by Michael S. Hogue

Global warming has received a spate of media and popular attention recently. News clips and television programs tug at our hearts by showing polar bears stranded on plazas of ice, hopelessly peering at us as we helplessly peer back. And icebergs, millions of years old, are shown “calving” huge chunks of themselves into the warming waters tracing their shrinking contours. “Calving” has even become something of an entertainment spectacle and a tourist attraction. I have heard about some cruise lines that entice customers with the promise of witnessing the melting icebergs.

Al Gore’s thoughtful documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, has also generated an upsurge of global warming awareness. Gore’s movie was released in May 2006, ranked as the US's third highest grossing documentary in January 2007, and won an Oscar in February. Gore and his team have also collaborated with citizens from all around the country by providing them with basic training to take a slide–show version of An Inconvenient Truth on the road, providing occasions not only for information dissemination but genuine conversation.

And most recently, on February 2, the United Nations’ International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a document confirming that the fact of global warming is “unequivocal” and that recent climate change is “very likely” caused by the increase of human–based carbon emissions. The document states that, “Global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide [generated by fossil fuel consumption], methane and nitrous oxide [due to agriculture] have increased markedly as a result of human activities since 1750 and now far exceed pre–industrial values determined from ice cores spanning many thousands of years.”

On a constructive note, the IPCC’s report suggest that global warming can be curbed if significant measures are taken to reduce our carbon footprint. Very few specific recommendations were offered by the IPCC, however, regarding how to mobilize such change. 

This is in keeping with the suggestion made recently by my colleague Dr. Ray Pierrehumbert, a University of Chicago geophysical scientist and member of the IPCC. According to Pierrehumbert, the primary task of climatologists is to describe what is happening with the global climate, not to prescribe what ought to be done in response. In suggesting this he was not implying that IPCC scientists are not morally motivated to take action in response to climate change. He is himself deeply committed morally to doing all that he can as a scholar and citizen for the good of the planet. He is even known for handing out compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFL’s) to the audiences he meets with all around the world in order partially to offset the carbon output resulting from the numerous hours he spends flying.
So Pierrehumbert’s intention, as I understood it, was to underline the broad public nature of the moral burden that global warming presents to us. Effective response to global warming needs to be wholesale rather than incremental. In other words, while technological innovation and policy and legislation will certainly be necessary to curb carbon emissions, this is not sufficient to the problem. 

Each of us as a citizen of this planet needs to begin to make changes, quite literally, from the ground up. For global warming is about how we live our lives every day here and now, and how we live our lives here and now will shape the conditions of life long into the future. To the extent that this is the case, climate scientists such as Pierrehumbert have presented the facts to the world, and left it up to the world to decide what morally to do in the face of them. While few of us are expert climatologists, most of us are expert consumers, each of us is a moral creature, and we all need to begin to think morally about our everyday carbon consumption. 
But in spite of this, the media and our public culture more generally have given relatively little attention to the ethical and religious implications of climate change. Part of this is due to global warming’s seemingly inhuman proportions as moral problem. The scale of the problem is daunting, to say the least. What can any of us do, wherever we happen to be, to slow the melting of glaciers? What actions can we as finite creatures take to curb, if not undo, the climactic changes being pictured by the climate specialists? 

These types of questions paralyze many of us in our effort to understand what morally we can do to respond to global warming. And yet it is also a question that occludes one of the most significant claims being made by climatologists: we mere mortal, finite creatures are “very likely” a major cause of the present acceleration of global warming! And if so, we must be courageous and wise enough not to despair in the face of the climate crisis, awesome as it is. We have set it into motion and are now responsible for doing something about it. With this in mind, I want to make the case that global warming should be understood as an issue of religious concern for the significant masses of the world’s faithful. While it may be true that accelerated warming can only be curbed through very significant changes, the problem of scale, which is part of what makes responding morally to global warming so difficult, is native to religious conceptions of the moral life. 

I’ll lay my cards out on the table. The problem of global warming reflects a problem in the soul of our culture. Really doing something about it—that is, not simply responding incrementally, but getting to the root of the problem— requires understanding the ways in which both the soul of culture and global warming are issues of fundamental religious concern. But understanding and responding to these problems as religious concerns requires that we who are religious enact a more “worldly” religiosity.

It important to consider at the outset what it means for anything, let alone for global warming, to be an issue of “religious” concern. As readers of this journal well know, this is no simple question. Answering it presumes that we know something about the meanings of the categories “religion” and “religious.” 

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Source: Cross Currents, Spring 2007, Vol. 56,  No 1.