Are Green Beliefs Equal to Religious Ones?

Last year, Tim Nicholson, a sustainability officer with the property company Grainger plc, was dismissed from his job. His boss, Rupert Dickinson, maintained that Nicholson’s redundancy was solely driven by the operational needs of the company during a period of market turbulence. Nicholson, however, claims he was dismissed because of his strong views on man-made climate change, which his boss viewed as simply a lifestyle choice.

In a recent landmark court ruling on the issue, Mr Justice Michael Burton ruled that environmentalism had the same weight in law as religious and philosophical beliefs and granted Nicholson leave to appeal. Nicholson’s solicitor, Shah Qureshi, said:

“Essentially, what the judgement says is that a belief in man-made climate change and the alleged resulting moral imperative is capable of being a philosophical belief and is therefore protected by the 2003 religion or belief regulations.”

I can’t help feeling that this is a strange judgement. I can understand that Nicholson may feel that he was unfairly dismissed from his job, and taking this to court would be appropriate for him in that regard. What I struggle with is why he is happy for his environmental views to be put on a par with philosophical or religious ones. If the evidence for man-made climate change was vague or sparse then his belief could possibly be seen in this way. However, there is a huge amount of evidence out there, and Nicholson’s belief is simply a rational one. Don’t get me wrong, the evidence is not 100%, and there are some dissenting voices – but there is evidence none-the-less. Nicholson’s stance on man-made climate change is a perfectly reasonable conclusion to arrive at. Labelling it as a religious – or even a philosophical – belief implies a ‘choice’, a ‘decision’ to believe something for which you cannot claim to be objectively true. Nicholson didn’t just decide that he liked the environmental ‘philosophy’, he came to a conclusion based on evidence. It’s not like the evidence is hiding either. It’s not buried in the mists of time with only a few manuscripts to shine a light on its possible existence. It’s happening here, now.

The responses to this story in the media have been varied and complex. Everyone seems to be annoyed, but for different reasons. Christian groups have reacted angrily to their beliefs being equated with Environmentalism, some claiming that this “was further evidence of Britain abandoning its Christian heritage”, as if an association with green issues would somehow deliver the killing blow to a successful 2000-year-old world religion. In scouring the media at the time, I could find no mention of what these groups (fringe groups for the most part) thought of the environmental issues themselves, or of whether Nicholson was unfairly dismissed. They seemed to just be bothered about their beliefs being equated with something non-religious. Environmental campaigners were also annoyed about the pairing up of religious and green beliefs, though their stance was more an objection to science-based conclusions being equated with faith-based beliefs. People who simply weren’t that fond of the green campaigners came out with the odd comment along the lines of “Well, they are a bit zealous, aren’t they?” (suspiciously similar to the snidey comments strongly religious commentators often say about any atheist in the public eye who dares to be even remotely forward about it). Away from the fray, some lawyers were worried that this case would encourage more claims of a similar nature to go to court, potentially undermining the 2003 religion and belief regulations.

I think the fears over legal consequences are quite telling. Once you get past all the posturing, could this all simply be an example of opportunism by some lawyers? Is there no issue here at all, except that a winnable case was noticed and took advantage of? Should we be worrying about more opportunist claims being made rather than about whether belief in man-made climate change is the same as belief in a God? No-one’s attacked religion here; and the climate change issues are the same as they were before this story broke.

To bring this to a close, let’s remember what Nicholson’s job was. He was a sustainability officer. Green issues were part of his remit. He claims that he was being prevented from doing his job properly because his beliefs weren’t respected; yet his beliefs were part of his job description, and he should have been allowed to do his job to the best of his ability. If he isn’t doing his best to create sustainability at work, then he’s not doing his job. Beliefs don’t come into it. Surely the issue is one of unfair dismissal, but not on the grounds of any religious discrimination? Maybe Nicholson was being over-zealous (pun not intended) in doing his job, but still the issue is not one of religious discrimination, it is purely related to the job itself.

One of the incidents discussed in the trial concerned Nicholson’s boss accidentally leaving his Blackberry phone in Ireland after a business meeting. Ignoring Nicholson’s proposals (presumably part of his job as sustainability officer), his boss promptly sent a member of staff back over to Ireland on a plane to pick up the Blackberry. Now, his boss  may say: “well, I don’t believe climate change is man-made, so I don’t believe planes and their carbon footprint are a problem”. But what is the point of employing a sustainability officer, then, if not to reduce the company’s impact on the environment by lessening its carbon footprint? The effect of humans on the environment is implicit in the appointmet of such a job position in the first place.

It sounds a little like he was fired for doing his job properly. If I had been Nicholson, that would, for me, have been a more satisfying judgement to have recieved at the court. Not that I had been discriminated against on the grounds of my ‘religious’ belief. It undermines Nicholson, it undermines the legal system, and it undermines the seiousness of the issue of climate change.


  1. #1 by Gavin on November 26, 2009 - 00:51

    “Essentially, what the judgement says is that a belief in the germ theory of disease and the alleged resulting moral imperative is capable of being a philosophical belief and is therefore protected by the 2003 religion or belief regulations.”

    If he worked in a hospital, and his boss did not let him, lets say, wash his hands because he didn’t believe in anything we’ve learnt about hygiene, then there would be an outcry.

    The sad thing is, that would make just as much sense as this does.

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