Narratives, Binaries, and Framing in the Cultural Contest Over Climate Change

By Scott B. Remer
2017, Vol. 9 No. 12 | pg. 1/1

Climate change is already altering our biosphere and is projected to bring about monumental changes to our planet’s environment, changes which are unprecedented in human history. Numerous social groups have drawn upon a wide assortment of cultural constructs in framing this epochal issue to their audiences, with varying degrees of success. In this paper, I will analyze how social discourse around climate change varies across different social strata by examining the following social segments and texts:

  • Mainstream environmentalists (handouts and webpages from, Greenpeace, and the National Resources Defense Council)
  • The scientific establishment (the 2014 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Synthesis Report and the 2014 National Climate Assessment overview)
  • Religious leaders (Pope Francis' Laudato Si encyclical)
  • Anti-capitalist environmentalists (the People's Agreement of Cochabamba from the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth)

This paper investigates how the texts above use binaries, emotion-activating rhetoric, symbols, and imagery in constructing narratives about climate change, humanity, nature, and society's economic and political modes of organization, and their relationships to one another.

The above texts have been selected because they are iconic and authoritative. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is authorized by the United Nations and is the world’s foremost source of expertise on climate change.1 The United States’ 2014 National Climate Assessment was produced by over 300 scientific experts and subject to an open review process and National Academy of Sciences oversight.2 Laudato Si received extensive media coverage and has been lauded by numerous environmental groups.3, Greenpeace, and the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) are all major American and/or international environmental groups. Lastly, the People’s Agreement of Cochabamba was produced at a conference which boasted 241 partner organizations from around the world4 and around 30,000 people, including scientists, government officials, and NGO representatives.5

There are many commonalities across the texts in question. Nearly all of them rely on the sacred/profane binary and notions of pollution and imbalance (and their opposites, purity and balance). Narratives of threat, crisis, risk, harmony, opportunity, and choice also figure prominently, as does an implicit narrative arc of salvation and redemption. We can rank the texts by their usage of lively imagery and deep-rooted binaries, with the texts most devoid of imagery and binaries coming first. Texts from the scientific establishment used the least vivid imagery and the fewest explicit binaries, followed by the mainstream environmentalist texts, the anti-capitalist environmentalist texts, and lastly the text from the religious community. This pattern likely has much to do with the texts’ intended audience and the variation in discursive style within the social strata being examined, but it is highly suggestive and inspires certain observations about each textual appeal’s relative (literary and aesthetic) effectiveness and attendant implications for future climate change communication strategies.

An Analysis of Mainstream Environmentalist Texts’s materials on global warming are laden with binaries. Many of the binaries are implicit, although one paragraph deploys a purity-pollution binary, explicitly contrasting “burning dirty coal” and “develop[ing] cleanly” with “cheap, renewable energy.” The action steps called for – developing renewable energy, protecting forests, promoting clean transportation, and improving efficiency – are all embedded in the sacred side of binary structures, with their profane antipodes being pollution (non-renewable energy and transportation), destruction or harm (destroying forests), and wastefulness or profligacy. The world that envisions is framed largely in terms of a local/independent – foreign/dependent binary: it would have communities that “are healthier, more locally self-sufficient, and honor traditional and indigenous wisdom.” Said communities would “get away from relying so heavily on sources of fuel and food that comes [sic] from far away, and instead grow more of our own food locally, ride bikes and public transit, depend on local energy systems like wind and solar, and create economies that are not as dependent upon limitless growth” [emphasis mine]. Such solutions are presented as being “friendlier to our climate” and “healthier for our children’s lungs and our collective wellbeing,” thereby tapping into viscerally powerful healthy/diseased and friendly/hostile binaries.6

A threat paradigm is also at play in’s explanation of climate science, where the text reads that “Scientists warn they [seas] could go up several meters this century, threatening billions of people in coastal cities around the world” and that “Warmer and more acidic oceans are hurting sea life and killing a vast amount of coral reefs” [emphasis mine].7

The materials engage directly in the process of interpretive meaning-making in an effort to shape the way readers regard global warming and intervene in social reality. In an attempt to combat despair and hopelessness and spur action, one handout says, “Getting to 350 might sound tough, but think of all the positive changes we can make along the way” and poses the challenge of reducing carbon emissions to 350 ppm as “a unique opportunity to remake our communities.” Elsewhere in the handout, global warming is framed as a quest: “But if we rise to this challenge, a path to 350ppm offers a huge opportunity to rethink our planet’s energy systems.”

