What's Religion Got To Do With Drought?

human agency in climate change

By Kristel Clayville|July 31, 2014

Should a visitor to California forget that this state is suffering from a fourteen-year drought, a “Pray for rain” sign in a field of gold-colored dirt serves as a stark reminder. Below this plea for prayer, one might also read: “1 Thess 5:17,” or “pray continually” (NIV).

While the theme of human agency in climate change may not seem related to the topic of religion, it is religion that asks us to think about ourselves as agents with great responsibility even if with limited capacities. Theistic religious traditions teach us that our power is inadequate compared to the deity who commands nature and intervenes in history. They also teach us that our actions in the world matter to our current communities as well as to those who come after us—to future generations.

We may not be able to control the water in the atmosphere—only God can do that—but we are nonetheless tasked with caring for the planet, for ourselves and for our children and for their children.

The drought in California and in other parts of the U.S. and the world has prompted a little publicized debate about the cause: some scientists argue it is directly related to global warming while others argue that it could be part of normal weather variation. However, both sides agree that climate change is occurring and that it is anthropogenic, caused by humans.

Both messages are coming out of Washington. White House science adviser, John P. Holdren, has gone on record, saying: “Scientifically, no single episode of extreme weather, no storm, no flood, no drought can be said to have been caused by global climate change. But the global climate has now been so extensively impacted by the human-caused buildup of greenhouse gases that weather practically everywhere is being influenced by climate change.”

The world described by Holdren sounds like Bill McKibben’s worst case scenario from his 1989 book, The End of Nature, in which he predicted that climate change would affect the weather so dramatically that past knowledge of the climate would be useless in forecasting future weather patterns. Cause and effect would be hard to distinguish from one another. For Holdren, the drought may or may not be caused by climate change; we really don’t know. The science can’t definitively link particular extreme weather events to climate change.

Contrary to his own science adviser, President Obama is convinced that the California drought is the result of climate change.

While the causal accounts of the drought are a bit “cloudy,” the political expediency of linking extreme weather to climate change is clear. The American public overwhelmingly prefers political candidates who support taking action on climate change. 

But other than votes, what is to be gained by suggesting that the drought is caused by climate change?

It's human agency. Linking extreme weather events to climate change pulls us out of our overwhelmed complacency; making a direct connection reminds us that human action in the environment still matters.

Climate change is having an undeniable impact on our quality of life. But climate change is a problem so complex that it can be difficult to figure out how any action on our part can counteract it. Even if we believe, as does the majority of scientists, that climate change is anthropogenic, the vastness of this systematic problem appears to swamp any individual action.

When politicians, like Obama, claim that the drought (hurricane, tornado, etc.) was caused by us, they imply that the situation can also be solved by us. Though we are faced with a paralyzing problem, human agency is affirmed.

What can we do to address the drought specifically? In a recent New York Times “Room for Debate,” environmental thinkers with various academic backgrounds were asked for suggestions. Some proposed drawing lower on the food chain to meet our dietary needs. Others recommended that cities recycle waste water, and raise the price of water to emphasize its value and to compel households, based on high cost, to be more mindful of the amount of water they use.

Whether or not the drought is caused by climate change or natural variation, there areactions that we can take to mitigate it, and thinking of ourselves as agents is the first step.

The majority of climate change scientists have long noted our agency in creating the problem, but have downplayed our agency in addressing it. The current political ethos highlights our agency in creating the problem. Framing the conversation in terms of religion emphasizes our agency in both creating the problem and in enacting potential solutions.

The bottom line: let’s pull up our sleeves and while we pray continually, let’s get to work fixing climate change.


Abrams, Lindsay. “Attention Pols: Voters Overwhelmingly Prefer Candidates who Support Climate Action.” Salon. June 30, 2014. Politics/Sustainability.  

Gillis, Justin. “Science Linking Drought to Global Warming Remains Matter of Dispute.”New York Times, February 16, 2014, Science/News.

Glennon, Robert, et al. “The Water Crisis in the West.” New York Times, June 29, 2014, Room for Debate/Opinion.

Lochhead, Carolyn. “California Drought: Scientists to Probe Cause.” San Francisco Gate. January 22, 2014, News.

McKibben, William. The End of Nature. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks Edition, 2006.

Taylor, Alan. “California’s Historic Drought.” The Atlantic. March 27, 2014, In Focus.
Wines, Michael. “Colorado River Drought Forces a Painful Reckoning for States.” New York Times, January 5, 2014, U.S./News.

Photo Credit: BellaGaia / flickr creative commons

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Author, Kristel Clayville, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Religious Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She works on the intersection of hermeneutics and ethics with a particular interest in environmental ethics. Clayville was a 2011-12 Junior Fellow in the Marty Center.



ac_110325_151102_1489c9b397c70eff40990f.Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She was a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Marty Center.