Anglican Leader Brings Climate to the Pulpit One Anglican cleric thinks churches can do more to help the Earth, and he's trying to convince ministries around the world to start preaching a change in the way people live.
NPR logo

Anglican Leader Brings Climate to the Pulpit

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Anglican Leader Brings Climate to the Pulpit

Anglican Leader Brings Climate to the Pulpit

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

BLOCK: This week we conclude our yearlong series, Climate Connections. In more than 200 stories, NPR and National Geographic have examined the past, present and future of global warming. We've asked how people are affected, what kinds of solutions are out there, even how climate can shape our own evolution. One thing climate experts often say is that to slow climate change we need to change the way we live. But selling that message to the public hasn't been easy.

NPR's Christopher Joyce has this profile of a man who argues that religion, not science or politics, is the perfect climate change messenger.

(Soundbite of metal clanking)

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: Martin Palmer leads the way into a churchyard in a tiny village called (unintelligible) in West England.

Mr. MARTIN PALMER (Founder, Alliance of Religions and Conservation): And this is where we come to the yew tree.

JOYCE: He's brought me here to see this ancient view. It stands in the shadow of an old stone church. Like the church, he says, the yew represents staying power.

Mr. PALMER: This extraordinary tree we're looking at in front of us here is somewhere between 3,500 and 3,800 years old.

JOYCE: So old that its branches have folded over and rooted themselves into the ground to form a sort of nave around the original trunk. Palmer steps inside.

Mr. PALMER: This is an amazing stand embraced inside a tree. I just think it's astonishing.

JOYCE: Astonishing also because this tree survived several ecological disasters, such as the little Ice Age between the 14th and 19th centuries.

Mr. PALMER: Appalling weather. It was freezing cold, incredibly wet, the crops rotted in the fields, and then of course you had the added joy of the Black Death.

JOYCE: Palmer is tall, ruddy, wears muddy boots and laughs easily. He's the founder of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, a small group working out of Bath, England. Their credo is that religions, from Buddhism to Zoroastrianism, are like the yew tree in for the long haul. They can tackle long-lasting problems like climate change. They also know how to talk to people and not with scientific data.

Mr. PALMER: There are tens of thousands of scientists who do that perfectly well. What we want to bring is the passion, the commitment, and the interpretation of meaning that religion brings to that data.

JOYCE: Palmer says faiths can be very different on the subject of nature. Some see humans as stewards of the earth; others believe the opposite, that nature protects humans.

Mr. PALMER: Most of those call for us to take our share of responsibility.

JOYCE: So Palmer and his colleagues at the Alliance travel the globe. They cajole religious leaders to learn about climate change and take the message to their followers. Those leaders bring more to the table than faith though. Palmer says they control as much as 7 percent of the world's forests, forests that help curb global warming.

Mr. PALMER: We have in Cambodia Buddhist monks ordaining trees as monks.

JOYCE: That's conserving protection.

Mr. PALMER: Exactly.

JOYCE: When you're talking about a change in the environment that's global, how much difference are a few trees is in the religious sanctuary going to make?

Mr. PALMER: Well, when we talk about a few trees, the Shinto own 2.4 million hectares of forests in Japan, so it's not inconsiderable. But I think let's also look at the faiths as major investors. Well, the religions of the world are the third major identifiable investing group in the world.

JOYCE: The Alliance advises church leaders on how to invest in green projects and to log their forests in a more environmentally friendly way. They've helped Sikhs in India find alternatives to fossil fuel for their network of kitchens for the poor. They look for messages about nature in each faith.

Palmer found his own faith as a child. He grew up in a working-class public housing project. When he was about 10 years old he had a fight with his parents and he ran off. He ended up at Wells Cathedral, one of England's finest.

Mr. PALMER: Because I needed to be in a place of beauty. And as I walked in evensong, this sublime music that just stopped me in my tracks.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. PALMER: And there's a wonderful phrase that the orthodox used. They say we knew not whether we stood on Earth or in heaven.

JOYCE: Today, Palmer brings his view of earth and heaven into the pulpit of his own church.

Mr. PALMER: We're just walking up this very ancient lane to our church and there's probably been a church on this site for something like 1600 years.

JOYCE: It's 200 yards from his house.

Mr. PALMER: Good morning. Good morning.

JOYCE: Inside he has about a dozen parishioners bundled up in winter coats.

Mr. PALMER: Because as you all know we are a carbon neutral church, and that is we have absolutely no heating whatsoever. We rely on thermal underwear and body heat. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

JOYCE: Palmer says priests and rabbis and imams know how to explain complicated, abstract ideas in parable and metaphor. Today he tells a creation story from the ancient Jewish text, the Talmud.

Mr. PALMER: The Talmud says that the angels went to God and said, you just created this wonderful world and now you've created these human beings who will only go and mess it up. Are you stark staring mad? And God says I know what I'm doing. I know what I'm doing. But then the Earth spoke, and the Earth was afraid. And the Earth said, These creatures, they will only rebel against me and harm me. And God answers, I promise you that they will never be allowed to destroy you.

JOYCE: And Palmer sees it as his job to help God keep that promise.

(Soundbite of zipper)

Mr. PALMER: Let's be off.

JOYCE: After church, he laces up his muddy boots and walks an old Roman path. Romans grew grapes here. The climate was warmer then. Experts say it will be again. But Palmer says experts don't necessarily know how to get people to do anything about it.

Mr. PALMER: The predominant model that the environmental movement, which is quintessentially - its origins are entirely in the West - is sin and guilt, topped by a good dollop of end-of-the-world language.

JOYCE: Instead, he says, people need to celebrate nature as well and their place in it. That's a message that resonates with the United Nations, which is collaborating with the Alliance. U.N. officials say they need people who can speak about climate change straight from and to the heart.

Martin Palmer says that's a job he can do - with help from monks, priests, ministers and clerics of all faiths.

Mr. PALMER: My understanding of my God - and I work with many, many different religious traditions - is that my God is not there to solve the problems. My God is there to say you are co-creators with me, now work out what that means. It is not about if we pray hard enough to God he will end climate change. Yes, we should pray to God. We should also get off our backsides, get out there and do something about it.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

JOYCE: Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.