The texts are largely shorn of symbols. Most imagery is conveyed subtly, via metaphor. One text calls for “an equitable global deal that will put the planet back on track,” conjuring up an image of disequilibrium or imbalance, a train that has become derailed.8 Another analogizes 350 ppm to a “safety limit” and raises the specter of “dangerous ‘tipping points,’” saying that “[a]t 400 ppm and rising we’re far beyond anything human civilization has ever seen before.” According to these turns of phrase, humanity is driving at a dangerous speed, and the car is going out of control.9

Greenpeace’s website uses similar tropes and purity-pollution binaries. It identifies enemies, personifying fossil fuels by terming them “one of the main culprits polluting our air, water and soil.” Coal is portrayed as profane, deeply dirty, spawning “millions of tons of toxic sludge every year” and linked to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.10 Coal industrialists are polluted by virtue of their association with fossil fuels and their antisocial secrecy in promoting a climate denialist agenda: “Our report, Koch Industries: Secretly Funding the Climate Denial Machine, exposes the Kochs’ web of dirty money and influence”11 [emphasis mine]. Greenpeace’s vision for the future is the antithesis of fossil fuel profanation, confirming the presence of a sacred (pure)/profane (impure) binary: it is “built on clean, renewable energy” [emphasis mine].

Greenpeace also uses martial rhetoric and a narrative of battle to describe global warming. It presents global warming as a clear danger: “As global temperatures increase, sea level rise and extreme weather become even bigger threats to communities at home and around the world. Already in the U.S. we’ve seen major hurricanes, floods, drought, and wildfires all linked to climate change, and that’s just in the past few years” [emphasis mine]. It frames its goal of a “100 percent renewable energy future” as conservative, our “best chance to preserve the planet.” Simultaneously, it straddles the boundary between conservatism and radicalism when it calls for “a renewable energy [r]evolution” to “win the fight against climate change.” The usage of the term “revolution” – especially given the uneasy ambivalence of its dual reading as “evolution” and “revolution” with the bracketed r – clashes slightly with the theme of preservation, but the two are integrated by the narrative of a war of preservation, a reactive battle against a threat that galvanizes a reluctant nation (and species) to defend itself.12 The Greenpeace texts use slightly more imagery (e.g., “our air, water, and soil,” “millions of tons of toxic sludge”) than’s, but they are still largely bereft of potent, immediately visualizable images.

Like Greenpeace, the National Resources Defense Council presents a narrative of crisis and threat. It calls climate change variously the “single biggest environmental and humanitarian crisis of our time”13 and “the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time”14 and says that the fact that Earth's atmosphere is “overloaded” with CO2 “threatens large-scale disruptions in climate with disastrous consequences.”15 It uses images that implicitly activate the reader’s senses and pairs the negative consequences Greenpeace alluded to with intensifying adjectives, warning of “rising seas, raging storms, searing heat, ferocious fires, severe drought, and punishing floods,” all of which provide strong evidence that global warming “threatens our health, communities, economy, and national security”16 [emphasis mine].

To further substantiate the threat narrative, the texts mention “significant increases in the risk of illness and death related to extreme heat and heat waves,” an increase in “some diseases transmitted by food, water, and insects,” and “a range of climate-related health effects” that render the young, the old, and the poor “most vulnerable.” They advert to the ways global warming “impact[s] our water resources, energy supply, transportation, agriculture, and ecosystems” and caution that such impacts “will result in significant costs to our families and the economy.”17

These descriptions of global warming’s threats are couched in language that is vague and highly abstract. Although the threats being described are worrisome, they’re limned in nondescript language, with no particular emotional valence. The term “vulnerable” reinforces the threat narrative, while the term “cost” evokes an economistic framework and the term “extreme” implies an imbalance in need of correction. The solution to these impacts – “act[ing] now to spur the adoption of cleaner energy sources at home and abroad”18 – draws on the sacred/profane binary with the word “cleaner,” but it does not break substantially with the pattern of using emotionally flat language devoid of rhetorical flourishes and explicit, specific imagery.

