Faith In Values: Are We Finally Nearing The Tipping Point On Climate Change?

James Balog/AP

by Sally Steenland

For several years now, increased pollution from greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has been fueling extreme weather across the globe. Droughts, floods, wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards, and heat waves: Our planet’s weather report is starting to sound like the biblical plagues.

Last month was the 331st month in a row where temperatures rose above the 20th century average. Just this year, the United States suffered “two record heat waves, a record drought, [and] an above-average fire season.”

Then, just before Halloween this year, Hurricane Sandy roared up the East Coast and battered parts of the Midwest. With its ferocious winds and hammering rains, Sandy knocked out power, flooded homes and businesses, triggered fires, tore down trees, and devastated neighborhoods. More than 100 people died. Sandy is estimated to cost around   $50 billion in damages Just one week after Sandy hit, another storm ravaged the East Coast—only this time it was a blizzard that inflicted even more damage on the communities ravaged by the hurricane and further hampered efforts to restore power and rebuild homes and businesses.

Concerns about climate change and global warming used to be a bipartisan affair. Republican Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsay Graham (R-SC) previously supported a tax on greenhouse gases—known as cap and trade—as did many Democratic lawmakers. Even 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney took global warming seriously and supported cap-and-trade policies when he was governor of Massachusetts.

So what happened?

For one thing, the Tea Party turned up the political heat against those who took global warming seriously and supported policies to slow its effects. According to a Yale University survey, a majority of Tea Party members (53 percent) claim they don’t believe global warming is occurring, and 51 percent say they aren’t worried about it.

What’s more, right-wing forces have coordinated their efforts to deny the reality of climate change, dispute scientific findings, pit environmentalists against God, and oppose common-sense regulations. In addition, until very recently the mainstream media had all but stopped mentioning climate change as a possible connection to the reoccurring instances of recording-breaking extreme weather.

Media silence, combined with fierce climate-change denial and political polarization, has had an effect: More Americans now connect words such as “hoax” to global warming than they did 10 years ago. And although a majority of Americans say they believe climate change is real and should be addressed, there is no strong consensus on how to tackle the problem.

Post-Sandy, however, things are starting to change. Political leaders such as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg are urging federal action to help mitigate the effects of global warming. In fact, Mayor Bloomberg said the main reason he endorsed President Barack Obama for re-election was because of his concern about climate change.

In addition, media outlets are starting to connect the dots. In the wake of the superstorm, a dramatic picture of a dark and flooded lower Manhattan appeared on the cover of Bloomberg Businessweek, with the huge headline, “IT’S GLOBAL WARMING, STUPID.” NBC anchor Chuck Todd said, “Let’s not bury our head in the sand. It’s called climate change, folks.” CNN and other news outlets are linking climate change to killer storms, while science reporters and talk-show hosts are finding their voices, too.

Other hopeful signs include the defeat of several Tea Party congressional candidates in this year’s election, along with a new carbon auction in California that will put a price on pollution and provide funding for investments in clean energy.

These changes could be evidence of a tipping point—the moment when a number of factors came together to change public opinion. The groundwork is there: solid science, local concern and activism, moral leadership, and a dramatic event.

In terms of moral leadership, faith communities have long seen global warming as one of the most urgent spiritual issues of our time. From Catholics and Jews to Muslims, evangelicals, and others, faith communities have been working to change individual behavior and to advocate for sensible policies to address climate change.

The Evangelical Environmental Network, for instance, ran television ads in swing states during the election campaign defending the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to reduce carbon pollution. Interfaith Moral Action on Climate graded elected officials on their stewardship record and is urging responsible climate leadership. And the Young Evangelicals for Climate Action worked to make the environment a key voting issue among its followers through social media and direct organizing.

Faith groups are also joining forces with labor organizations, businesses, elected officials, and environmental, civil rights, educational, and other groups in the National Climate Summit. It could very well be that the Summit’s call for elected officials to devise a climate plan within their first 100 days in office will now gain traction in Congress. The heat is finally being turned up on the issue of climate change.

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.

16 Responses to Faith In Values: Are We Finally Nearing The Tipping Point On Climate Change?

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    We’ve seen this movie before- namely, 2005’s Katrina and then An Inconvenient Truth. Awareness spiked, but then regressed to the mean, and we ended up in worse shape than before. Half of our members of Congress click their heels when someone like Bill O’Reilly or David Koch tells them what to believe.

    We can’t rely on either storms or the occasional remorseful Republican. This time, we need to be more forceful, and insist that our leaders in media and government step up. McKibben is on the right track here. It’s time to step up the pressure, and keep it there. Included should be rolling product boycotts, pickets and lawsuits against negligent media outlets, public humiliation of denier Congressmen, and much else.

  2. Guy Marsden says:

    Maybe finally the media will begin to acknowlege the issue. But we the people, are already seeing the direct results of climate change, and some of us have been taking initiative for years.

    In my mind it’s really up to Faith Communities and individuals within civil society at large to create a sustainable world.

    I’m doing my part and talking the walk!

  3. Robert says:

    “53 percent) claim they don’t believe global warming is occurring, and 51 percent say they aren’t worried about it.”

    Sorry, but this is hilarious. It appears 2% of the tea party doesn’t believe in Global Warming, but is worried about it anyway? :)

  4. NJP1 says:

    I want people to change, I really do
    the lives of me and mine depend on it
    but after a proven history of millenia of greed and capitalist acquisition, I fear that humanity will go on till we hit the wall of finite consumption.
    It will be sudden, drastic, nasty, but in terms of human survival, very necessary
    I don’t think I want to be one of the survivors.

