By Jeremy Deaton 3-30-2016

As it turns out, the faith community may have a marked advantage when it comes to dealing with global warming. According to University of British Columbia social psychologist and author Ara Norenzayan, religion primes cooperation. In his work, Norenzayan has found religious societies to be more cooperative than non-religious societies — particularly where a group's survival is threatened.

“Participation in religion seems to make people more likely to suppress self-interest in favor of group norms,” Norenzayan told me. He believes religion may have underwritten the growth of large societies by encouraging cooperation and preventing the exploitation of scarce resources, like water.

Indeed, the faith community has become a leading voice on climate change. Last year saw the first-ever papal encyclical dedicated wholly to the environment, along with declarations on climate change from Buddhist, Muslim, and Jewish leaders. The Dalai Lama said climate change is a matter of the “survival of humanity,” and the Episcopal Church pledged to divest from fossil fuels. Religious groups have been clamoring for climate action ever since.

When it comes to the intersections of faith and climate change, Norenzayan said, there remain a lot of unanswered questions. But religion offers a vital tool for averting a tragedy of the commons: sacred values.

In the past, social movements have succeeded by forging sacred values. Abolitionists denounced slavery as a crime against the Almighty. They did not debate the economic utility or political expediency of ending slavery — they declared it a sin.

“People who were dead set against slavery, they said, ‘This is an abomination. This is against God. Slavery is wrong. End of discussion,’” Norenzayan said.

Today, “you can’t have a discussion with a reasonable person in the Western world about whether or not we should have slavery.”

Now, a growing number of faith leaders are working to foster a sacred value around climate change. Reverend Fletcher Harper, an Episcopal priest and Executive Director of Greenfaith, has spoken passionately about the moral imperative to move away from fossil fuels.

“The world that we need to create and continue to build is a world that’s defined by compassion and fairness, to build a future that everybody has a positive stake in, a future that everybody can benefit from," Harper said.

Harper remains optimistic about the progress that faith groups are making on climate change.

“One of the things that’s been great this year has been to see that leaders of all of the world’s great religions have realized that when it comes to climate change, it’s show time now,” Harper said.

“I think that’s a trend that’s going to continue, because once faith groups put their oars in the water like that, they tend to start to pull hard.”

It is faith leaders who are driving the moral argument for climate change. In his encyclical, Pope Francis deployed the language of sacred values: “In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the word ‘creation’ has a broader meaning than ‘nature,’ for it has to do with God’s loving plan in which every creature has its own value and significance.”

For the pope, tackling climate change speaks to loftier goals than providing for social stability or economic vitality. “Creation” has intrinsic value and must be guarded at all costs.

Pope Francis’s words have resonated with those in the U.S., and not only with Catholics. In the wake of his encyclical, nearly one in five Americans said the pope’s stance on global warming influenced their view of the issue. Roughly a third of Catholic Americans said the same. Rev. Harper sees the “Francis Effect” as part of a growing trend.

“Faith communities are communities of compassion and of concern and of love. They are ultimately not ideologically driven communities. They are communities that are driven by those deepest values,” Harper.

“And that’s why I think that more and more faith communities are going to become more and more significant in efforts to address climate change.”

Jeremy Deaton writes about the science, policy, and politics of climate and energy for Nexus Media. You can follow him at @deaton_jeremy

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