Changing the Perception of Climate Change: The Intersection of Faith and Social Justice

In 2006, the TED Talks series premiered online, spurring one the most gripping idea sharing forums the world had seen since Vidal v. Buckley. Vastly less controversial than the ABC primetime debate, the now ten-year-old program churns out speeches from a diverse body of leaders who race the clock to summarize their groundbreaking work. Most notably, this forum engages leaders across sectors demonstrating how venturing outside of one’s immediate domain may expand a craft through seemingly unrelated inspirations.

One of the more compelling speakers in those early days was former Vice President Al Gore, who fervently warned against the encroaching ‘crisis of climate change.’ He illustrated the perils of climate disasters, dividing as many citizens as he motivated, but it did, for many Americans, mark our first interaction with the global impact of inaction.

Juxtapose Al Gore’s first TED Talk, Averting the Climate Crisis with his recent speech, The Case for Optimism On Climate Change, and you begin to notice the substantial difference Gore has made to his climate communications strategy, as detailed in Rebekah Barnett’s recent blog for TED. Noting technological advancements, Gore speaks in a solution based framework noting advocacy in leadership around the world. If nothing else, Gore’s wildly different titles demonstrate an overall change in the climate communications world. Though I encourage you to give the full speech a listen – it really is good.

The same year as Gore’s first TED Talk, his book, An Inconvenient Truth was adapted into a film, lending visuals to grim climate narratives of the past – leaving an impression so powerful that its effect is still measurable today.

In the grand scheme of things, Gore’s early speech and the accompanying film did a great deal of good because they sparked a discussion among the general public. Unfortunately, that communal study began divisively and still reels from the offset of its tangled beginning. According to eco America's report, 15 Steps To Create Effective Climate Communications, this sort of mistake is common and that, “emphasizing [climate impacts] promotes fatalism and emotional numbing, causing people to turn away and disengage. Solutions, benefits and personal empowerment are the messages you want them to leave with.”

This, of course, is easy to say in retrospect, with the hindsight of watching climate communications unfold over a decade. To be honest, considering what I knew then, I can’t say I would have done much different from Gore. Regardless, I am granted an ease of review that enables me to build on the foundation provided, which may be stronger than I initially thought.

Following Gore’s 2006 talk, the climate communications community didn’t simply turn around and change everything overnight. Rather, it was a gradual process that involved years of testing, research, and reflection – a task ecoAmerica accepted with its establishment that same year. Which made me wonder: are faith communities tracking their climate communications strategies accurately to determine what has worked and what has not? We follow theological works, documenting changes that occur over centuries, but are we tracking how we discuss one of the greatest moral issues of our time?

Perhaps it's important first to determine what strategies have worked in the past and remain consistently effective. When we compare Pope Francis’s 2015 Encyclical, Laudato Si to Pope John Paul’s 1990 Earth Day celebration speech, for example, little has changed. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Slightly less ecumenical, the Earth Day speech highlighted scripture that speaks of our “common responsibility” to care for God’s creation. Sound familiar? While tied to a larger cosmological order, Pope Jean Paul’s statement made monumental leaps by adequately labeling the changing climate as a human rights issue – commonly referring to our “human family.”

It’s safe to say that Catholic doctrine has remained on the mark concerning climate change for some time. Moreover, faith leaders, in general, have maintained a solution-based “why” in climate communications, drawing on universal moral imperatives to find common ground. We know what is happening, but faith communities have historically demonstrated quite clearly why we should do something about it.

Most people of faith agree that caring for creation is deeply engrained in traditions dating back millennia, from the Jewish holiday Bal Tachshit to the Holy Qur’an’s insistence to “not desire corruption in the land" (28:77). These aspects of creation care are as integral to practice as prayer, but have these guidances transitioned successfully into the broader climate discussion? The short answer is yes; all the major traditions have released powerful statements on the environment, decrying its degradation. The critical approach now is not simply how to involve people of faith in climate solutions, but rather, to learn what works best in doing so, as we move along. This starts with our communication skills, and how we convey our responsibility to care for creation. 

In a similar vein to TED Talks' idea sharing forum, our Partner organization Sojourners recently hosted their annual event, Summit for Change. The “unique cross-sector gathering of leaders committed to world change through faith and justice” has reinvented how religiously-minded communities are connecting matters of faith with issues of social justice like climate change, racism, sexism, and homophobia. Through shared ecumenical values, leaders met last month to discuss not only their respective concerns for social justice but the intersection between their various forms. In the end, a common concern was reiterated: the welfare of the human condition.

Sojourners, a magazine founded by Blessed Tomorrow's leader Rev. Jim Wallis, is a platform that empowers people of faith, justice, and politics to share ideas to envision a world run on values rather than self-interest. This past event welcomed panels on climate justice, positioning climate change as a social justice issue (as it has in the past), and, as Sojourners has adequately done with countless articles on the subject, connecting it with other matters of social justice in a path to reconciliation of our former misgivings.

I don’t think the Summit for Change will merely be the TED Talk of the faith community. The Sojourners crew is far too inventive of a group to simply emulate. But I do think that it will become the primary new platform for people of faith to transition their climate communication skills to the next level by situating them wholeheartedly at the intersection of faith and social justice.

Ryan Smith is a writer at Blessed Tomorrow. He received his master's degree in Religious Studies with an emphasis on faith and climate change from the University of California, Riverside. Click here to email Ryan.


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