The ethics and theology of climate change


Professor Northcott’s research on ethics, ecology and religion calls for a new understanding of the role of faith communities in responding to climate change.

What was the problem? 

Climate change is one of the greatest threats to the planet. But why is there such apprehension about the idea of climate and human behaviour as interacting?

The scientific revolution, and the 18th century Enlightenment, created a divide between the sciences and the humanities. Natural history was split from human history, and climate was separated from culture. Now, the scientific claim that human behaviours and values can influence the climate sounds far-fetched to modern ears. But in faith communities shaped by ancient texts, these claims are more readily accepted.

In his book, A Moral Climate, Northcott argues that climates and weather in the past were represented as responding to people’s moral and cultural actions, as well as in ‘natural’ cycles and states. This has long influenced how faith communities view their own responsibilities in lessening the impact of human behaviour on the earth’s climate.

What did we do? 

Northcott considered how ancient religious texts understood the concept of justice: justice is considered not only a human virtue but also a divinely given quality. This quality is found in all relations between creatures on earth.

‘Climate justice’ has a particular significance to Christian ethics and rituals. It lacks relevance to cultures that see ethics and morality as purely human inventions, and not as part of the structure of the universe.  

Northcott argues that the traditional rituals of faith communities can shape more sustainable approaches to environmental problems. Pilgrimage (mobility), sanctuary (dwelling) and eucharist (eating and drinking) all have a part to play in developing better ways to deal with the main sources of greenhouse gases. Northcott has explored this potential further in his later book A Political Theory of Climate Change.

His account of climate justice argues against modern divides between nature and culture, science and ethics. It emphasises  the moral side to climate change: those who suffer most from extreme weather have the least responsibility for its causation. Those who benefit from the wealth generated by fossil fuels suffer the least. Climate justice therefore underlines Christ’s argument that ‘from everyone to whom much has been given,much will be demanded’ (Luke 12.48).

A Moral Climate’ has helped provide a theological and spiritual framework for public action on climate change
Gordon Preece, Director, Ethos: Evangelical Alliance Centre for Christianity and Society, Melbourne.
What happened next? 

The reach of this research was worldwide. Northcott presented to religious and community groups in the UK, the US, Australia and Southeast Asia. Radio interviews for ABC introduced his ideas to an even wider audience.

Popularity of the book

There were many positive reviews for A Moral Climate , such as from prominent biologist Sir Ghillean Prance for The Church Times and theologian Sam Wells for Christianity Today.

The book became widely used in many ecclesiastical settings. A Benedictine Monastery in the South of England used it for readings at meals. British churches in the ‘Eco-Congregations’ movement adopted the book for home group study. It was also used as a classroom text in the study of ecology and religion across the UK and North America.

Mobilising Faith Communities

Northcott’s ideas helped shape beliefs and behaviours about the moral side of climate change. It also mobilised faith communities worldwide as sponsors of low carbon living, renewable energy, eating local food and other sustainable practices.

The book helped provide a spiritual frame for public action on climate change

Northcott’s work was also the catalyst for 12 workshops on ecological issues in Australia and the Wanaka Summer School on “Living Hopefully” in New Zealand. In London, readers of A Moral Climate established an ecumenical faith group which promotes practical responses to environmental problems.

About the researcher(s)

Research unit

Subject area:
  • Theology and Ethics

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