New Clear Vision

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Beyond Belief

May 26, 2011 By: NCVeditor Category: Culture, Ecology, Guest Author

Finding Common Ground on Climate Change

by Rick Chamberlin

“They loved each other beyond belief; She was a strumpet, he was a thief.” — Henrich Heine, “New Poems,” 1797-1856

The vocabulary of religion is not serving us well when it comes to battling — or even discussing — climate change.

Recently a friend sent me a link to a video of Karen Armstrong accepting the TED prize in 2008. In her speech the former nun turned world-renowned scholar and author had this to say:

“Belief is only a very recent religious enthusiasm. It surfaced only in the West in about the 17th century. The word ‘belief’ itself originally meant to love, to prize, to hold dear. In the 17th century, it narrowed its focus … to include, to mean, an intellectual assent to a set of propositions. Credo, ‘I believe,’ … did not mean ‘I accept certain credal articles of faith’. It meant ‘I commit myself. I engage myself’…. So if religion is not about believing things, what is it about? What I’ve found across the board is that religion is about behaving differently. Instead of deciding whether or not you believe in God, first you do something, you behave in a committed way, and then you begin to understand the truths….”

Stay with me, I promise to bring this back around to my main thesis.

Armstrong goes on to talk about the primacy of compassion in all the major religious traditions. The Golden Rule is present in the scriptures of the three Semitic religions — Judaism, Islam and Christianity — and was articulated by Confucius five centuries before Christ taught it to his disciples.

I was aware, of course, that compassion is common to all the world’s religions, but Armstrong’s other words were a revelation. That “belief” originally meant to love, to prize, to hold dear, was new information. And it has caused me to wonder how different the world would look today had we not lost that core meaning.

For one thing, we might not be facing a global climate crisis. If religious people through the centuries had spent more time behaving differently, engaging with and committing to each other, and applying the Golden Rule to all aspects of their lives — more than they spent judging and isolating themselves from people who think differently — I doubt the polar ice caps would be melting, extinctions of plant and animal species would be soaring or food shortages would be multiplying.

Armstrong’s insights also made me question the words most of us use to talk about climate change today. People with a wide range of views on the subject often employ the language of faith, of belief, to frame the debate. We either “believe in” climate change or we “don’t believe in” it. Those who don’t “believe” get labeled as “deniers,” or, at best, “skeptics.” We’re just a stone’s throw from “heretic” or “infidel” here (pardon the pun).

The irony is that secular folks, many of whom think science clearly shows climate change is occurring and is caused primarily by our use of fossil fuels, toss around these terms just as much if not more than the devoutly religious, many of whom think the matter is about as settled as the Arab-Israeli conflict. We wouldn’t dream of saying we “believe in” the weather, the tides, or the seasons.

But those on the other “side” are far from blameless in this regard. Just this past week during debate on legislation that would weaken Minnesota’s renewable energy law, a state legislator decried “the climate change religion.”

The use of such language immediately polarizes the issue and shuts down dialogue and discussion — and therefore greater understanding and cooperation. People are dismissed or written off for their “beliefs” instead of heard and engaged as human beings. Understanding, and the potential to work together in areas where we agree, comes to a standstill.

A recent Pew poll shows that both Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, overwhelmingly support greater investment in and development of renewable energy, as well as a move away from fossil fuels. And yet we’ve let our entrenchment into so-called belief (or disbelief) keep us from working together to bring about a cleaner, greener economy and a more sustainable world. The common ground becomes a no man’s land, lying untilled and barren as we snipe at each other from the hedgerows.

There are forces out to change this, of course. One recent bright spot is the film Carbon Nation, which highlights the work of Americans, many of whom identify as conservatives politically, to develop and promote clean energy. We need more projects like this, because whether climate change is ever proven 100 percent to be caused by the burning of fossil fuels, those fuels are running out fast and it will take all of us, not just the “elect” (or elected), to build communities and economies that can survive and thrive without them.

If we take Armstrong’s question, “If religion is not about believing things, then what is it about?” and substitute the words “climate change” for “religion,” we might really start to make some progress toward building something worth living in on that common ground of ours. Isn’t the answer to the question the same, either way? Isn’t it about behaving differently, about treating others — including future others — the way we would want to be treated?

If faith really is about loving and prizing and holding dear, about engaging and committing, then most of us, if we’re honest, must admit that we have a long way to go before we can begin to think of ourselves as true believers in anything — no matter our world view or spiritual tradition.

Meanwhile we should all watch our language.

Rick Chamberlin is the primary author and editor of Climate Chronicle. He’s a father, writer, activist, and Wisconsin native. His essays on the environment, politics, and culture have appeared in The Capital Times, and online at and Common Dreams.

0 Comments to “Beyond Belief”

  1. The global climate is in a constant state of flux. The problem for the scientist and the analyst is to reconcile the various bits of evidence so as to establish a pattern. I am not sure what ‘religion’ has to do with anything!

    “Climate’ is not the daily variation of weather, cloud, rain, temperature, pressure. It is the overall pattern of atmospheric pressure, and temperature distribution across the globe, and in the biosphere. For example, I may live in a place where it is hot and dry but in a continent in which the overall temperature is lower and the rain is greater; leading to a conclusion that the climate is getting ‘temperate’.
    There has been a long standing debate as to whether the earth is in a glacial or interglacial period. For example, the Ice Ages extended across thousands of years. Natural scientists have established that there have been five or six glacial periods, during which there have been warmer times. Each glaciation was followed by interglacial periods, which may have been many thousands of years long. What is agreed is that there has been a sequence of Ice Ages during which the Northern Hemisphere was covered by ice, and the animals and plants migrated south to the warmer lands of Africa and Asia.
    It is only during the last 4000 years humans have appeared and developed on earth. More recently humans have increased in numbers and now are to be found across the globe. Very recently, that is within 300 years, humans have developed industrial technologies which have led them to create factories, burn coal, mine iron ore, make pig iron, operate steam engines, power stations, petrol engines, and raise the levels of pollution in the atmosphere and the oceans. Their activities have led to the increasing levels of particles in the atmosphere, up to 500 particles per million, the ejection of gases and waste products: all of which have measurably altered the composition of the atmosphere and the bioshere.
    This pollution first took place in Britain with the onset of the Industrial Revolution. But it is now global. Not only is there massive pollution of the land, air, and the seas but also extensive destruction of forests, grasslands, lakes, waterways. If you are doubtful about the extent of pollution, I suggest that you spend a day observing a coal burning power station, or a chemical works or a foundry and the continuous stream of polluted air being expelled into the atmosphere. Multiply that by millions for the many other sites, and you will get some sense of the extent of pollution taking place year by year.
    I am quite willing to accept that originally the pollution was an unintentional consequence of industrial processes. Today, however, we must agree that the continuation of pollution and the indifference of the corporations to the consequences of their industrial processes is criminal. Economic, financial, and industrial growth are regarded as more important than anything. Furthermore, the atmospheric pollution up to the present time has been generated by a small number of industrial countries. Once, industrialization spreads completely across the whole of China, India, and Africa, Brazil, Mexico, and the Middle East, pollution will not only effect the biosphere, it will lead to more changes in the local weather and the global climate.


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