What Power Do We Have To Combat Climate Change?

The power we learned in church: the power of the word.

Posted Feb 27, 2019

Patricia Prijatel
After the East Peak Fire of 2013
Source: Patricia Prijatel

We have reshaped the world’s climate. The question is: How will climate change reshape us?

David Wallace-Wells asks this question in today’s Los Angeles Times, part of a series of articles he has written in conjunction with the publication of his book, The Uninhabitable Earth.

Wallace-Wells lists the effects of a climate that will certainly warm beyond the two-degree threshold we once saw as a worst-case: divisive populism globally in response to climate refugees, a 10-to-20 percent increase in armed conflict, a 50 percent reduction in agricultural output and, eventually, social, political, and economic collapse.

That's all bad enough, but what about the effects on us as human beings? Wallace-Wells writes:

In fact, the indirect effects may be even more profound: on our psychology, our culture, our sense of place in nature and history, our relationship to technology and to capitalism.

Because this is all happening far faster than we had thought, we don't have a lot of time to talk about options. We have to change how we think. This is not theoretical. It is real and it is immediate.  Wallace-Wells writes:

We need a new humanities of climate change to guide us through the dilemmas and paradoxes that it will bring.

James Antal, the author of Climate Church, Climate World, says the place for this discussion is in church, yet because we see global warming as a political issue, rather than a spiritual one, we’re reticent to bring it up. But it is highly spiritual, he says, because we have a responsibility to God’s creation. Antal says:

The continuity of creation has come undoneAnd if the church isn’t the safest place to talk about the greatest threat facing the planet, what good is church?

When you say, love your neighbor like yourself, he says, translate neighbor to future generations. Instead of focusing on our kids’ comfort today, think honestly about their kids, and their kids’ grandkids. Do we want a future of climate disasters for them? And, if we can make changes now, why literally in God’s name, don't we?

But we have to first envision a future far different from our past, and we have to believe and act on that vision. That’s the hard part. I want my grandsons to bring their grandchildren to our Colorado forest and see the trees we have planted, which I want to believe will be tall, healthy, and green in that distant future. But I know that, unless I continue acting to reduce my carbon footprint and to get corporations and governments and—yes, churches—to respond to the planet's crisis, that’s not going to happen. That forest will not be there. Part of it is already gone because of the East Peak Fire of 2013, which burned our land and 13,000 surrounding acres. In retrospect, that’s tiny considering the size of subsequent fires. The Spring Creek Fire, about 40 miles from us, last year burned 108,000 acres. That's nine times the size of our fire, only five years before.

I’m naïve if I think that my future generations will inherit the kind of forest I once knew. And, because I have seen its effects, I can feel climate change. I fear it.

Where do we start if we want to move others, to make them see and feel and think differently? We can start like this, right now, talking, acknowledging. And we can take this discussion to other people of faith. We are people of the word.

A couple of years ago, a religious friend of mine said that climate change was just not on her radar screen. "It's not my issue," she said. She had too many other concerns on which to focus—poverty, judicial reform, racial justice. We discussed it at the time and it bothered me so much that each time I saw her I tried to quietly nudge her along. Last week, I saw her at a faith-based "climate revival" I went to, in which we heard Jim Antal speak.

How and why did she change her position? Why did climate change become important enough to spend six hours of a Saturday working on it? She's a smart woman and she reads and she listens. Her mind was changed, and others' can be as well. 

As we develop new humanities of climate change, as Wallace-Wells challenges us to do, this discussion, this moving others along, becomes a more comfortable, natural process. The humanities, including religion, are largely based on the power of the word. We can use that power. We can use the word. We can use our words.

Representatives of religious institutions across the world attended the 24th United Nations Convention on Climate Change to advocate for the Paris Accord. The Church of England forced Exxon Mobile to consider climate change as part of its business plan.  Pope Francis issued an encyclical, Laudato Si, saying that climate change is real and caused by humans.  And at our little church in West Des Moines, Iowa, several of us have started writing informational tidbits in our weekly bulletin about all the issues that deny others justice, including climate change. We're starting the conversation.

If we see this as a mission and a calling, maybe we can stop being intimidated by the loudest voices in the room who don't believe the science. This is not political, it is our children's future. We can believe, and we can act on our own beliefs.

We can end our own silence on climate change.