Texts From the Scientific Establishment

The IPCC 2014 synthesis report for policymakers tells a carefully modulated story of “risk” and “negative impacts,” drawing upon a positive/negative variant of the basic good/bad binary. It declares that global warming “will amplify existing risks and create new risks for human and natural systems” and has the potential to effectuate “irreversible detrimental impacts.” Although the exact levels necessary to “trigger abrupt and irreversible change” are still “uncertain,” the “risk associated with crossing such thresholds” is tied to increasing temperatures. Moreover, it is clear that more greenhouse gas emissions will warm the globe and “increas[e] the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.” These impacts are multifarious: the report notes that “negative impacts of climate change on crop yields have been more common than positive impacts” and warns of “major impacts on water availability and supply, food security, infrastructure and agricultural incomes.” In addition to its discourse on risk, the IPCC deploys the threat narrative briefly, directly labeling climate change “a threat to sustainable development.”

The IPCC solution to “limit climate change risks” largely soft-pedals the need for swift and decisive action: it would entail “substantial and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions,” but these would go alongside “mitigation, adaptation, and the pursuit of other societal objectives.” Moreover, such a course of action depends on such anodyne resources as “relevant tools, suitable governance structures, and enhanced capacity to respond.”19

The IPCC uses essentially the same communicative style as the NRDC does, at least when the NRDC is enumerating global warming’s specific threats and its proposed solutions: a calm and measured register, with little imagery apart from arid, highly abstract phrases; elevated diction; and limited usage of emotionally resonant binaries. This is perhaps a reflection of the NRDC and IPCC’s staff composition and intended audience. The NRDC’s staff, according to its website, is comprised of “500 lawyers, scientists and other professionals” who collaborate with an audience of “businesses, elected leaders, and community groups” to advocate for the environment. And as is suggested by the lawyers it has on staff, the NRDC engages in a fair amount of litigation.20 The IPCC is composed of scientific professionals, and the synthesis report was intended largely for a political elite. The discursive norms of the scientific and policymaking communities render such a dispassionate, precisely calibrated mode of communication practically requisite.

The 2014 National Climate Assessment uses slightly more vivid imagery than the IPCC, and its diction stresses the severity of global warming’s consequences to a larger extent. It warns of the “far-reaching ways” global warming is “already affecting” the US, with “extreme weather events” like “prolonged periods of heat, heavy downpours, and, in some regions, floods and droughts.” It further elaborates that “increasingly frequent and intense heat events lead to more heat-related illnesses and deaths and, over time, worsen drought and wildfire risks, and intensify air pollution” and raises “injuries and increases in waterborne disease” as the corollaries of “extreme precipitation and associated flooding.” It activates images of rising seas and melting glaciers and sea ice and mentions ocean acidification. It uses a rhetoric of disruption and severity to underscore the invasiveness of climate change’s effects, saying that its current effects are “disrupting people’s lives and damaging some sectors of our economy” and that “[i]mpacts related to climate change are already evident in many regions and sectors and are expected to become increasingly disruptive across the nation throughout this century and beyond.” High emissions would mean “more severe impacts”; lower emissions would result in “less-severe impacts.”

Like and Greenpeace, and to a lesser extent like the NRDC, the National Climate Assessment uses a rhetoric of choice intended to emphasize America’s collective agency in acting to address climate change. As the report states, “As the impacts of climate change are becoming more prevalent, Americans face choices…The amount of future climate change…will still largely be determined by choices society makes about emissions.” The report goes on to clarify that the term ‘mitigation’ indicates a “category of response options” available to Americans, and it concludes by emphasizing the degree to which the future of the planet depends on individual and societal decisions: “The cumulative weight of the scientific evidence contained in this report confirms that climate change is affecting the American people now, and that choices we make will affect our future and that of future generations.”21

Religious Text on Climate Change

While Laudato Si is similarly concerned with human choices and altering our behavior as a species, it approaches its theme from a very different angle. Very much unlike the IPCC and National Climate Assessment, it is rich with imagery, similes, and metaphors, many of which are used to great effect to personify the Earth, and it also uses potent religious tropes and binaries. The text’s overarching concepts are family and home, and these are used to extend the boundaries of the reader’s in-group to include all other humans, animals, and the Earth itself. In the first paragraph, Pope Francis quotes a canticle of St. Francis – “‘Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth’” and equates Earth, “our common home,” to “a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us.” He says that we must “bring the whole human family together” to achieve positive change and describes St. Francis’ manner of treating nature approvingly, using familial language to bring the animals into the human family: “He communed with all creation, even preaching to the flowers…to him each and every creature was a sister united to him by bonds of affection.”