  5. Sally, thank you for this overview. Interfaith Power & Light has been mobilizing a religious response to global warming for more than a decade. We’re active in most states, with thousands of congregations taking grassroots action to reduce their own carbon and advocate for clean energy policy. We invite all people of faith to check out the IPL in their state or join our national mailing list to stay informed.

  6. Lou Grinzo says:

    I agree strongly, Mike, especially regarding our recent history of “getting it” and then just as quickly “forgetting it”.

    While I want more than I can express for mass numbers of consumers and voters to have their climate epiphany, I will believe it’s happened after, well, it’s definitively happened. In the short run we have to keep looking for more effective ways to educate and activate as many people currently in the disconnected middle as possible.

  7. Solar Jim says:

    Thanks Sally. May I point out that “climate change” as used in typical dialog is much more than “an issue.” If it is an extinction event, then “clean energy” is necessary but insufficient for survival. Further, there actually is no such thing as dirty or clean energy. There is, however, a difference between matter and energy. One can be ignited.

  8. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    ‘The living will envy the dead’.

  9. Jeff Poole says:

    I have no faith in ‘faith communities’.

    That’s because I used to be a bible-believing christian, albeit one who was revolted at my fellow-believers inhumane attitudes to both nature and to people who didn’t conform to our worldview.

    There’s a huge sticking point for the faithful who are of goodwill – they refuse to stand up to the loonies and call them out as ‘unchristian’, ‘in error’ or whatever the current jargon is. Why? Because that would be a ‘house divided against itself’ – ie one that will fall.

    For example, how many mainstream christians agree with the ‘God Hates Fags’ crackpot Baptists who picket funerals in the US, I’d venture to suggest not many. But how many christians attend those pickets and tell them they’re wrong? None.

    All you get from ‘Faith Communities’ of decent people when they are in opposition to fundamentalists is hand wringing and maybe a ‘private word’.

    So I applaud faith communities attitude, but regard their efforts as a big fat failure – until they grow the ability to tell they fellow-believers that they are misguided and wrong. Tell them publicly, and tell them every time they get up and lie about climate change, which is very, very frequent.

  10. America is a broadly religious nation. Until the communities of faith engage on the climate issue in a serious way the nation will have a very hard time acting at the level necessary.

    Glad to see elements in the faith community taking action.

  11. The difference now is that, as we all know, the climate impacts are growing worse and more frequent. Every year the damage become more in-your-face. The time between climate impacts is shrinking and the impacts are greater.

    Have we passed the angle of repose yet? Maybe not but the climate is literally and figuratively different now than it was during Katrina…

  12. Ozonator says:

    I would say yes on the tipping point since I can predict AGW earthquakes with a $10 calculator. For example, with predictions posted in the blog of

    Iran was a correct AGW quake prediction. It was in the “Iran (5+)” region under 11/25 – 12/1/12, easily met the 4.5 Richter minimum, caused damage, and in the 1st week of the standard 2-weeks model. “An earthquake measuring 4.9 on the Richter scale took place in the city of Azna in the Iranian Lorestan province, MEHR news agency reported. … Many houses are damaged in Azna as a result of the earthquake and lessons are not being held in schools” (“Quake hits Iranian Lorestan province”; Trend, T.Jafarov;, 11/27/12).

  13. Martin Gisser says:

    I haven’t yet seen Buddhists to fully grasp the moral and spiritual implications. If they don’t fully get it (Buddhism being an eco-logical philosophy due to the core doctrine of dependent co-arising) then I see no hope whatsoever of “supernaturalists” getting it.

    (Of course e.g. the Dalai Lama sees and protests the facts since decades – but has he urged the Sangha to go carbon negative? Nope. Likewise Bhikku Bodhi fully grasps the situation and some spiritual/ethical implications dawn upon him. Yet he still believes in rebirth (now neccessarily on a different planet).)

  14. Philip Pease says:

    It is heartening to hear some Christians have come to recognize the moral choice behind the climate change issue. The fossil fuel industry values money above all else. The choice to continue producing greenhouse gasses will cause immense human suffering (that we are already experiencing). To knowing cause the condition of human suffering in order to gain ever greater wealth is a moral choice.

  15. Belgrave says:

    Have a look at: for some good articles – including some from here! Although, I accept this is only a very small minority of buddhists.

    Also Thich Nhat Han definitely gets it.

  16. Martin Gisser says:

    Belgrave, thanks for reminding me of this web site. I haven’t had a look there for a long time… They have a book with a collection of essays, “A Buddhist response to the climate crisis”, 2009. I remember to have found it mostly disappointing, reminding me more of 20th century “shallow ecology” (as opposed to Arne Naess’ deep ecology) – but then, back in 2009 James Lovelock’s outlook was regarded more on the extreme end of climate prognoses. Compare this book with the old collection “Dharma Gaia” (A.H. Badiner ed., 1990) which sounds deeper and more pressing… — I will revisit the “Response” book and have a second look at Thich Nhat Hanh’s essay. (Which reminds me of Joanna Macy, whom I regard one of the very few 21st century bodhisattvas. Plus, Stephen Batchelor, who also seems to get the full picture (had a short chat with him recently).)