Witt on Berry, 'Climate Politics and the Power of Religion'

Evan Berry, ed.
Joseph D. Witt

Evan Berry, ed. Climate Politics and the Power of Religion. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2022. viii + 285 pp. $40.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-253-05906-2

Reviewed by Joseph D. Witt (University of Tennessee, Knoxville) Published on H-Environment (October, 2022) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58117

Joseph Witt on Evan Berry, Climate Politics and the Power of Religion

Climate Politics and the Power of Religion gathers nine research articles, plus one concluding commentary, investigating the complex entanglements between religions and climate policies at regional, national, and international scales. While several works have previously examined the relationships between religious beliefs and attitudes toward climate change, this volume is unique in situating religious stakeholders within political spheres. The focus thus becomes not simply religiously grounded beliefs about climate change, but a much more nuanced investigation of the various ways that citizens and government agencies both draw upon and shape religious resources as some among many tools for understanding and addressing (or avoiding) the threats and impacts of climate change. Taken together, the volume’s chapters provide innovative approaches that should be read by a wide array of scholars and students interested in the intersections between religions, politics, and environmental issues.

According to the volume’s preface, Climate Politics and the Power of Religion emerged from a multiyear set of international meetings exploring various religious and environmental issues. Through this process, contributors refined and revised their works, ultimately resulting in this and other edited volumes. Presumably, the nine chapters included in this volume (of “roughly two dozen” produced from the overall project, p. viii) were selected due to their intersecting emphases on political and religious actors. In the introduction, the volume’s editor, Evan Berry, notes that the contributors sought to address several lacunae in scholarship surrounding climate change. First, scholarship on religion and climate change has tended to emphasize examples from the Global North and predominantly Christian perspectives, and so this volume provides more globally representative examples from other religious and secular contexts. Second, Berry notes that social scientific literature on climate change has generally neglected the role of religion in shaping climate change policies. Finally, previous scholarship on religions and environmental issues has often focused on religions as systems of beliefs and worldviews, neglecting the influence of religions on political processes, and vice versa. From my own experiences with research on religions and environmental issues, these all seem like accurate assessments of the field, and so this volume provides much-needed efforts to bridge these gaps. After defining the general framework on religion and the politics of climate change, Berry notes that chapter authors then focused their work on three key concerns: namely, the influence of religious actors in political debates surrounding climate change, the role of religions in shaping community understandings of climate change, and the influence of climate change in shaping religions (p. 5). In all, between addressing lacunae in previous scholarship and then also addressing three key concerns, along with the subject and methodological diversity of each contribution, this short volume covers a significant amount of territory.

Following the general introduction, the volume splits into three themed sections. The first section, “Religion and the Construction of National Climate Policy,” features articles that demonstrate how religious cultures, attitudes, and institutions are complexly interwoven with other social, political, and economic considerations, thus mediating the influence of religious systems on climate policies. For example, David T. Buckley describes how both Catholic Church leadership and the President Rodrigo Duterte administration in the Philippines hold similar views on the significance of climate change, and yet, due to disagreements on other legal policies regarding crime and the poor, the two collectives have ultimately failed to cooperate on climate issues. Rather than religious skepticism regarding climate, then, Buckley reveals how local failures to forge collaborations on climate are due to other, nonenvironmental factors. J. Brent Crosson’s chapter on theological views of nature and divine sovereignty in Trinidad and Neeraj Vedwan’s chapter on Hindu nationalist rhetoric in India similarly reveal how seemingly pro-environmental dimensions of religious systems may nonetheless be limited in political influence due to other factors. Countering some earlier assumptions in the field, these chapters demonstrate that emphasizing the pro-environmental attitudes of religious communities alone does not necessarily lead to changes in local policies without further consideration of the more complex political relationships between stakeholders.

The next section, “Transnational and Theoretical Considerations,” moves away from regionally grounded cases to engage with more theoretical discussions, offering tools for analyzing religious involvement with climate change policy and discourse. Erin Wilson’s chapter, “Cast out Fear: Secularism, (In)Security, and the Politics of Climate Change,” brings emerging scholarship on secularism into the discussion of religions and climate. For Wilson, fear-based discourse regarding climate can be theorized as an outcome of secular ontologies grounded in the modern West. It is through the lens of the secular that many Western governments interpret both religion and climate policy, Wilson argues, establishing the ontological dichotomies between humans and nature, science and religion, and so on, that contribute to popular attitudes regarding the causes and impacts of climate change. Appreciating the religious influences on climate change will remain incomplete without also analyzing the influence of secular ontologies in shaping Western concepts of religion, nature, and the human. Wilson concludes that more fruitful work may be possible after adopting a “multiple-ontologies approach” (p. 114) that can account for the fundamental differences in theories of being that contribute to differences between various stakeholders on climate policies. Evan Berry’s contribution also works to shift popular accounts of religion among many contemporary commentators away from an emphasis upon ethical systems and toward the political processes that shape religious expressions. Berry describes how Evangelical Protestant climate skepticism and Catholic climate concern, particularly following the publication of Pope Francis I’s encyclical On Care for our Common Home, emerge not from the application of ahistorical theological commitments to a contemporary issue, but are instead influenced by political and social opportunities in specific locations. Berry seeks to decenter the focus on “belief” as the most salient feature of religion/climate discourse and instead theorize the political and social entanglements of religious stakeholders that may help facilitate and guide theological expressions. In all, while this section is the briefest, it includes important discussions that contribute to the volume’s overall mission of theorizing religions as politically mediated phenomena.

The final section, “Religion and the Complexity of Public Environmental Discourse,” returns to examples of religions in regional contexts. Kelly D. Alley and Tarini Mehta’s contribution focuses on the multiple contradictions embedded in Indian religious and legal approaches to water pollution in sacred rivers. Despite frequently holding rivers to be sacred and purifying, religious communities in India may often remain ambivalent about river pollution. The authors conclude that legal efforts to address pollution must also consider material dimensions such as property and resource access to bring about meaningful change. While Alley and Mehta describe the limits of religious institutions in addressing local pollution, Ana Mariella Bacigalupo, in her study of mestizo Peruvian communities, outlines the political potential found in local concepts of sentient landscapes. Grounded in local indigenous views and practices, poor mestizo Peruvian communities offer a view of natural beings (specifically, mountains) as sentient and situated within a network of ethical relations. For Bacigalupo, this approach offers an important alternative to the secular-scientific views governing national environmental policies, opening new opportunities for building local ethical responses to the impacts of climate change. Highlighting the volume’s interdisciplinarity, the final chapters of this section apply Christian theological interpretations of vulnerability to discourse surrounding climate resilience (in Andrew R. H. Thompson’s contribution) and describe the potential for “sister cities” civic engagement models to foster international climate resilience (in Roger-Mark De Souza’s contribution). The volume concludes with a chapter from Ken Conca, reflecting on the major themes emerging from the other chapters. This brief discussion is a welcome summation of the text, pointing back to the multiple themes listed in the introduction and leaving the reader with several specific takeaway suggestions from a thematically and methodologically diverse volume.

In a field that has often been crowded by work focused on celebrating the environmentally friendly dimensions of world religions, Climate Politics and the Power of Religion makes a critical intervention by advancing new directions for scholarship and “reinscrib[ing] politics as a key category for scholarship on religion and the environment” (Berry, p. 4). This does not mean that the contributors to the volume are overly doubtful as to whether religions may help to address the challenges of climate change, but by situating religious phenomena within political relationships, they ultimately point toward more particular avenues through which any religious and political partnerships might develop. As with any edited volume, individual readers may be more or less interested in specific chapters given their own research areas. However, this is a work that rewards the cover-to-cover reader. Individual chapters stand on their own, but it is also evident that each contribution was developed in conversation with the others. Framed by Berry’s introduction and Conca’s summary conclusion, the volume as a whole presents a robust account of the relationships between religions and climate change policies and highlights the potential for religious studies scholarship to continue making valuable contributions in the analysis, critique, and advancement of new climate policies. Scholars of religions and environmental issues should welcome the promising work presented in this volume and find valuable resources for their own work; but this is also a text that deserves a wider audience. It is relevant for others interested in advancements in religious studies theory and research, those interested in religion and politics, and those concerned with climate change and policy more broadly. In all, Climate Politics and the Power of Religion presents an important contribution to scholarship on religions and climate that should inspire new directions in research, and I look forward to engaging with future works that emerge out of the conversations that produced this volume.

Citation: Joseph D. Witt. Review of Berry, Evan, ed., Climate Politics and the Power of Religion. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. October, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58117

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