The burden of climate change on religion and culture

People next to a flooded river during Cyclone Yaas in Koira, Khulna, Bangladesh. May 26, 2021. Credit: Saikat Bhadra / iStock

With its dense network of rivers, streams, and mangroves, the southwest region of Bangladesh represents an ecologically vibrant but deeply vulnerable region. The low-lying deltaic plains, interspersed with numerous communities and water bodies, are at risk of cyclones, erosion, flooding, and saltwater intrusion. During fieldwork conducted in this region for the Earth Rights Advocacy Clinic at NYU Law, residents described the profound ways in which climate change is impacting their livelihoods, homes, communal infrastructure, safety, and ability to access clean water and grow food.

Substantial non-economic loss and damage (NELD) were intertwined within these stories: the emotional distress of losing communal gathering places, the loss of society as neighbors choose to leave instead of rebuild after a cyclone, the loss of traditional agricultural knowledge as weather patterns have grown erratic, and countless others. 

Our fieldwork also took us to the capital and southeast region of the country, where communities face similar impacts, along with sea-level rise and extreme heat. Their stories revealed a myriad of overt and nuanced ways in which people’s human rights to participate in cultural life and manifest one’s religion or belief are impacted by climate change.

A Hindu woman recounted that her community was once the site of significant regional gatherings—attracting up to 20,000 observers from neighboring villages—to celebrate 13 Hindu festivals. Riverbank erosion swallowed up an entire temple, and the remaining temple continues to incur damage because of its proximity to the water. Once-frequent mass gatherings have been winnowed down to only three festivals. Similarly, a Muslim man described how cyclones, flooding, and subsequent erosion have washed away the remains of loved ones, at times submerging entire burial sites. Without these sites, he and his family are impeded from observing Muslim traditions of visiting the deceased. 


Climate change profoundly impacts culture and religion

Lost places of worship produce profound effects on individuals’ and communities’ capacity to observe religious and cultural practices. At worst, communities experience total territorial dispossession; a version of this is already playing out in small island developing states like Taro Island in the Solomon Islands, which is planning for relocation in light of the storm surges and tsunamis that are expected to worsen with sea level rise. Even if relocations meet material needs, they can still result in the ad hoc fragmentation of communities and the loss of inimitable and non-substitutable places that play significant roles in culture and religion.

The losses are not always as obvious as the loss of land or displacement. Consider the importance of certain flowers for Hindu ceremonies and how increased temperatures and the salinization of soil and groundwater hinder their growth, in turn impeding communities’ capacity to celebrate in line with cultural and religious custom. Or, consider how the new and unfortunate phenomenon of springtime heatwaves in Bangladesh, which coincided with the month of Ramadan in both 2023 and 2024, forced observers to break their fast and contributed to the death of a rickshaw driver who continued to fast while working. 

Even the economic consequences of climate change have nuanced implications for people’s capacity to practice culture and religion. We heard stories of diminished incomes due to reduced shrimp yields and increasing costs to access clean water due to the salinization of local supplies. While one may not correlate decreased earnings with the ability to celebrate religious holidays,  residents recounted the impact of limited resources on the Eid al Fitr and Eid al Adha holidays. In a community where breaking the fast traditionally involves visiting each other’s homes with sweet treats, those unable to afford such luxuries opt to remain at home, foregoing this communal tradition. What do these barriers signify, not only for religious observance but also for the cultural and social fabric of this community? 

These stories reflect how deeply intertwined human cultures, practices, and religions are with the environments in which people live and the flora, fungi, and fauna that also inhabit these spaces. Moreover, they demonstrate the far-reaching consequences of climate change. These losses, however, are not unique to Bangladeshi communities. Indigenous communities, like the Inuit peoples in the Arctic, have long been sounding the alarm on how climate change is already damaging their environment and thus threatening their cultural practices and identity, including in legal fora. The same is true of communities in Kenya, Mali, Brazil, the Philippines, and numerous other countries


The role of legal practitioners and institutions

International organizations and human rights bodies, including the European Union, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and United Nations mandate holders, are increasingly recognizing the loss or infringement of cultural heritage and rights due to climate change. Its impacts on religion and culture have also become the subject of rights-based disputes and part of multilateral COP programming. Centering religion and culture, however, is hardly the norm in climate change policy-making and litigation.

Religious and cultural practices remain crucial to forming a complete picture of climate change’s ongoing and future impacts. Not only are these practices an important consideration for climate change rights–based litigation and international advocacy, but they are also imperative for the burgeoning field of loss and damage (L&D) litigation and international policy-making, which are in their infancy. To date, no decisions have been issued on the merits of L&D cases, and the L&D Fund is just now being operationalized. While still in their formative stages, the current state of litigation and policy-making leaves much to desire in the realm of NELD, like the loss of cultural heritage and religious practices. 

The litigation field has largely focused on remedying past material harms and recovering adaptation costs. While the founding documents of the L&D Fund include NELD, it is uncertain how it will compensate for such losses. L&D policy-making, both internationally and domestically, will likely—and understandably—rely on estimates of existing damages and the costs of future adaptation and mitigation. For example, if the risk of climate change is not mitigated, the IPCC estimates the economic costs in developing countries would be between $15 and $411 billion per year by 2030. The issue with such estimates, however, is that they refer to nominal adaptation costs that do not factor in NELD like the loss of culture, religious practices, or social cohesion. The same is true of many damage estimates of past climate-change disasters.

The relative absence of NELD in L&D litigation and policy-making is not without reason; calculating its monetary value remains a challenge. These difficulties, however, provide a clarion call for legal practitioners: a call urging researchers to address knowledge gaps, for lawyers to draw insights from other areas of law (such as tort and native title cases), and for policy makers to meaningfully integrate NELD in the creation of compensation frameworks. At the very least, these narratives should be woven into claims concerning climate change, ensuring that decision-makers grasp its multifaceted impacts comprehensively. Granting NELD the attention it deserves offers legal practitioners an important chance to prioritize the significant, albeit difficult to quantify, “customs and traditions through which individuals and communities express their humanity and the meaning they give to their existence.”


The authors would like to recognize and thank their fieldwork partners in Bangladesh: the Bangladesh Environment and Development Society (BEDS), the Centre for Climate Justice - Bangladesh (CCJ-B), and the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD).