes of different Christian groups toward nature. The choice of groups used to illustrate my points here is shaped by my previous research.

Baptist Seminarian

   ... but the land for us is not as
   important ... We are just so far
   away from the concept (living
   where our grandparents have
   lived), and I think it has just lost
   its importance. And it's right for
   it to be that way. (3)

Farmer (Community of Christ)

   Even though we have ownership
   of land ... in the end it's God's ...
   it bothers me sometimes to have
   all these lines of things put into
   the earth. You have water lines,
   you have electricity lines ... I don't
   like them all up above you either,
   but in Des Moines ... it's just paved
   over with concrete. And it'll never
   again see the light of day. I groan. I feel the
   earth groan. I groan with it, for being covered
   so ... and you know that it'll never be free
   again. (4)

How do we interpret this range of viewpoints? Scholars and the general public sense a link between religious perspectives and environmental attitudes, but the connection is not clearly understood. For example, environmentalists, scientists, and politicians recognize that religious communities need to be included in their attempts to meet the major environmental challenge of this century, global climate change.

I present here a framework for understanding the range of Christian responses to environmental problems, with special attention to how these responses play out in the current debate surrounding global climate change. (5) Thomas Ackerman presented a general categorization of Christian responses to climate change in a recent issue of Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, but the major focus of his article was evidence of climate change. (6) My goal is to contribute to the scholarly discussions surrounding the variety of typologies proposed for understanding religious, and particularly Christian, views of nature and environmental problems. As Downs and Weigert, who developed one such typology from Papal and Episcopal documents, stated, future research included the "need for additional typologies as tools, especially religious environmental typologies. …

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