Can religion point us toward climate change messaging that works?

“Learned Helplessness,” generated from prompt by Midjourney

Quantifying understanding and acceptance

Communicating about climate change is difficult and often done through the obtuse language of statistical modeling or the charged language of bumper sticker politics. With the climate crisis accelerating at a rate that surpasses our previous understanding of it all the time, we have run out of time to prevent these shifts from happening at all and must now switch to the urgent task of adapting to their current implications while mitigating a far worse future. But — crucially — there seems to be little shared understanding of what the crisis even is or how we can address it.

Take, for instance, data from “Climate Change in the American Mind,” a collaboration of polling and research between Yale and George Mason University, which finds that 72% of people believe climate change is happening and 64% are at least “somewhat worried” about global warming (and three in ten reporting being “very worried”), but yet only 56% of respondents understand that “global warming is mostly human-caused” and two-thirds of Americans “rarely” or “never” discuss global warming with family and friends.

Why is it that the majority of people can believe that climate change is real, human-caused and a serious problem but still not have regular, pressing conversations about an issue that without immediate, systemic and massive mobilization of global resources, will (in the words of the UN Environmental Programme) see the possibility of “limiting warming to 1.5° C or even 2° C by the end of the century” slip beyond reach.

Defeating cultural inertia

The answer may be a bit more straightforward than the conflicting data may at first present. Within the same “American Mind” report cited above, a nearly-even split of respondents agree or disagree with the statement that “new technologies can solve global warming without individuals having to make big changes to their lives.”

The idea that no major lifestyle changes will be necessary to combat climate change is preposterous, especially coming from Americans — a nation of people who emit more greenhouse gases per capita than nearly all other nations in the world.

George Marshall, in his book Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, he discusses an interview he had with behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman, who outlined the three major reasons why climate change is a uniquely difficult problem to get mass buy-in for:

Salience, or the idea that a problem requires immediate or demanding amounts of attention, which can be hard for an issue as abstract and long-term as climate change.Contestability, or the (misguided) idea that the science underpinning climate change is still up for debate.Self-sacrifice, or that climate change requires that people “accept short-term costs and reductions in their living standards in order to mitigate against higher but uncertain losses that are far in the future.”

This last point is perhaps the most difficult of all. In order to prevent the worst outcomes related to climate change, near-total uninhabitability of the planet (a scenario of warming eminently achievable at current emissions by the end of the century), it will require a massive restructuring our way of life: a complete decarbonization of our energy sources, mass public transportation doing away with private transportation almost in its entirety, a turn toward high-density & multi-purpose zoning that’s been all but banished in America across the last several decades, a near-total reduction of animal products in our diet and a mass mobilization of entire sectors of our economy unseen since the days of World War II. And all of this would likely still require levels of carbon capturing possible only with technological breakthroughs we are still a long way away from.

None of this will be easy. It will require a level of self-sacrifice and a belief in the needs of all others above all that is all but incompatible with the intensely-competitive, atomized nature of the market economy we have been living with for our entire lives. It will require that people willingly submit themselves to an ideal that is larger than any one person’s needs, and there is little time to get started. So what will it take?

Tapping into faith networks

Interestingly, Marshall highlights one critical area of society that has been all but absent from the great climate debates: religion.

“What has been remarkable,” he writes, “is how little involvement religions have had in the climate change issue. Previous social justice movements, from the anti-slavery campaigns through civil rights, anti-apartheid, anti-debt, and anti-poverty campaigns, arose through church networks.”

Marshall is not alone. In The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Amitav Ghosh closes the third of his three brilliant arguments about the inability of literature, history and politics to comprehend the scale and threat of climate change by writing:

If a significant breakthrough is to be achieved, if the securitization and corporatization of climate change is to be prevented, then already-existing communities and mass organizations will have to be in the forefront of the struggle. And of such organizations, those with religious affiliations possess the ability to mobilize people in far greater numbers than any others. Moreover, religious worldviews are not subject to the limitations that have made climate change such a challenge for our existing institutions of governance: they transcend nation-states, they all acknowledge inter-generational, long-term responsibilities; they do not partake of economistic ways of thinking and are therefore capable of imagining nonlinear change — catastrophe, in other words — in ways that are perhaps closed to the forms of reason deployed by contemporary nation-states. Finally, it is impossible to see any way out of this crisis without an acceptance of limits and limitations, and this in turn, is, I think, intimately related to the idea, however one may wish to conceive of it.

The appeal of religion is self-evident to those who believe and often mystifying to those who don’t, but it’s key characteristic — at least in the Christian context which dominates American value systems — is that it offers absolution for the sins accumulated in one’s life.

This sense of absolution — of an actionable way forward — often feels missing in the broader messaging of those advocating for serious climate response. On one hand, IPCC and UNEP reports are often dry, technical documents couched in language meant to insulate scientists sensitive to claims of catastrophizing (even when the futures they model are catastrophic); on the other, much of the messaging from climate activists is specifically-channeled through the lens of environmental concerns that are remote and abstract (drowning polar bears and burning rainforests) or explicitly moral and easily turned against them (“if you’re so concerned about the planet why do you have an iPhone?”).

All this to cite Marshall again when he writes that “if climate change really were a religion, it would be a wretched one, offering guilt and blame and fear but with no recourse to salvation or forgiveness.”

Climate change is a global problem requiring global solutions. It requires communicating the threats it presents to communities while speaking to them in terms they understand, through representatives they trust. And it requires we are able to see the world in terms that supersede our atomized way of conceiving our selves and our responsibilities to the wellbeing of others. It does not require all of us to adopt a specific religious outlook (or even any specific religious outlook), but it does require that we look to all communities to enlist them in a cooperative struggle for a more sustainable world for all.

Thanks for reading this post about the climate and design. If you’re interested in more, be sure to follow me and reach out to me on LinkedIn.

Can religion point us toward climate change messaging that works? was originally published in UX Collective on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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