Closely related to this familial ethic is an ethic of protection and care, which is counterposed to an ethic of abuse. Francis calls on us to “protect our common home” and applauds “those striving in countless ways to guarantee the protection of the home which we share.” Yet he also decries “the harm we have inflicted on her [sister Earth] by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her” and bemoans humans’ cavalier irresponsibility, writing, “Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last two hundred years.” Earth is personified with great pathos, presented as a hapless victim assailed by ruthless people who regard themselves “as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her” without restraint. As Francis writes, “These situations have caused sister earth, along with all the abandoned of our world, to cry out, pleading that we take another course.” He sharpens the contrast between an ethic of respect and care and one of exploitation when he writes, “[I]f we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously.”

Although much of Francis’ writing is saturated with this care/exploitation binary, the theological concept of sin and its attendant binaries of purity/impurity, health/disease, and wholeness/brokenness also play a pivotal role in lending the encyclical its gravitas. As he writes, “The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she ‘groans in travail’ (Rom8:22).” Francis’ description of the Earth as polluted, poisoned, and despoiled, languishing under a heavy burden, implicitly draws upon the idea of excess (and thus of its opposite, balance), and he makes this explicit elsewhere: “This responsibility for God’s earth means that human beings…must respect the laws of nature and the delicate equilibria existing between the creatures of this world.”

Although Francis’ writing is replete with the same basic binaries as many of the other texts I’ve examined, he is enabled by the religious notion of totality in God to use the binaries he employs to gesture towards their ultimately illusory nature. He begins by dissolving the distinction between human beings and the Earth, writing, “We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf.Gen2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.” After dispelling the apparent division between the human and non-human, Francis proceeds to break down the sacred/profane division by suggesting that it can be transcended through God. He unites God, humanity, and the world with the two potent, religiously charged metaphors of a sacrament and a garment: “As Christians, we are also called ‘to accept the world as a sacrament of communion, as a way of sharing with God and our neighbors on a global scale. It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the last speck of dust of our planet.’” Elsewhere, he uses the Christian tradition of mysticism to imbue the entirety of the universe with divinity: “The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face.” This conclusion effectively collapses the division between the sacred and mundane by subsuming everything that is into the godhead – a deft move, given that the divine is of infinite worth and therefore demands respect.

Francis’ proposed solution echoes many of the themes and motifs he uses throughout the introductory chapter, most prominently family, care/exploitation, and unity under God. He calls for a new global discussion that encompasses the whole human family because global warming’s threats “affect us all,” and he advocates a code of ethics reflective of our shared humanity and origin as sacred creations, “a new and universal solidarity” that incorporates cooperation, caring, and unity – “cooperat[ion] as instruments of God for the care of creation“ – as a balm for the “‘damage caused by human abuse of God’s creation.’”22

Anti-Capitalist Environmentalist Texts

The People’s Agreement of Cochabamba uses very similar conceptual categories and cultural structures to those of Laudato Si. The Agreement also brings Earth into the human family by calling it “Mother Earth,” and it too frames the Earth as a victim experiencing pain and suffering. It indicts the Copenhagen Accord for “violating the environmental integrity of Mother Earth,” contends that the carbon market model “loots and ravages the land, water, and even life itself,” forcefully and declares forthrightly that “[t]oday, our Mother Earth is wounded and the future of humanity is in danger.”

One difference between the People’s Agreement and Laudato Si is that the former is far more explicit and unabashed in identifying capitalism as the culprit. However, it uses the same care/exploitation, excess/balance, and competition/cooperation binaries that Pope Francis employs. Capitalism is “based on the submission and destruction of human beings and nature,” and it has “imposed on us a logic of competition, progress, and limitless growth” which aims for “profit without limits.” This has the consequence of “separating human beings from nature and imposing a logic of domination upon nature, transforming everything into commodities.” Capitalism “imposes mega-infrastructure projects and invades territories with extractive projects, water privatization, and militarized territories, expelling indigenous peoples from their lands, inhibiting food sovereignty and deepening socio-environmental crisis.” As a result, Earth becomes “a source of raw materials,” and human beings are turned into “consumers and a means of production.” The verbs that are appended to the capitalist system are all exploitative, aggressive, and militaristic; it destroys, imposes, invades, dominates, expels, extracts, and inhibits. The capitalist system is portrayed as the embodiment of excess – it rejects limits. It divides and alienates; it does not unite and integrate.

