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Different Ways of Knowing: Faith and climate change, morality and conservation

Marit Wilkerson
Nov 23, 2015

The COP is here. Yet another Conference of Parties to agonize over climate change impacts, who’s responsible, and who’s going to foot the bill. Given past history, I doubt much will change substantially at the COP itself when it comes to formalities and actual decisions (although there has been promising noise with US-China joint statements and the like). Perhaps something more substantial, though, will have altered in the color and tone of the conversation in the halls. At least, something needs to shift.

Enter Pope Francis and the Laudato Si, his encyclical on climate change and inequality though its pithy title belies the multi-faceted story the Pope weaves. After months of anticipation, the religious, political, and scientific spheres took notice when Laudato Si emerged in late summer 2015. Already the Pope’s encyclical is having an impact in some Catholic communities, either in nature of opinions or amount of support. Just a few weeks after its publication, the International Islamic Climate Change Symposium put out a statement on climate change grounded in the Islamic faith. The encyclical also sparked some fervor in more unlikely places, the hearts of ecologists and conservation scientists. And it’s about time that spark gets lit.

This needed spark signals the connection between environmentalism/conservation and morality. Whether or not you quibble about the quantitative strength of the causal linkages detailed in the encyclical, the piece’s real strength is that it places the origins, impacts, and implications of climate change and environmental pollution squarely in the moral realm. And that, my dear scientists and science-lovers, is something we sorely need to consider and figure out how to incorporate. A major first step is by increasing the opportunities for dialogue that integrates social concerns.   

Those in conservation and environmental science and practice need to connect more solidly with faith-based communities for two major reasons: (1) most people across the globe identify with a religion or religious philosophy; and, (2) conservation and environmentalism are morally-grounded. Nature conservation and environmental science demand a broader wissenschaft that encompasses morality when it comes to wicked problems like global climate change and hoped-for solutions like sustainability that are just as messy as the problems they seek to address. I’m a conservation scientist by training and vocation and currently serve as a climate change advisor in international development.  You can definitely liken (though not equate) conservation to a “religion” as nature conservation functions as a guiding principle in my life, influencing many, many of my day-to-day decisions as well as bigger ones. Science and research enters into the picture when it comes to the nature of those decisions (e.g., given my desire to minimize environmental harm, which shampoo should I buy because it contains the least amount of ecologically damaging chemicals and packaging?). In my experience, the same is true for conservation management and planning writ large whether or not it’s acknowledged.

I am absolutely not the first to link conservation with ethics and morality, though the term “values” is used more often in recent writing. And yet, I still see conservation scientists shying away from open or explicit connection with faith-based communities. Because of this skittishness, we are losing an opportunity to better ground the articulation of our own moral compasses (religious or otherwise) as solution-seeking conservation scientists. We are also failing to connect directly with people who have diverse viewpoints in ways that will resonate from childhood through adulthood and into the next generation. This is something which economic or political “values” cannot achieve.

COP21 promises to engage with the morality of climate change with a roundtable on “The Role of Ethics and Faith in Climate Solutions.” But perhaps during this COP go-around, the conversation will go beyond the right-and-wrong ethics of “common but differentiated responsibilities” and dive deeper into moral waters (as has been hoped for previously). Broader storytelling, of the sort that Pope Francis wove with his encyclical, needs to flow in the hallway conversations of COP21. We conservation and environmental scientists can advocate for that type of dialogue in our own work, reaching out explicitly to faith-based leaders and communities so that we can more adeptly “negotiat[e] with different ways of knowing.” And as the stories spin out, we will bring in the science for which we’ve been trained.

Image courtesy of Andrew Ruiz /


Marit Wilkerson

As a AAAS S&T Policy Fellow, Dr. Marit Wilkerson currently serves as a Climate Change Advisor for USAID's Bureau for Africa. Her portfolio centers on climate-smart agriculture and through that she works to ensure climate change is integrated into agricultural policy & programming, helping strengthen the resiliency and sustainability of crucial development work. She is by training and vocation a conservation scientist, seeking scientifically-grounded ways to connect people with nature. Follow her on Twitter at @MaritWilk and connect with her directly at


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Comments (2)

Kendra Zamzow (not verified)
December 14, 2015 at 1:46 am
I whole-heartedly agree. One doesn't have to be deeply, or even moderately, religious to find common ground with those who are. Whether scientist or clergy, no matter what our race, origin, or geographic location, we weigh moral decisions all the time. Sometimes they are life changing moments. I am not a deeply religious person. I consider myself Taoist, but I occasionally attend a Christian church when it's convenient, nearby. I am not Catholic. That said, when Laudato Si was released, I tweeted several sections of it, and posted phrase after phrase on Facebook. This is not something I have done with the text of any scientific article. Laudato Si held a fire and truth that connected with people, from someone that millions consider a trusted messenger -- and that is a powerful thing. We should not turn our backs on those that pray, but rather look forward to sharing our common concerns and knowledge. We don't have to agree on every hot button political issue to work towards solutions to this global problem, which touches us all.
Kevin Ashley (not verified)
January 07, 2016 at 7:19 pm
I, too, agree. But to me it is a recognition that we as scientists also rely on faith - faith in our systems of reproducibility and peer review to allow us to believe results of work that we, ourselves, did not produce. When viewed from this perspective it is easier to see the position of persons who rely on faith in other systems for defining truth. In fact, after one accepts the validity of these other systems one finds that those who practice them often use similar criteria and judgement for deciding what to believe as we scientists do. In this commonality it is then easier to explain one's beliefs and oddly enough we often find that we come to the same conclusions.

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