What do belief systems have to do with climate change?

7 December 2015

In the second article in our COP21 commentary series, Dr Shonil Bhagwat, Senior Lecturer in Geography at the Open University, looks at the similarities between belief systems and climate change, and how their interconnectedness helps reinforce climate change as an idea, while influencing public opinion and triggering public action.

The world is waiting with baited breath for the outcome of COP21. The chatter in the corridors is that there is much stronger will than ever before to strike a global deal on climate change. On 11th December, the negotiators may well celebrate the success of COP21, but commentators think that the global climate deal is unlikely to be legally binding. This means the chances of political leadership on taking action on climate change are rather thin – something that will come as a disappointment to many who are hanging all their hopes on COP21.

But fear not: The idea of climate change has grown in public consciousness over the last two decades since the first COP meeting in Berlin, Germany, in 1995. The information on the science of climate change, its effects on ecosystems and its impacts on people has become much more accessible thanks to scientists and journalists. Equipped with this information, the individuals and their collectives are taking small but significant steps in helping to mitigate climate change. So it is these actors at the grassroots, quite independent of the political leadership, who are already taking action on climate change, and thus reinforcing the very idea of it.

The grassroots actors of climate change generally have a secular disposition and they would rather not have anything to do with faith. But intriguingly, their modus operandi has all the ingredients of belief systems. This may be unsettling to the predominantly secular actors on the stage of climate change, but the similarities between climate change and belief systems may be its strength because they help reinforce the idea of climate change, influence public opinion and trigger public action in just the same ways as belief systems gain popularity and mass support.

Research on the evolution of belief systems suggests that they may have evolved as a byproduct of cognitive, emotional or psychological mechanisms characteristic of the human mind and are integral part of its make-up. Four themes have been identified that are common to all belief systems, whether mainstream, alternative, indigenous or other spiritual faiths, and these themes are used here to illustrate the similarities between climate change and belief systems. These themes form a working framework that delimits a causally interconnected set of pancultural phenomena. This engagement with the belief systems framework helps illuminate a different side of climate change.

1. Belief in supernatural concepts (gods, goddesses, ghosts): The perception among scientists, following Wallace Broeker’s famous quote “The climate system is an angry beast and we are poking at it with sticks” is telling something about how scientists see the physical phenomenon of climate change. The metaphor of ‘angry beast’ describes natural phenomena in terms of supernatural concepts, animism and agency.

2. Emphasis on existential anxiety (death, disease, catastrophe): The portrayal of the catastrophic effects of climate change in public media is seen by journalists as an effective tool in communicating the severity of climate change.

3. Public expressions of commitments (offerings of goods, property, time): Individuals commit to mitigating climate change by giving up certain life-style choices (for example, reducing air miles, buying local food or turning the heating down) as a means of making an offering for a common cause and making sacrifices toward specific eco-ethical ends.

4. Institutionalised rituals that originate from co-ordination of 1, 2 and 3 above (congregation, ceremonial gatherings, intimate fellowship): The collectives of committed individuals organise gatherings, meetings or protests that help bind the communities together and foster action on climate change.

The interconnectedness and interdependence of scientists, journalists, individuals and communities is what helps reinforce and propagate the idea of climate change in much the same way as belief systems gain popularity. Despite its overwhelmingly secular roots, it would seem that religious concepts are central to gaining public support to climate change. Indeed, there may be many synergies between the ‘mission’ of the secular actors of climate change and people of faith. Research shows strong links between religious beliefs and attitudes and behaviour towards climate change. Religious leaders like Pope Francis, for example, have recently helped promote action on climate change and the Dalai Lama has called strong action on climate change a human responsibility.

COP21 and similar gatherings in the future are much to be desired for and hopefully at one such gathering the politicians will leave aside their ambitions of perpetual economic growth and come together towards an enduring ecological cause, but ultimately it is the grassroots actors who will make the real difference to taking action on climate change. Over four billion people in the world say they follow a faith and so an appeal to the hearts of this vast humanity may be more enduring that an appeal to the wallets of its political leaders.

Note: This piece is based on a Forum paper by Shonil A. Bhagwat, Anastasia Economou and Thomas F. Thornton titled “Climate change as a belief system” to be published in GAIA – Ecological Perspectives for Science and Society in March 2016.

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News Focus articles are the views of the author and not necessarily those of the Campaign for Social Science.