The People’s Agreement lays out a very clear solution, one which offers extremely stark dichotomies of life/death and harmony/alienation and is predicated on a vision of restoring balance and justice. The text articulates our choice in a simple sentence which accentuates its binary nature: “Humanity confronts a great dilemma: to continue on the path of capitalism, depredation, and death, or to choose the path of harmony with nature and respect for life” [emphasis mine]. The aegis of justice integrates the Agreement’s economic, environmental, and political ends. The Agreement calls for a system “that restores harmony with nature and among human beings” – what it terms “restorative justice,” or the “restitution of integrity to our Mother Earth and all its beings.” This grand, unifying harmony requires justice in the realm of human affairs: “[I]n order for there to be balance with nature, there must first be equity among human beings.”

In addition to the general principle of “harmony and balance among all and with all things,” the Agreement enumerates a number of other principles with deep roots in religious doctrine and left-wing political philosophy, all of which are anchored in the fundamental aforementioned binaries of care/exploitation, excess/balance, harmony/alienation, and competition/cooperation: “complementarity, solidarity, and equality; collective well-being and the satisfaction of the basic necessities of all; people in harmony with nature; recognition of human beings for what they are, not what they own; elimination of all forms of colonialism, imperialism and interventionism; peace among the peoples and with Mother Earth.” Although it proposes a sweepingly progressive agenda, its goals and values are couched in the rhetoric of restoration and in appeals to a mythic (but persuasively useful) past.


As one might expect given the writers’ identity and the texts’ probable intended audiences, the social strata that I chose to examine used different kinds of discourse to discuss climate change. That notwithstanding, certain narrative structures recurred, and there was considerable overlap between different groups.

The IPCC and NRDC, composed of professionals who intend primarily to communicate with policymakers, used the most emotionally neutral language out of the organizations that I examined, employing relatively few binaries and a generally colorless, abstract vocabulary (e.g., the IPCC spoke of “risk” and “negative impacts”). Like the IPCC report, the scientist-authored National Climate Assessment also contains the refrain “impacts,” but it uses slightly more vivid language than the IPCC report to underscore the dangers of unfettered global warming, cautioning of “disruption,” severity, disease, and death. Despite some variation in the intensity of the imagery and rhetoric used by scientific publications, they tend to use a rhetorical style that hampers their ability to successfully convey the urgency of the challenges global warming poses by insulating the reader from the visceral impact of the dark possibilities being discussed.

To wit, the National Climate Assessment writes, “Efforts to limit emissions or increase carbon uptake fall into a category of response options known as ‘mitigation,’ which refers to reducing the amount and speed of future climate change by reducing emissions of heat-trapping gases or removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.”23 There’s nothing incomprehensible about this sentence. It does not even use much jargon (with the possible exception of ‘uptake’), likely in an effort to make the text accessible to the average person. However, its meandering, somewhat ponderous structure and vaguely academic diction are hurdles to communicating how intensely the question of mitigation matters; the form does not quite match the content. This sentence and its problems are emblematic of the National Climate Assessment and IPCC report (and, to a lesser extent, the NRDC webpages) – although they accurately disseminate global warming-related information, they do so in a way that is culturally and affectively attenuated for the most part.

The mainstream environmentalist organizations draw upon binaries and culturally potent narratives to a greater degree than the scientific establishment pieces do. The and Greenpeace texts both use a purity/pollution binary, and and the NRDC both use a healthy/diseased binary and the concept of imbalance. All three groups deploy a threat narrative, with Greenpeace and NRDC relying most heavily on the notion of threat and the concomitant idea of crisis. The texts use the most binaries (purity-pollution, local-foreign, independent-dependent, healthy-diseased, and friendly-diseased) of the mainstream environmentalist texts, and they use the opportunity narrative and quest analogy to a greater extent than the other groups’ texts do. Greenpeace is notable among the groups for its ‘war of preservation’ narrative, while NRDC explicitly emphasizes economic cost more than the others do. Despite some internal differences, the mainstream environmentalist community tends to deploy binaries and certain deep-rooted narrative structures in a fairly similar manner and does so in a way that strikes the reader as more immediately stirring than the scientific texts.

