′People are unaware of the church′s influence on climate issues′ | Global Ideas | DW | 02.04.2013
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Global Ideas

'People are unaware of the church's influence on climate issues'

What do churches and climate protection have to do with each other? A whole lot, according to theologian and ethicist Markus Vogt. He tells us why the church is the best place to address issues raised by climate change.

The spires of a church and a cross

Some believe the church can play a big role in shaping people's ideas of environmental responsiblity

Markus Vogt is a professor of Christian social ethics at Munich’s Ludwig Maximilian University. He studied philosophy and theology in Jerusalem in Munich. Among other areas, he has carried out research on how to secure justice, prosperity and peace in the face of climate change – and what role the church can play in achieving those goals.

Global Ideas: At first glance, climate change mitigation and churches don’t seem to have much in common. Why is that? And what makes you think the church is the right institution to take on climate change?

Foto: Professor Markus Vogt (Foto: DW/Gianna Grün)

Markus Vogt is a professor of Christian social ethics at Munich’s Ludwig Maximilian University

Markus Vogt: We often speak about climate change in accusatory terms. And a lot of people tend to think about the church as a negative force rather than a solution to problems. Within the church itself, climate protection isn’t necessarily seen as a religious issue. But churches can still shape opinions and serve as role models. There are more than 700 church institutions here in Germany that make a contribution to environmental management according to European standards – they save energy, cut down on waste and get involved in protecting nature. The church also offers a space to reflect on existential questions that climate change often poses.

What capabilities does the church have in answering those existential questions?

The biggest problem we have with climate change is that we have to think today in terms of the future. We know it will pay off if we invest in the climate now – if you make an investment today, on a national level too, everyone will benefit. But there are so many people who are exploiting the environment. It’s a typical moral-ethical problem. What we really need is global solidarity, and that’s where the church can come in. It’s the oldest “global player” that can bring together the international community to create global solidarity.

Can climate protection go too far?

A church with solar panels on the roof

Churches can serve as role models. When they lead the way in solar energy, for example, the faithful often follow

Yes, and I think that’s clear when you look at the question of how far the duty to protect the climate holds for the very poor. In my opinion, it’s understandable and justified that the very poor say “for us, the most important thing is basic survival.” It’s just not plausible to ask these people to be climate conscious, to ask them not to clear forest areas or use land or water if it’s a matter of survival.

That’s why fighting poverty is essential. Without the world’s poor, we won’t be able to fight climate change in countries that are under particular threat of global warming, in the southern hemisphere. We won’t convince them either. And that is the problem that is plaguing global climate negotiations: we have yet to find a real solution that connects the battles against poverty and climate change in such a way as to make it viable. There’s always a search for some sort of compromise, but in the end, it always undermines environmental guidelines. The argument is “when there is enough material wealth, we will worry about the environment and climate protection.” But then it’s too late. That’s why it’s important to start out with a rethink on ecological and social aspects. And that is where the church can play a role, because it’s not just about nature but about people’s relationship to their environment.

How does the church see this relationship between man and nature?

It’s a completely holistic and sustainable relationship. The concept of sustainability was influenced by churches. The first worldwide sustainability initiative (“Sustainable Society”) was founded by the World Council of Churches in 1974. That underlies the concept of “the development of the peoples” (the Populorum progressio encyclical written by Pope Paul VI), and both together were incorporated in the United Nations concepts that later turned into the guiding principle on sustainability. The ethical architecture of the Rio Declaration was also preceded by another religiously-led initiative. (Erd Charta). Even within the church itself, a lot of people don’t know that this is all the result of the fundamental influence of Church players and ideas.

Do you think that climate change will alter religion, or the way we believe?

One group of women shows another how to use a solar cooker

Climate protection can only work in poorer countries when the solution is simple and affordable

I take a more careful approach. I see the environmental aspect as an incredible opportunity to make traditional religious themes more tangible – to make the church part of an answer to problems that modern society faces. Climate change is raising religious questions in a new way: what is our position in nature, in the world and in the cosmos? What kind of time frame are we acting in and thinking in?

As climate change continues, we are in the process of destroying the foundations of our civilization – through changes in the way we use land and consume water. What makes us capable of change? What gives us hope? Besides our individual existence, what enables us to have a future?

Climate change has raised existential, religious and maybe even unexpected questions, in an environmental context. Is nature a collection of resources for man’s use, or is it a symbolic resource? What is nature’s intrinsic value?

It will be interesting to see how, with the wealth of traditions we have in the Christian religion, these newly posed questions will be rethought and debated, also as a bridge to other religions.

Many of us believe and hope in everyday life, and not always in a religious way. We hope, for example, that something good comes out of the climate conferences.

President Obama shakes hands at the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009

Climate conferences: the fight against climate change is only effective when it goes hand in hand with the battle against poverty

Essentially, we are hoping that the climate conferences deliver something that they can’t: a contract that will save the world fast. But in the end, it’s not about something that can be decided on a political level. We are talking about our entire notion of prosperity, our concept of the future and progress – and that is a question of our values in society as a whole. Politicians need to build a framework but they can only pass into law the changes society is willing to make. They can’t be the initiators.

I see it as a special responsibility of theology and religion to help assess realistic expectations on one hand, but also to be critical of ideology on the other hand to show how ecological promises subtly create inflated hopes.

If the spark is supposed to come from society, maybe even from the church, and global solidarity plays a central role as you mentioned, does that mean you believe that the world’s various religions will have to promote climate protection?

A crescent, the Star of David and a cross

The common fight against climate change presents an opportunity to build bridges between different faiths

Absolutely. We all live on the same planet, and saving the climate will only work if we manage to cooperate in a coordinated way. That’s true not only on a political level but also on a cultural level. And cultural cooperation can be anchored in interreligious dialogue. The competition for the world’s dwindling resources will only grow more intense. And because religions have often played a central role in starting or escalating conflicts, I think it’s also those religions’ duty to teach the world how to mediate conflicts and build bridges.