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Why people of faith should pay attention to the climate change conference in Paris
Linking religious beliefs with environmental activism has long been the mission of scholar Mary Evelyn Tucker, a senior lecturer at Yale University who has been studying the relationship between religion and ecology for more than 20 years. - photo by Kelsey Dallas
More than 150 world leaders gathered in Paris on Monday for the start of an international conference on climate change. Policymakers are expected to reach an agreement within the next few weeks on how to address environmental degradation by reducing greenhouse gas emission and supporting sustainable energy initiatives.

Although political concerns and scientific research drive debates on the environment, faith leaders are increasingly speaking out on the issues discussed this week in Paris.

Pope Francis released an encyclical on the environment in June, presenting climate change as a moral crisis and asking Catholics to take better care of creation. Evangelical Christian pastors have led their congregations in gardening and energy-efficiency projects through partnerships with organizations like the Evangelical Environmental Network.

Linking religious beliefs with environmental activism has long been the mission of scholar Mary Evelyn Tucker, a senior lecturer at Yale University who has been studying the relationship between religion and ecology for more than 20 years. A leading voice on the way spirituality can inform faith-based environmental activism, she co-directs the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology with her husband, John Grim.

Tucker first became interested in faith-based environmental activism when she was living in Japan in the 1970s and studying religious traditions like Buddhism, Shinto and Confucianism. These Asian religions often provide practitioners with both a spiritual path and a social philosophy, and Tucker's research helped her recognize the power of religion to encourage people to live in harmony with nature.

When she returned to the U.S., Tucker began working with Thomas Berry, a Catholic priest and environmental activist. "He was one of the very first people to see the environmental crisis as a spiritual crisis," she said.

Guided by Berry's mentorship, Tucker and her husband pioneered the academic study of religion and ecology, presenting lectures, editing collections of articles on the subject and producing the Emmy award-winning documentary, "Journey of the Universe," on humanity's place in the cosmos.

In October, when she was in Salt Lake City to attend the Parliament of the World's Religions, Tucker shared her thoughts with us on the relationship between religion and the environment and how faith leaders can encourage church members to be involved in efforts to end climate change. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Your work at the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology began 20 years ago. How has faith-based environmental engagement changed since then?

When we began hosting conferences on this topic in the mid-nineties, there was no field of religion and ecology. We had to call up every person and ask them to contribute their knowledge.

In 20 years time, this effort has really grown. It's now a field in academia and a force in larger society.

We have classes on religion and ecology at Yale and other universities, as well as at high schools. And as the Climate March in New York City last year illustrated, faith leaders are emerging as powerful voices on this topic.

Speaking of religious leaders, Pope Francis released an encyclical on the environment this summer. What effect could his leadership have on faith-based engagement with environmental issues?

Pope Francis is an amazing leader, as we can all see. He's got authenticity, sincerity and a genuine concern for the poor and outcast. He's a great messenger.

What he's doing that's so helpful is weaving together our concerns for the degradation of ecosystems, species and water, pollution issues and climate change. He's saying these shifts affect people in immense ways.

The poor are the ones most affected. Ecology and justice topics we've been working on for a long time are highlighted in this encyclical. He calls this work "integral ecology," a term that was also used by my mentor, Thomas Berry.

This fall's Parliament of the World's Religions in Salt Lake City cited caring for creation as one of its core themes. Why was it important to you to participate in the event?

My husband and I have come to all the parliaments, besides, of course, the first one in 1893 in Chicago.

At each one, we were trying to focus the religions of the world on their great texts and teachings on the environment. It's taken quite a while.

In Melbourne in 2009, there were maybe 20 panels on religion and ecology. That number has doubled and tripled since then. I'm thrilled with the growth in interest and engagement around environmental justice.

It's hard to point to a verse in the Bible and determine what Christianity teaches about climate change. How are religion and ecology linked?

At the Forum on Religion and Ecology, we're trying to overcome that gap of knowledge. We suggest that religions need to retrieve, re-evaluate and reconstruct traditions in order to address modern issues.

We need theologians and academics to help do that, answering questions like how the verse in Genesis about dominion over the environment should be interpreted or what it means to care for creation.

Religions have obvious teachings (on the environment) that we need to bring forward, as well as liturgical systems that weave humans into the great cycles of the cosmos and nature. For example, Christmas is celebrated at the winter solstice.

Are you optimistic about faith-based conversations on the environment continuing to grow?

Yes, definitely. I think that once religious traditions really understand the moral force that is there for change (in terms of how we approach the environment), there could be a rippling effect across the whole country.

The environment is not just an issue for science or policy or economics or law or technology. All of these approaches are necessary, but not sufficient.

With the moral force, and I think sincere activism of faith leaders and laity around the world, there's a tidal wave of change that's beginning and growing across the planet.

We're at a moment of great transition, and it's a very exciting moment for all of us.
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