Concerns over global climate change have been mounting for roughly three decades and 2015 was framed as a watershed year in our understanding of the severity of the issue and, perhaps more importantly, in our search for strategies to reduce the impacts of human activities on earth system processes.

Two important milestones from 2015 in the global climate change journey include Pope Francis’ Encyclical on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement that emerged from the 21st United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change of the Parties. Both documents emphasized the growing global consensus that we are living in the anthropocene, a period where human activities are exerting substantial pressures on earth system processes. These documents helped reframe how we perceive climate change issues.

In his Encyclical, Pope Francis exhorted, “We are not faced with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combatting poverty, restoring dignity to the underprivileged, and at the same time protecting nature.”

The Paris Agreement draws similar conclusions and recognizes “that climate change is a common concern of humankind. Parties should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights, the right to health, ….” It is now well recognized that durable climate solutions intended to safeguard the planet and human well-being will need to embrace environmental, social, economic and ethical issues. Researchers in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences are actively engaged in exploring the “Art and Science of Global Climate Change.”
I had the opportunity to discuss global climate change with two FASS colleagues.

Prof. Mike Brklacich

Professor Elyn Humphreys Professor Noel Salmond
Elyn Humphreys is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies. She holds a PhD and MSc in Soil Science from the University of British Columbia. Her research interests are in microclimatology and carbon cycle science with an emphasis on soil-plant-atmosphere interactions. At Carleton University, she teaches courses in soil science, weather, microclimatology, and biogeochemical cycles. She is also currently an Associate Editor for Hydrological Processes and Arctic Science. Noel Salmond is Associate Professor in the College of the Humanities and the Program in Religion. He holds a doctorate from McGill University in Religious Studies specializing in Asian religions, where he has also been trained in Christian theology. For the past decade he has done research and teaching at the intersection of religion and environmental thought.

“…climate change is a common concern of humankind…”

How is the climate change challenge framed within your research field?

Humphreys: In my research field, there is a focus on the need to understand natural system feedbacks to climate change. The planet’s ecosystems naturally absorb and emit greenhouse gases including carbon
dioxide and methane, but it is uncertain how a warming climate will impact these exchanges. My colleagues and I are working to better understand if tundra and peatland ecosystems will contribute to climate change by emitting more greenhouse gases in a warmer climate or will help alleviate it, by taking up more carbon dioxide, for instance. To study this, we measure the continuous exchange of these gases between the surface and the atmosphere. Our longest running site has operated since 1998 at the nearby Mer Bleue bog in the National Capital Greenbelt. We also have sites in the Hudson Bay Lowlands and on the tundra in NWT and Nunavut. My students and I get to know the workings of these specific sites really well. But equally important are the insights we gain through collaboration in national and international research networks where our field measurements can be used in synthesis studies and in testing and validating models. In this way, we can contribute to the larger efforts to better understand global carbon budgets and refine the models that can be used to predict future climate change and its impacts.

Professor Humphreys’ Arctic research site (with birds overhead) in Northwest Territories, Canada. Photograph by Mike Treberg

Professor Humphreys’ Arctic research site (with birds overhead)
in Northwest Territories, Canada. Photograph by Mike Treberg

Salmond: I work in this area under the rubric of “Religion and Ecology” which has become a well-established (indeed burgeoning) subfield within Religious Studies. According to the American Academy of Religion, “the subfield critically and constructively explores how Human-Earth relations are shaped by religions, cultures, and understandings of nature and the environment.” So this field recognizes that climate change responses in societies are based on more than rational deliberations on scientific data; they are shaped by world views and these in turn are often shaped, often unconsciously, by implicit theologies of nature. I remember hearing leading British climate scientist Mike Hulme speak here at Carleton in November of 2014. He made the point that it was naïve of the then head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to believe that the world community would act simply on the presentation of more (and more dire) quantitative data. Instead, Hulme suggested, more compelling modalities are needed and one of these can be religion. This wasn’t in any way dismissive of the vital importance of rational deliberation on hard scientific data—it was, however, an acknowledgment that that alone is unlikely to create the necessary political will.

Research in this subfield of religion and ecology examines how the major world religions are responding to environmental degradation and in particular climate change. There has been a plethora of official statements on the problem from all the religions—the Pope’s Encyclical of last June being only one of the more recent and well-publicized. (One can easily look at responses to climate change from world religions gathered on the website of FORE, the Forum on Religion and Ecology hosted at Yale University; another valuable site is that of ARC, the Alliance of Religions and Conservation based in the UK.) This greening of religions is manifested for instance in the recent decisions by the Church of England and the United Church of Canada to divest from fossil fuels. One major aspect of the ecological turn in religions is the notion of “Eco-Justice” where it is seen as an ethical imperative to preserve the well-being of humans (in particular the most impoverished) through a commitment to preserving the ecosystems on which human populations depend. This was a major theme of Pope Francis’ Encyclical. The Pope argued for concerted action on climate change especially in the interest of the protection of the most vulnerable—a call consistent with the commitment (post Vatican II) to what Catholic social teaching refers to as the “preferential option for the poor.” The Paris Agreement echoes this in emphasizing the human rights dimension in combatting climate change.

American scholar Bron Taylor calls this new focus on ecology and environment by religious organizations “Green Religion.” But Taylor also argues there is a growing global development of what he terms “Dark Green Religion.” Taylor refers here to a variety of orientations or spiritualities, sometimes loosely inspired by Indigenous traditions, that speak of an intrinsic sacrality in nature and that argue that profound environmental restoration will only come about through re-investing our relationship to nature with a sense of the sacred. This manifests in what might be called neo-paganism, but also appears in Canada’s own David Suzuki, an avowed atheist, calling for a recovery of a sense of the sacred in nature. Arguably some of this even manifests in the Pope’s letter where he invokes Saint Francis’ predilection for relating to natural phenomena in terms of kin: brother sun and sister moon.

