Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Climate Change: What Can Civil Society Do About It?

Rusty Pritchard


The world’s leaders agreed at last December’s climate talks in Paris that letting the world warm by over 2.0 degrees C must be avoided and that 1.5 degrees C should really be the limit. This past Friday, leaders from 175 countries met in New York City to sign the accord. Achieving this consensus is remarkable, and those who study climate impacts on the global economy and on the development prospects of the world’s most vulnerable citizens received this as good news.

Even more remarkable, every nation has agreed to participate in the task of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, including rich nations (whose historic emissions have gotten us into this mess) and poorer nations (whose future emissions would otherwise eventually swamp those of rich nations).

Unfortunately, even if every nation honored its commitments, the world would likely still warm by 2.7 degrees, devastating many coastal cities and island nations, disrupting world agriculture, exacerbating political conflicts, and setting off further waves of refugees. So this is a mixed success--a good start relative to doing nothing, but still requiring additional commitments in the future.

In light of this, the Paris Agreement has put in place a system of every-five-year reviews, starting in 2018, in which nations will be invited to ratchet down their emissions by revising their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), with the goal of reaching a balance between emissions and removal of greenhouse gases by the last half of this century. Currently no nation has in place a strategy to do what is necessary—shift completely from reliance on fossil fuels to renewable energy.

The United States arrived at the Paris climate conference with an INDC that leaned heavily on the EPA’s 2014 Clean Power Plan with its proposed guidelines for power plants that were to have reduced greenhouse gas pollution while protecting public health. However, in February of this year, the US Supreme Court halted the implementation of those guidelines pending a lawsuit from twenty-four states and multiple industry groups. It was admittedly an aggressive reading of the Clean Air Act by the administration that led to the Clean Power Plan, but policy advocates had argued that such administrative action was necessary due to the urgency of the problem and Congress’s abdication of its responsibility to find a legislative solution.

The Supreme Court had issued conflicting rulings before this halt, which barely preceded the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. So the ability of the world’s most powerful country to fulfill its intended contribution to the Paris Agreement now hinges on a future Supreme Court appointment, which depends on a presidential election, which depends on a volatile electorate that isn’t talking about climate change much at all. Clearly the national conversation in the United States needs to change.

Justice and compassion demand that climate actions do not disadvantage the “least of these,” so moral leaders must reimagine what human flourishing looks like in a post-carbon economy. Civil society has a critical role to play in mitigating climate change, particularly in the context of the United States’ contribution where government action has been weakened by dysfunctional politics. Political leaders are not united, and they show few signs that they are able to build the national consensus on climate action that we need. Strong action by nongovernmental institutions is dramatically necessary.

Civil Society’s Role in Government Accountability

It will be a race everywhere to implement the agreement in the face of accelerating climate impacts. Citizens in every country must hold their governments accountable for their commitments, whether through direct regulation of pollution or—much preferably—through putting a price on carbon pollution so that markets can function efficiently. Using the market mechanism allows firms great flexibility in reducing carbon pollution, since firms know better than governments which technologies to apply to their industries. Further, a price on carbon pollution (a “carbon tax”) sends a signal to consumers about the full cost of the goods they buy. Products that generate a lot of pollution would cost more, since consumers would be paying for previously hidden costs borne by the public at large.

Common-sense policies like a revenue neutral carbon tax would get the United States a long way toward its Paris commitments, and would benefit our own economy. But government can’t do it all. Private institutions also will need to change their consumption and their investments to accelerate the end of the fossil fuel era and the rise of cleaner energy, and they must make huge strides in conservation and energy efficiency.

Civil society groups have engaged and often battled with national governments since the first international climate conference in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Most of the work happens between conferences, but many civil society groups were official observers in this Paris conference, and many more gathered unofficially to mark the occasion, to resolve to influence the implementation of the agreement, and to galvanize their supporters in their home countries. They included a range of representatives of the world religions, including Evangelical Christians from the United States, Europe, and developing countries, who gathered at side events organized by A Rocha International, the Lausanne Creation Care Network, Tearfund, Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, Climate Caretakers, and the World Evangelical Alliance, among others. A senior US State Department official said “the faith community has been essential in making the case that confronting climate change is our moral responsibility.”

Faith-Based Civil Society Engagement

Evangelicals gathered in Paris were able to trumpet a new resolution by the US National Association of Evangelicals, overwhelmingly agreed to in October, that endorsed the urgency of addressing climate change and was a departure from previous timid responses. The NAE resolution praised a landmark 2011 Evangelical document from the Lausanne Movement called the Cape Town Commitment, which put climate change in the context of Christian mission and concern for the poor, and which has given rise to worldwide regional consultations on environment and climate change under the auspices of the Lausanne Creation Care Network.

While creation care organizations were noticeable in Paris, Evangelical denominations themselves were only indirectly represented—with one notable exception. The Christian Reformed Church of North America (CRCNA—a body that includes US and Canadian churches) is a model of how a denomination exhibits a strong witness on climate change by working within its own institutions and structures.

In 2012, the CRCNA Synod agreed on statements that acknowledged the near-consensus of the scientific community and issued a call to action for its members and denominational bodies to address climate change. As a result, a delegation from the CRCNA arrived in Paris with a substantial body of work under its belt. A study visit to Kenya had led to a video series seen in CRC churches and others, ten congregations piloted an energy savings program, their denominational headquarters achieved Energy Star certification, and a network of 200 paid and volunteer climate issue organizers were in place to connect thirty-five local congregations with the Paris delegation’s reports from the conference. Their delegation offered daily newsletters and a live teleconference from Paris to keep denominational advocates informed. After the conference, advocates penned at least seven opinion pieces for papers across the United States and Canada. Their continuing goals are raising awareness in their own communities and holding government representatives to account for commitments made in Paris, by reminding them of the moral imperative to fix the problem.

