Teaching The Virtues of Climate Responsibility


Henry Kuo

The United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) concluded with an agreement that would constitute the Glasgow Climate Pact. Throughout the Conference, high-profile figures such as Sir David Attenborough were enlisted to persuade delegates to respond boldly to climatological crises confronting the world. Leaders of various religions met before the actual conference and many issued important calls for delegates to heed the voices of indigenous peoples and other overlooked communities suffering from climate change’s effects. But how effective might this Pact be? In what ways can it contribute to efforts resisting the aggravation of climate destruction? And in what ways is it weak?

To be sure, expectations going into COP26 were a mixture of hope, urgency, and some doubt that anything substantive would result. Hence, that an agreement was reached at the end was itself an accomplishment. The Pact, critically, made some headway in providing a framework for countries to show how much they will cut the amount of harmful greenhouse gasses they emit, address the phasing down the use of coal, provided funding for poor countries to transition to renewable energy, and reaffirmed the Paris Agreement’s focus on limiting the rise of global temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius. On top of the Pact, China and the United States unexpectedly agreed to commit to cooperating in achieving the Paris Agreement goals. 

COP26 was not the impactful change that climate activists and leaders of vulnerable countries pushed for; until the very last minute, countries including China and India made changes to water down the Glasgow Climate Pact.

But ultimately, the result of COP26 was not the impactful change that climate activists and leaders of vulnerable countries pushed for; until the very last minute, countries including China and India made changes to water down the Glasgow Climate Pact. The original language to phase out the use of coal was, at the last minute, replaced at the insistence of China and India with the milder directive to phase down the use of coal. They joined with the United States to secure funding for nations that are more vulnerable to climate change and to assist them in transitioning to the use of renewable energy sources, even though it was less ambitious than activists had hoped. Although the Pact had been ratified, it was fragile. An administration change in the United States, for example, could easily unravel any form of global cooperation that is necessary for addressing the climatological disaster to come. In fact, the various difficulties confronting institutional proposals to reverse climate change suggest that a strategy which foregrounds grassroots movements and religious organizations may offer more promising results because they personalize the climate crisis, making it a concrete matter that demands individual responsibility.

I suggest that St. Thomas’s philosophy of law, which focuses on the ways in which law forms individual moral consciousness, can be helpful in thinking through the legislative and political difficulties behind universal climate action agreements. Our text will zero in on questions 90-95 of the Summa Theologiae’s prima secundae. Some of St. Thomas’s conclusions are unsurprising. For example, he notes that human law must be ordered towards the common good and for it to be effective, it must be promulgated in order to regulate society (q.90, a.2 and 4). But law does not simply impose order in society. It plays a critical role in socialization and virtue formation. St. Thomas was aware of different ways of acquiring virtue. Some people are easily persuaded through admonitions while others require coercion (q.95, a.1). In her excellent study of St. Thomas’s philosophy and its relevance for today, Mary Keys describes his thought in terms of negative and positive pedagogies (208-216). Law’s negative pedagogy strives to restrict evil or vice, and in doing so encourages virtue acquisition through coercion. Unfortunately, much less attention is given to law’s positive pedagogy, wherein the law instructs by way of admonition. Generally, law “teaches” members of society the kinds of actions necessary for virtue. Such teaching applies even to good people, for nobody is entirely devoid of moral ignorance. Sometimes, we need law to teach us what is good for society, even if we were not convinced of its social import. Through habituation over time, individuals perfect aspects of their character by avoiding those harms and therefore can achieve virtue (q.55, a.1).

Key to St. Thomas’s legal philosophy is the nature of law. If law were mere suggestions or simply too general to be useful, a lack of virtue development would result. People, in other words, fail to act in a way that upholds the common good. This challenge is particularly acute in a time where facts are confused with articles of faith. Consequently, in more democratic countries where policies can be advanced or reversed depending on voter sentiments, individual (ir)responsibility can corporately produce national or even international ramifications. Consider, for example, how during the Covid pandemic, the circulation of misinformation, coupled with peoples’ fundamentalistic maintenance of individual privileges even at the expense of community health, sabotaged national and international mitigation strategies. In the case of climate change, a problem whose negative consequences are not immediately or universally experienced, why would we expect voters in the most industrialized countries to allow themselves to be bound by climate laws, especially if they perceive such legislation as being a threat to their own lifestyles and freedoms?

 Furthermore, the possibility that democratically-elected leaders will dismiss the climate threat outright as ideological in nature, and therefore a manufactured threat, cannot be dismissed.

This challenge is compounded by the reality that in those same nations, leaders often have to balance the climate threat with industrial or commercial growth interests. Furthermore, the possibility that democratically-elected leaders will dismiss the climate threat outright as ideological in nature, and therefore a manufactured threat, cannot be dismissed. Such a consequential uncertainty in the prediction of climate change’s ramifications lead to two general legal approaches. As Ehud Guttel and Alon Harel show, one is to create and apply general standards, such as prohibiting excessive or unnecessary pollution or emissions; while another is to develop and promulgate specific rules governing and enforcing acceptable pollution levels (486). 

