Climate Crisis Indifference: Not on Our Watch!
I used to think that if we threw enough good science at the environmental problems, we could solve them. I was wrong. The main threats to the environment are not biodiversity loss, pollution, and climate change, as I once thought. They are selfishness and greed and pride. And for that we need a spiritual and cultural transformation … —James “Gus” Speth[i]
Let’s begin with a parable.
One day, the quiet life of a village on the edge of a river is interrupted by a scream. A woman sitting on a park bench along the banks spots a bleeding body floating down the rapids. Several people respond, jump in, pull the person out and attend to injuries. A while later, someone sees another body in the river. That person calls for help, jumps into the current, grabs an arm, and with other rescuers pulls this second body from the river. Over the next few hours, the good people of this village pull several more bodies out from the river and do their best to revive them.
God’s call to restore creation and advance climate justice is an essential part of our identity as people of faith—every bit as much as prayer is essential to our identity.
The mayor calls for a town meeting, and when the townspeople assemble in the town square, a teenager interrupts the mayor. She shouts out: “We need to stop these assaults. We need to confront the source of these attacks and put an end to them. I’m going upstream. Who’s coming with me?”[ii]
The Era of Global Boiling
Hardly a day goes by that we don’t see bodies floating downstream after the news that a year’s worth of rain falls in a day.[iii] October 2023 was the hottest month on planet earth in more than 100,000 years, and could help push 2023 to be the first year to exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial temperatures. