Media Tip Sheet: U.Va. Experts in Religious Ethics and Environmental Issues Available to Comment on Pope Francis’ Message on Climate Change

Pope Francis is poised to release a major message to the Catholic Church on the environment June 18. While contents of the highly anticipated encyclical have not been made public, experts expect the pope will issue a strong message of moral responsibility on climate change to the more than 1 billion Catholics around the world. This comes just months ahead of November’s pivotal world summit on the environment in Paris.

Two University of Virginia faculty members can provide insights on ethics in religion and environmental science.

Religious studies associate professor Willis Jenkins is a specialist in religious ethics and environmental issues and can offer unique insight into the pope’s message, its meaning and impact.

Deborah Lawrence is a professor of environmental sciences. Her research focuses on the links between tropical deforestation and climate change. She has spent the past 25 years doing field-based research in Indonesia, Costa Rica, Mexico and Cameroon.

More information below:

Willis Jenkins
Associate Professor, Director of Graduate Studies, Religious Studies
Areas of expertise: Religious ethics, Environmental Issues


“I will be looking for what the encyclical indicates about the future of Catholic social teaching on environmental issues and how the pope’s view sits in relation to other political and ethical perspectives on climate change,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins has studied contemporary environmental ethics and classical Christian theology. His work focuses on global climate ethics and questions about morality in Anthropocene conditions.

Jenkins is the director of the religious studies graduate program at U.Va., where he also earned his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees. Prior to joining U.Va., he was an associate professor at Yale Divinity School.

He is the author of two award-winning books: “The Future of Ethics: Sustainability, Social Justice, and Religious Creativity” (Georgetown, 2013), which won an American Academy of Religion Award for Excellence; and “Ecologies of Grace: Environmental Ethics and Christian Theology” (Oxford, 2008), which won a Templeton Award for Theological Promise.

He is currently editing a special issue on “Religion and Climate Change” for Religious Studies Review.

Deborah Lawrence
Areas of expertise: Climate Change, tropical deforestation

 “People need to address climate change because it is the right thing to do,” Lawrence says. “It is also in their own interest, because curbing climate change will ensure that the earth – our life-support system – continues to provide us with food, clean water and so much else. But there is even more at stake here: the well-being of millions of people far away from us and the very existence of countless species with whom we share the planet.


“‘Love thy neighbor’ has a whole new meaning in the era of climate change.”

Lawrence’s work has gained her a Sustainability Science Award from the Ecological Society of America, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Jefferson Science Fellowship from the National Academy of Sciences, and a Fulbright Scholarship. She was a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University, earned her Ph.D. (botany) at Duke University and received a B.A. (biological anthropology) from Harvard University. Her current research addresses the challenge of understanding and minimizing climate impacts from forest use in the tropics and around the globe. Most recently, she has been using global climate models to explore the cumulative effect of tropical land-use decisions, exploring the climate impact of land allocation among food crops, biofuels and forests.

Lawrence has participated in several inter-agency missions focused on reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation. Since 2010, she has been consulting with the International Programs Office of the U.S. Forest Service and the Climate Change Office of USAID on scientific and technical aspects of forest carbon measurement and monitoring.

Media Contact

Jane Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications