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Connecting Ethics to Global Climate Change

Evan Berry in Rio

AU professor Evan Berry at the June 2012 Rio+20 conference (Photo courtesy of Evan Berry)

Evan Berry is working to help scholars connect on international ethics issues related to global climate change.

As a Carnegie Council Global Ethics Fellow the College’s Berry is part of the council’s Global Ethics Network, whose member institutions include, along with AU, Johns Hopkins, Rutgers, Duke, and Waseda universities.

Berry, whose research centers on the intersection of religion and nature in Western culture, is an assistant professor in AU’s Department of Philosophy and Religion. He’s also co-director of the Ethics, Peace, and Global Affairs master’s program, a collaboration between the College and AU’s School of International Service.

While other fellows will tackle issues such as economic development and corruption, as part of a working group of fellows Berry will focus on global climate change. It’s an issue he’s familiar with, having recently researched religious nongovernmental organizations at the United Nations’ June 2012 Rio+20 conference on sustainable development.

In November, the Carnegie fellows met in New York City, where Berry discussed his research at Rio.

At Rio+20, Berry interviewed members of religious NGOs to discover their understanding of the role of religion in addressing sustainability issues. He hoped to discover whether a religious-secular divide existed.

“I sort of see two pairs of responses to those questions,” Berry said. “One pair says that religious and secular groups do different kinds of work. Essentially secular groups do bureaucratic work and actually administer aid. They get concrete solutions into place. You need a well dug, that’s what secular organizations do. You need someone to write a charter getting various kinds of constituencies aligned around core ethical convictions; that’s the kind of work that religious organizations can do . . . So one group is doing ethical work and one group is doing applied, on-the-ground work.”

Yet just a few miles away, at a more informal global gathering called the People’s Summit, religious NGOs working on the same issues as their secular counterparts—justice, poverty, climate change—thought that while they might bring different motivations to their jobs, they were engaged in the same kind of work.

“So they’re more interested in pragmatics as opposed to abstract concepts,” Berry said.

Berry’s travels and research have led him to see that in America, more so than in any other country, religious conservatives are almost uniformly skeptical of the idea of global climate change. What is presented as a two-sided issue in the United States is not seen that way in most other places in the world.

Despite this socio-religious divide on the issue of climate change, even in a country that separates church and state, religion affects how we think about the environment, Berry said.

“The Western theological tradition shapes the way we think culturally, not just the way theologians do what they do,” Berry said. “But then it also shapes the nature of the environmental problem. If you actually sit down and read journalists’ treatment of any environmental issue there’ll be a Genesis story to it, that there was once a pristine garden and then along came human beings and we didn’t originally understand and execute what was expected of us, and that we messed it up. We find ourselves at a moment trying to figure out how to take it back to that moment of pure origins. The narrative gets recycled in some really interesting ways that aren’t always productive. Because I don’t think we’re going to get to go back to the garden.”

In any case, Berry maintained, the issue isn’t whether global climate change is a fact; it’s what we do about its effects. The genie, as researchers are fond of saying, is out of the bottle.

“It’s not about changing fossil fuels at this point; the more important priority now is to figure out how to adapt,” Berry said. “It’s time to start figuring out how to improve the infrastructure of cities like New York and D.C. and Baltimore so that they can grapple with the effects of climate change, because it’s here and hopefully as that goes [forward] we’ll get better at doing things like building higher-efficiency vehicles and coming up with less fossil fuel input-intensive agricultural methods, cutting back on international shipping. There’s all sorts of things we will do to accommodate improving the climate situation. In the meantime, we have to improve our sewers and sea walls and really address basic infrastructure questions.”