Professor Elyn Humphreys and her daughter at a peatland in New Zealand. Photograph by: Mike Treberg

Professor Elyn Humphreys and her daughter at a peatland in New Zealand.
Photograph by: Mike Treberg

In my own work in the classroom I teach about “green” and “dark green” religion, but I also have a particular research interest in the critique of both launched by what I might call the anti environmental movement. Here environmentalism is derided as a form of secular or implicit religion as a strategy to delegitimize it. Climate change is held to be an alarmism supported by “junk science” and motivated by a reversion to religious apocalypticism. The “environmentalism is a religion” trope is a discursive strategy directed at non-religious people by calling environmentalism bad because it’s a religion and aimed simultaneously at the religious right by saying it’s bad (i.e. pagan) religion. Organizations proffering this view (sometimes funded by industry) have made significant impact on American politics.

Linking research to action is always a challenge. What has been your experience in making your research more accessible to an informed, but non-specialized, audience?

Humphreys: The main outlets for my research are scientific conferences and journals, but there are opportunities to speak to the public at community seminar events and to include research experiences in my lectures, labs, and assignments. In addition to talking about key research findings, I like to talk about how we go about doing the research itself and offer personal observations. For example, when I started working here at Carleton, we purchased calibration cylinders of CO2 with a known concentration of ~378 ppm, near ambient concentration for the earth’s atmosphere at the time, so we could test our sensors before setting them up at our field sites. Today, almost 11 years later, the ambient concentration is over 400 ppm and I’m still honestly shocked at how quickly it has changed and how often we need to upgrade our calibration cylinders.

Salmond: I have presented at academic conferences and have also given talks on the topic to community organizations including church and seniors groups. I am often surprised how unaware people can be of the extensive involvement of faith communities (even their own faith community) in the climate arena. Taking the case of Christianity as an example, this can be partially explained by the gap between the official positions taken by a denomination and the average practitioner in the pew.

For instance, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops in October of 2003 issued a major and very radical statement on the environment, but it’s doubtful that it filtered down in any significant way to the typical parish pulpit.

Preparing students to be responsible citizens is central to FASS’ mission. How might your inclusion of climate change within your undergraduate courses assist our students in their post-Carleton careers?

Humphreys: In my undergraduate classes in Physical Geography, there are many opportunities to study climate change, the underlying scientific mechanisms and widespread impacts on the natural world. It’s very multidisciplinary even within the sciences. When trying to follow the carbon through the global carbon cycle for example, you can touch on many Earth system processes. I hope that students leave with a better understanding of how the physical world works and the tools to research and investigate what they don’t yet understand. Ultimately, I hope these skills will allow them to broadly consider the environment when making decisions in the workplace and in their daily lives.

Salmond: I think it’s crucial for students to be aware of the discourse on climate change and the environment within the major religious traditions. The Pew Research Centre estimated (2012) that eight in ten people globally identify with a religious group. Religions as extremely long-lived institutions wield a formidable array of highly evocative world narratives and rituals which influence behaviour—for good and for ill. Not only are they major global landholders and investors, but they also play a huge role globally in education. They are, among other things, what I call “communities of persuasion.”

For example, when the Pope as leader of 1.25 billion Catholics pronounces on climate this is not insignificant. This fact is recognized by environmental NGOs. It’s hard to imagine our students being responsible citizens in a globalized world without a knowledge of the religious traditions which represent the oldest cultural traditions on the planet.

What do you see as the main achievements of the Climate Change Agreement reached in Paris in December of 2015? Do we need to improve?

Salmond: Well, at least we got an agreement. I applaud the wording recognizing the rights of Indigenous peoples—a matter highly significant in this country; as I discuss. Of interest here is some of the wording in the preamble which affirms that ecosystems and oceans and biodiversity are “recognized by some cultures as Mother Earth” and noting “the importance for some of the concept of ‘climate justice’, when taking action to address climate change.”

Humphreys: Climate change politics is well outside my area of expertise, but I am impressed by the statements in the agreement that clearly emphasize the urgency of curbing emissions to limit warming to 1.5 °C. It also acknowledges that current national plans won’t keep warming below a 2°C scenario and emphasizes that more will need to be done and quickly.

If you had the opportunity to brief Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on climate change, what advice would you offer?

Humphreys: It’s a huge challenge. I would advocate for research funds that will help us directly address ways to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and for funds to support basic science. I think it is critical to improve our knowledge of where things are headed so that we can better prepare and adapt for the changes that are currently happening and will continue to happen to the ecosystems we depend on.

Salmond: Along with many others, I regard the new Prime Minister’s stance on climate change a more than welcome shift from that of the previous regime. I think one of the major challenges facing the Prime Minister is his campaign commitment to not only endorse but to implement fully UNDRIP, The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

He formally reiterated this promise on December 15 when the TRC report was released in Ottawa. Indigenous peoples in Canada are, in my experience, very religious and are religiously invested in the environmental protection of their territories. We saw this powerfully manifested in Idle No More. I predict we will see increased contestation over resource development and resource transportation (pipelines) and it remains to be seen if the Prime Minister will be able to live up to his promises when these promises may entail effectively giving a veto to a First Nation to a development project.

The UNDRIP wording is “free, prior, and informed consent” and implicit in the word consent is the possibility of a refusal. I would advise the Prime Minister to stay the course with his admirable promises.

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