As demonstrated by reading the People’s Agreement of Cochabamba, mainstream environmental groups’ more politically radical brethren also use binaries and narrative structures to make their case, but the anti-capitalist environmentalists do so even more forthrightly. Unlike in the more detached, scientifically-influenced texts, which tacitly replicate a division between the human and non-human by choosing not to personify Earth, in the People’s Agreement, Earth is portrayed as a victim of human action and as a beloved family member. The binaries of care/exploitation, excess/balance, competition/cooperation, life/death, and harmony/alienation are then utilized to call for restoration, social and climate justice, and the rebalancing of the world’s ecological and economic systems.

The religious community, as represented by Laudato Si, uses many similar persuasive strategies as the anti-capitalist environmentalist community. It also anthropomorphizes the Earth and presents it as a family member and victim, projects a vision of harmony between one organic family (humans, animals, and the Earth), and uses binaries that are strongly reminiscent of those used in the People’s Agreement – care/exploitation, excess/balance, purity/impurity, health/disease, and wholeness/brokenness.

Although it does not engage in a point-blank denunciation of capitalism (at least in the introductory section), Laudato Si is even more vivid and imaginatively stimulating in its imagery, similes, and metaphors than the People’s Agreement. It has access to certain vocabularies and religious cultural repertoires that are foreclosed to the People’s Agreement because of the Agreement’s secular nature. God is used as a compelling way of dissolving sacred/profane binary altogether by embracing all of existence in cooperation, unity, and sacrality. Pope Francis draws upon the fraught and morally weighted concept of sin to lend oomph to the purity/pollution binary at play in the text. He also takes advantage of religious mainstays to generate meaningful imagery by quoting St. Francis’ blessing which describes the Earth as the one “who produces various fruit with colored flowers and herbs” and by hearkening back to the Gospels when he wants to make a point about the need to maintain inner peace and an attitude of placid satisfaction with the present moment: “Jesus taught us this attitude when he invited us to contemplate the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, or when seeing the rich young man and knowing his restlessness, ‘he looked at him with love’ (Mk10:21).”24 Since the other groups’ texts are non-religious, this method – tapping into culturally resonant wellsprings of meaning from a particular faith tradition – is foreclosed to them.

Despite their differences, the texts examined had certain underlying commonalities, probably because they all shared the same ultimate goal. The National Climate Assessment, Greenpeace,, and the People’s Agreement leaned most heavily on a rhetoric of choice, but the idea of collective choice was implicit in all of the texts – unsurprising, given that all of the groups want humanity to choose a different course of action. Relatedly, by laying out a litany of the woes that climate change has wrought and will wreak in the future and then presenting their recommended solutions immediately thereafter, all of the groups at least formally make use of a narrative of salvation and redemption.

Unfortunately, there’s insufficient data to gauge how effective the texts we examined were at moving their intended audiences to political action and at altering the cultural discourse around climate change. But aesthetically and literarily, I would argue that Laudato Si is most successful, followed by the People’s Agreement of Cochabamba. Both use elemental cultural concepts (e.g., family, home) and binaries (e.g., life/death, care/exploitation, harmony/alienation) in profound and affecting ways. Since the overarching story of climate change is one of error – deviation from the path of sustainability, what a religionist like Pope Francis unhesitatingly calls “sin” – and (hopefully) correction, it stands to reason that the religious community was able to craft a rousing call to action. The fate of the planet may depend on whether or not the scientific establishment and environmentalist mainstream are able to fully adopt the forceful tone and primal grandeur of the religious and anti-capitalist environmentalist communities. For our children’s sake and our own, let us hope that they succeed.


“Pope Francis Blames 'Human Selfishness' for Global Warming.” British Broadcasting Corporation, June 18, 2015. “Science and Impacts: The Basics of Climate Change Science and Our Changing Planet.” ---. “Solutions: How to Get Back to 350.” ---.

Bergoglio, Jorge (Pope Francis). “Encyclical Letter ‘Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home.” Libreria Editrice Vaticana.

Faiola, Anthony, Michelle Boorstein, and Chris Mooney. “Release of Encyclical Reveals Pope’s Deep Dive into Climate Science.” Washington Post, June 18, 2015.

Greenpeace. “Exposing Climate Deniers.” ---.

Greenpeace. “Fighting Global Warming.” ---.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report for Policymakers.”

National Aeronautics and Space Administration. “Scientific Consensus: Earth’s Climate is Warming.” Last modified December 14, 2015.

National Resources Defense Council. “About Us.” ---.

