Science turns to religion for "mass mobilisation" on environmental change

Ahead of the UN summit on climate change, two leading scholars in the field make a watershed appeal to religious leaders for help in mobilising public opinion on the planet’s future.

An organisation like the Catholic Church is remarkably effective at leading a famine relief campaign. These are mechanisms that we should be using to tackle other global problems, including stopping governments from riding roughshod over people’s lives with disastrous effects for biodiversity
Partha Dasgupta

Two eminent scientists have made an impassioned appeal to the world’s religious leaders for help in curbing the potentially catastrophic effects of the ongoing abuse of the planet’s natural resources.

Writing in the journal Science the researchers say that religious leaders can instigate the "massive mobilisation of public opinion" needed to stem the destruction of ecosystems around the world in a way that governments and scientists cannot.

The call is made in an essay, co-written by Partha Dasgupta, an economist at St John’s College, University of Cambridge, and Veerabhadran Ramanathan, a climate and atmospheric scientist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego, who collectively have eight decades of experience researching environmental change and its effects.

Earlier this year, the pair organised a workshop involving more than 50 other academics at the Vatican, during which they also met with the Pope to discuss their concerns.

Their essay appears ahead of the United Nations summit on climate change in New York on September 23, at which Ramanathan will speak about the role that religions can play in mobilising public action on environmental issues. The chief editor of Science, Marcia McNutt, has meanwhile added her voice to the call in a supporting editorial, while Naomi Oreskes, the Harvard-based historian of science and climate change issues, has described the paper as "a watershed moment".

Professors Dasgupta and Ramanathan describe humanity’s relationship with natural resources as being "at a crossroads". They argue that this is characterised by a series of feedback loops, in which the planet’s natural capital is exploited to lift people out of poverty, resulting in a demand for food, water and energy that cannot be sustained. The net effect is not only the destruction of vital ecosystems like forests and fisheries, but ongoing poverty for millions of people.

The solution to this, the authors say, is "massive collective action" by people to protect these environmental resources both on an international scale, and within their own communities. Organised religion, they suggest, is uniquely placed to help communities stand in the way of industrial activities and government policies which threaten the planet’s "natural capital".

"Unsustainable consumption, population pressure, poverty and environmental degradation are intricately linked, but this is appreciated neither by development economists, nor by national governments who permit GDP growth to trump environmental protection in their policies," they write.

"The transformational step may very well be a massive mobilisation of public opinion by the Vatican and other religions for collective action to safeguard the well-being of both humanity and the environment."

Professor Dasgupta, whose work focuses on the combined pressures of poverty, population and changes to the natural environment, admitted that it was "very rare" for scientists to appeal to religious leaders in this way.

"Religion has access to networks at every level in a way that scientists do not, and that’s really why we are appealing to them to help address common issues for the sake of a common good," he said.

"I think that a lot of people see the religious contribution as a cosy topic which we should only discuss on Sunday mornings, but it could prove decisive. An organisation like the Catholic Church is structured in a way that makes it remarkably effective at, for example, leading a famine relief campaign. These are mechanisms that we should be using to tackle other global problems, including stopping governments from riding roughshod over people’s lives with disastrous effects for biodiversity."

Alongside their potential role in turning public opinion, the paper suggests that religious organisations could provide more practical help, for example by using their charitable arms to provide the world’s poorest people, of whom an estimated 1.5 billion still struggle with pre-industrial technologies, with access to clean energy technologies such as biogas stoves and solar lamps.

Professor Ramanathan, who studies the climate effects of aerosols, has estimated that replacing the solid fuels on which many of the world’s poor rely for cooking, light and heat with more sustainable alternatives could have a significant effect in reducing near-term warming trends. "It is miraculous that eight decades of research by Professor Dasgupta and myself on the natural and social science aspects of environmental changes has led us to the doorstep of moral leaders of religions to rescue humanity from climate change," he said.

Professor Dasgupta added that religious leaders could realistically collaborate with learned organisations, such as the Royal Society or the US National Academy of Sciences, to structure campaigns aimed at ending the over-exploitation of the planet’s natural resources.

"Not a single person whom we invited to our conference at the Vatican earlier this year turned the opportunity down," he pointed out. "That suggests to me a cause for optimism; when people are asked to take part in something that involves helping others, there is not much resistance."

Professor Naomi Oreskes said: "This is a watershed moment. For twenty years, scientists have been reluctant to speak out on the need to change business as usual for fear of being labelled ’political,’ and reluctant to address the moral dimensions of climate change for fear of being labelled ’unscientific.’ Now, following in the footsteps of great scientific and moral leaders like Neils Bohr and Albert Einstein, Professors Dasgupta and Ramanathan remind us that we are all responsible for the common good."

The article, Pursuit of the common good, appears in the 19 September issue of Science.

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence. If you use this content on your site please link back to this page. For image rights, please see the credits associated with each individual image.

Coal mine in Dhanbad, India. The biodiversity loss caused by the Indian mining industry has been widely criticised and is an example of the type of issue around which scientists now claim religious leaders could mobilise public action.