Micah Challenge USA took a different approach to encourage civic engagement with climate change. Rather than use traditional organizing tactics to raise awareness, this Evangelical group opted for an artistic approach. They invited four worship leaders whose songs are widely used in Christian congregations around the world to come to Paris to explore, ask questions, and to meet government leaders and fellow Christians from the developing world. The goal was also to deepen relationships between the artists and to cultivate a richer conversation with their vast audiences of millennial Christians.

According to Micah Challenge USA head Jason Fileta, those younger Christians are much less likely to be shaped by the culture wars that afflict an older generation of Christians and are more likely to be asking questions about poverty, inequality, and Christian compassion. Micah brought along a filmmaker, and last week they released a mini-documentary titled “For the Love of….” The film is about the worship leaders’ journey, and its release was timed to coincide with the signing of the Paris Agreement in New York City. The Micah film project aims to shape the moral imagination of young people by connecting them to their most deeply held beliefs and to a community of shared sympathies, rather than having political advocacy as the only ultimate goal.

Responding to Climate Impacts

However, policy change to stave off climate pollution (known as mitigation) can’t be our only goal in our response to climate impacts. Greenhouse gas pollution added to the atmosphere today will still be warming the planet over 100 years from now. Since a lot of pollution occurred in the past, that means some substantial global warming is already hard-wired into our climate system. Some changes will simply bring suffering, but others can be adapted to. Civil society institutions, particularly charitable organizations, can begin to organize around climate adaptation assistance and disaster readiness. Faith-based charities in particular are responsible for an outsized proportion of foreign assistance to developing countries. Our development and missions giving should be shaped by the need to help brothers and sisters in the majority world develop in a way that is resilient in the face of climatic disruptions.

Indeed, one needn’t even subscribe to anthropogenic global warming to know that our foreign assistance, whether mediated by USAID or by private charitable organizations, has to help recipients to cope with environmental disasters of every type, whether tropical storms, droughts, floods, or fires. Because many US charities work directly with local churches and local NGOs in the developing world, they are uniquely positioned to help bring a climate adaptation and disaster readiness approach to those places where climate impacts are directly felt. Many Christian charities, for example, are already doing this, but some are understandably reluctant to communicate the climate connection to a conservative US donor base.

Climate impacts, of course, are felt domestically as well, and when disaster strikes, the burden of disaster relief falls heavily on faith-based civic institutions and houses of worship. Churches and Christian charities are poised to become much more experienced in handling the material consequences of accelerating climate change, whether they acknowledge the causes or not. Pastors and seminarians should also prepare to offer spiritual guidance and comfort to communities suffering from drought, storms, fires, and floods, as it becomes clearer that the increasing frequency of disaster comes not from random “acts of God” but from our industrial economy. People the world over will need a spiritual narrative that gives meaning to human suffering and loss, courage to those providing assistance, welcome to populations forced to flee their homes, and hope for restoration and redemption.

Adaptation and coping strategies are akin to the necessary mopping up and repairing of the flood damage from a broken water pipe. It would be unwise to pursue them exclusively while ignoring the prior need to shut off the spigot and stop the leak-- in this case by finding ways to radically reduce our global warming pollution. For the world to do that, it needs its biggest economies to lead the way.

A Challenge to American Evangelicals

The biggest obstacle to dealing with global climate change is a lack of US leadership, both at home and internationally. American Christians, and especially Evangelicals, must own responsibility for allowing climate to become a partisan issue in the United States and for allowing a growing political polarization on the issue to infect our ability to advocate for the common good. At this point in the climate crisis, our structures of civil society should be aimed at producing policy solutions, driving technological innovation, diffusing adaptation strategies throughout affected communities, and building a theological meta-narrative that makes sense of the looming crisis. Moreover, that effort must be sustained over a century, requiring a robust consensus that spans electoral cycles, economic vicissitudes, and confusing natural variability. That will require a profound cultural shift, and it can’t depend on mere administrative action, bare legislative victories, or judicial fiats.

Evangelicals should be contributing to that task. However, we are first faced with remedial work—we have to raise awareness and to rebuild a sense of shared valued and common purpose at a time when those precursors to real work should be taken for granted. Evangelical Christians recognize a multiplicity of other social issues that require our attention, and we are known for our ability to bridge divides on things like HIV/AIDS, human trafficking, prison reform, and immigration. Can we adapt our growing acceptance of climate science into a robust agenda for change that transcends mere regulation, and that mobilizes those civil society institutions we have influence over? Can we change the conversation on climate into a moral conversation?

Let’s hope so.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Do you think of climate change primarily as an environmental issue, as an economic issue, or as a social justice issue that affects the poor? How does the framing affect the dialogue about climate?
  2. Do you think the political polarization about climate change is mainly about the science, or is it a debate based more on views of the proper role of government? If the latter, how can civil society engagement help to de-escalate the heated rhetoric?
  3. What can Christians uniquely contribute to the climate conversation? How would the public debate about addressing climate change be different if Christians were more robustly engaged?

-- Dr. Lowell (Rusty) Pritchard is a natural resource economist and a consultant to environmental and humanitarian organizations. His recent book review, “Gambling with Global Warming,” appears in the New Atlantis.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”