National Resources Defense Council. “An Introduction to Climate Change: What It Could Mean to You and Your Family.” ---.

National Resources Defense Council. “Demand Climate Action.” ---.

National Resources Defense Council. “Global Warming.” ---.

Sample, Ian. “Scientists offered cash to dispute climate study.” The Guardian, February 2, 2007.

Schipani, Andres. “Grassroots Summit Calls for International Climate Court.” The Guardian, April 23, 2010.

U.S. Global Change Research Program. “National Climate Assessment.” ---.

World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. “People’s Agreement of Cochabamba.” April 24, 2010.

World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. “Partners.” ---.


  1. Ian Sample, “Scientists offered cash to dispute climate study,” The Guardian, February 2, 2007,
  2. “National Climate Assessment,” U.S. Global Change Research Program,
  3. See “Pope Francis Blames 'Human Selfishness' for Global Warming,” British Broadcasting Corporation, June 18, 2015, or Anthony Faiola, Michelle Boorstein, and Chris Mooney, “Release of Encyclical Reveals Pope’s Deep Dive into Climate Science,” Washington Post, June 18, 2015,
  4. World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. “Partners.” ---.
  5. Andres Schipani, “Grassroots Summit Calls for International Climate Court,” The Guardian, April 23, 2010,
  6. “Solutions: How to Get Back to 350,”,
  7. “Science and Impacts: The Basics of Climate Change Science and Our Changing Planet,”,
  8. “Solutions: How to Get Back to 350,”,
  9. “Science and Impacts: The Basics of Climate Change Science and Our Changing Planet,”,
  10. “Fighting Global Warming,” Greenpeace,
  11. “Exposing Climate Deniers,” Greenpeace,
  12. “Fighting Global Warming,” Greenpeace,
  13. “Global Warming,” National Resources Defense Council,
  14. “Demand Climate Action,” National Resources Defense Council,
  15. “Global Warming,” National Resources Defense Council,
  16. “Demand Climate Action,” National Resources Defense Council,
  17. “An Introduction to Climate Change: What It Could Mean to You and Your Family,” National Resources Defense Council,
  18. “Global Warming,” National Resources Defense Council,
  19. “Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report for Policymakers,” Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,
  20. “About Us,” National Resources Defense Council,
  21. “National Climate Assessment,” U.S. Global Change Research Program,
  22. Jorge Bergoglio (Pope Francis), “Encyclical Letter ‘Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home,” Libreria Editrice Vaticana,
  23. “National Climate Assessment,” U.S. Global Change Research Program,
  24. Jorge Bergoglio (Pope Francis), “Encyclical Letter ‘Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home,” Libreria Editrice Vaticana,

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Latest in Environmental Studies

2021, Vol. 13 No. 09
After thousands of years of innovation, humankind has shaped the modern world into a new planetary epoch: the Anthropocene. This paper connects the human propensity to carve our comfortable, convenient civilizations into our local environments with... Read Article »
2020, Vol. 12 No. 09
Though electronic products are ubiquitous in the modern Western world, most people are not aware of the origins of the batteries that power devices such as laptop computers and mobile phones. Lithium-ion batteries, though used primarily in wealthy... Read Article »
2017, Vol. 9 No. 05
Is it possible to objectively define the Anthropocene? This essay argues that whether or not it is precisely definable as a geological epoch, its true value, as a concept grounded in futurity, lies within the social realm. The origins of the term... Read Article »
2013, Vol. 3 No. 1
Published by Clocks and Clouds
Postmaterialist values, those that emphasize higher-order human needs, have become widely accepted as the determining force behind environmentalism in the West. Little research has been dedicated to studying the importance of these values outside... Read Article »
2017, Vol. 9 No. 03
In Gallup’s 2016 environment poll, 64 percent of U.S. adults are now worried a “great deal” or “fair amount” about global warming, with a record 65 percent attributing warming primarily to human activities (1). These... Read Article »
2016, Vol. 6 No. 1
Despite all the information we have regarding climate change and the potential perils of continuing on our path of consumption, people are slow to make the necessary changes. Our tendency to live habitually and the dampening effect continuous negative... Read Article »
2016, Vol. 6 No. 1
Whenever a decision is made in a social, political, or economic context, it is implicitly grounded in an ethical outlook. But where do these outlooks come from? To investigate this query, I examine the basis for ethical decisions regarding technology... Read Article »

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