With so many different interests, perspectives, and experiences at stake, it is perhaps unsurprising that the COP26 delegates elected to create general standards. Specific rules may allow for enhanced accountability between nations but unless the wages of climate destruction were felt universally, industrialized countries would construe themselves, and not climate change, as the target of these decrees. General standards may enable consensus but also allow for wiggle room that could dull the efficacy of the agreement. Future agreements will likely face similar problems, given the volatile and extremely-polarizing nature of electoral politics in countries like the United States.

Fortunately, hope is not illusory, even though the way forward institutionally may not be clear. St. Thomas’s legal philosophy reveals two important lessons for us in strategizing a way forward for climate responsibility. First, climate agreements risk becoming merely suggestive if they don’t translate to law. An example of this is the Kyoto Protocol, which was signed by Bill Clinton’s administration but could not be ratified by the Republican-controlled Senate. The following administration officially pulled the United States out of the Protocol in 2001. Without any translation into law, citizens cannot be instructed on or habituated to the criticality of exercising responsible stewardship of the environment and Earth’s natural resources.

This makes it imperative for supranational organizations or interest groups to use language that individuals in local communities can accept to communicate the importance of climate change.

This difficulty, in turn, shines a light on the criticality of communicating the importance of climate responsibility “from below.” St. Thomas’s confidence in the people’s assent to promulgated laws is partly attributed to his historical context: the thirteenth century, a time when absolute monarchies were politically normative throughout much of medieval Europe. But in our present circumstances where democratic governments are more normative, the possibility of promulgating environmental responsibility “from above” or from supranational agreements risks enraging the electorate, especially if those agreements are construed as being unfair to their countries. This makes it imperative for supranational organizations or interest groups to use language that individuals in local communities can accept to communicate the importance of climate change.

Here is where religious organizations can play a critical role. Instead of suggesting possible strategies forward, I raise one concrete example of a time when religious organizations and individuals made a difference. Rev. Dr. Ben Lowe is currently deputy executive director of A Rocha International and an ordained Evangelical minister who has served as a board trustee or advisor of Christian environmental advocacy organizations including the Au Sable Institute for Environmental Studies. In 2009, he published his first book, Green Revolution, which connects his personal Christian faith with environmental stewardship and public ministry. Lowe makes several strategic moves in his book that reduce the gap between environmental justice and the preconceptions of his predominantly conservative Christian audience on environmental issues. For one, much of the book consists of personal stories, from Dr. Lowe’s teaching in churches and youth groups to his research work in Tanzania. In one of those research trips he recalls Dr. Mbutu, a Tanzanian hydrologist, exhorting him: “When you go back to America, do not forget us… You must tell our story to your people” (12). Lowe elegantly interweaves these narratives with both comments on the urgency of climate change and biblical teachings, making it clear to Evangelical readers that environmental justice is not just a political or scientific issue but involves real people who know him and who he ministered to. Dawn Stover notes that American Evangelicals’ perceptions on climate change are changing, with younger Evangelicals leading the shift away from climate change skepticism.

[R]eligious organizations and churches need to be taken seriously in the global task of reversing climate change and ecological destruction. Many… speak directly to individuals and have persuasive power in changing attitudes and perceptions through personal stories.

Lowe’s book shows precisely why religious organizations and churches need to be taken seriously in the global task of reversing climate change and ecological destruction. Many religious organizations and communities speak directly to individuals and have persuasive power in changing attitudes and perceptions through personal stories. It is one matter for a supranational agreement and individual leaders to emphasize the importance of limiting global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius. But that number is merely an abstraction of environmental problems. Dr. Mbutu’s exhortation, however, cannot be summarily dismissed as being theoretical. His story not only can reach into the hearts of Lowe’s Evangelical readers and churches, but can begin the process of allowing for their characters to be shaped towards recognizing environmental protection as a critical space for Christian witness. Such strategies are why organizations like Young Evangelicals for Climate Action — which Lowe still is involved with as a senior advisor — are making critical headway in persuading Christians to not only shed their suspicions of climate responsibility but to participate in it.
And yet, it’s not clear that the organizers of COP26 appreciate such grassroots strategies and are willing to provide concrete support to promote their work: consider how far more delegates representing economic institutions, including fossil-fuel emitting industries, were present relative to delegates from religious groups or institutions, almost all of which were academics and not grassroots leaders like Rev. Lowe. In order for supranational agreements such as the Glasgow Climate Pact to have teeth and to make a concrete difference in the future, strategies such as those by Lowe and other grassroots leaders are necessary for teaching the criticality of climate responsibility “from below.” ♦


Henry S. Kuo is assistant professor of theology and ethics at Greensboro College in Greensboro, North Carolina where he teaches courses and conducts research in business ethics, law and religion, theological ethics, and Christian systematic theology. He has published articles in the Journal of Religion and Business Ethics, Ecclesiology, Interreligious Studies and Intercultural Theology, Moral Philosophy and Politics, and other journals.


Recommended Citation

Kuo, Henry S. “Teaching The Virtues of Climate Responsibility.” Canopy Forum, February 8, 2022. https://canopyforum.org/2022/02/08/teaching-the-virtues-of-climate-responsibility/.