Back to Conference session list

Session Detail (parallel)

Higher Powers: Negotiating Climate Change, Religion and Spirituality in Oceania


Hannah Fair, Elodie Fache, Wolfgang Kempf

Session presentation

Social science research on Pacific Islanders’ receptions of and dealings with climate change has recently gained considerable momentum. Yet, despite the well-documented overall importance of Christianity in Oceania, the connections between climate change, religion and spirituality still tend to be under-researched. This panel aims to fill in this research gap by inviting papers that explore topics such as: the social construction, promotion or contestation of the idea of climate change by religious and spiritual actors, groups and institutions; linkages between imagining and experiencing climate change from various religious and spiritual viewpoints, cosmological perspectives, or apocalyptic thinking; religious, denominational, and spiritual diversity as a possible variable regarding social resilience and adaptive capacity; the role of faith-based organizations in the definition, planning and implementation of adaptive responses to climate change; the influence of associated alliances and tensions between these organizations, governmental agencies and NGOs; the impacts of religious and spiritual conceptions, initiatives and networks on (future) climate-related mobility, migration, and relocation policies. We invite all those interested in contributing to an interdisciplinary dialogue on the ways in which religious discourses, spiritual practices, and faith-based organizations contribute to the shaping of representations, and the implementation of measures and policies, related to climate change.

Paper submissions are closed

Accepted papers

The end of the age? Entanglement of religion and climate change in Fiji, from local discourses to COP23 and back

Elodie Fache (IRD - Institut de Recherche pour le Développement)

In this paper, I will first present the ambivalent discourse on “climate change” that some Fijian islanders conveyed in our discussions in 2016; a discourse illustrating the sometimes awkward articulation between two cognitive and normative regimes: that deriving from scientific and conservationist paradigms, and that deriving from a strong Christian engagement. Then, I will deal with a few events and documents showing that Fiji’s presidency of the COP23 invited and integrated religion in 2017. In these contexts, the message was quite straightforward: “climate change” is an anthropogenic phenomenon, which has to be urgently tackled by humans, as the stewards/custodians of God’s creation. Finally, a fieldwork period in Fiji a year after COP23, in late 2018, will allow me to explore how the latter has been experienced in a specific island setting and to what extent it has (or not) influenced Christian villagers’ discourses and religious leaders’ messages regarding “climate change”. These three steps will aim to propose a discussion on the entanglement between religion and “climate change” from the local to the global arena and back.

Effects and Affects of Climate Change in Kiribati

Guigone Camus

A fieldwork led in 2015 in the southern atoll of Tabiteuea in Kiribati revealed what seemed to be a strong indifference towards climate change risks and consequences. Adaptation projects led by the Government of Tarawa Island are usually received with a strong resistance that induces their failure. The origins of this reluctance may be founded on mythological precedence, status opposition and/or genealogical conflicts. Beyond these interpretations, this reaction also has to be explained by the way Kiribati people apprehend risk, disaster, accident and illness. In such circumstances, social actors express very few affects, invoking silence and mockery as modes of expression in order to ‘hide’ thoughts and fears. Reinforced by recent fieldwork, this communication intends to question the role of spirituality and religious beliefs in the consideration of disaster and misfortune. A clarification of the local approach to climate change could lead to a better identification of the stumbling blocks encountered in the scope of adaptation.

Climate Change, Emotions and Religion: Imagining the Future in Central Oceania

Elfriede Hermann (University of Goettingen)

When faced with news about the projected consequences of climate change, Pacific Islanders often respond emotionally and with recourse to their religious beliefs. In view of these responses, this paper argues that Pacific Islanders frequently combine their emotions with their religiosity in their efforts to make their future. A case study of the atoll state of Kiribati will illustrate this point. Given that most of this Pacific state’s islands are low-lying atolls or reef islands, it is considered widely to be particularly vulnerable. In this context, many citizens of Kiribati have recourse to their Christian beliefs to deal with their feelings of uncertainty and imagine a future for their descendants in their homeland. On the one hand, their religiosity helps them to cope with the worry over their land, fear of a rising sea level and sadness at the thought of a worst-case scenario and develop social resilience. On the other hand, they rely on their beliefs to confirm their love of their land, draw hope and gain strength from it in order to take adaptive measures.

Climate Change, Migration and Christian Religion: Negotiating Land and Future in Oceania

Wolfgang Kempf (University of Goettingen)

Christian discourses and practices are an integral part of the social perception of climate change, sea level rise and migration in Pacific Island states. The majority of social science studies, however, tend to exclude this aspect or discredit it as maladaptive. Latour’s criticism of the western practice of “purifying” interconnected areas forms the starting point for my remarks. My concern is to look at this terrain of dis/articulating science and religion from an analytical perspective that takes greater account of Pacific Islanders’ viewpoints. I focus, on the one hand, on Christian discourses that reject scientific scenarios of future inundation, displacement and relocation and seek to reclaim the future of land and people by emphasizing a principle of stability, protection and continuity. On the other hand, I explore the recurrent association of collective resettlement with the biblical motif of the Promised Land as a form of God-given legitimation of ownership and belonging in a region where land and people are usually considered as one unit. Using case studies from Kiribati and Fiji, I will show that the systematic inclusion of Christian ideas, practices, actors and institutions contributes to a better understanding of indigenous discourses on climate change and migration.

Three stories of Noah: interrogating religious narratives of climate change in Oceania

Hannah Fair (University College London)

Existing examinations of faith-based engagements with climate change adaptation have not gone far enough. There is a need to look beyond churches merely as convenient institutional frameworks for information dissemination and community mobilisation, and to also consider the power and potency of religious ideas themselves. Consequently, I tackle one of the most contentious biblical narratives with respect to climate change in the Pacific Islands: the story of Noah and the flood. I identify three different readings of this story across Tuvalu and Vanuatu. I contend that different articulations of this narrative have symbolic and material power, and become entangled with and enable particular understandings of and responses to climate change. I outline the consequences of these multiple discursive manifestations of the Noah story for effective climate change adaptation, considering in turn: questions of trust in the divine, prayer and action; divine warnings and the sin of carbon emissions: and divine accompaniment and the rejection of retributive suffering. I conclude that each tale, in its own way, foregrounds Islander agency.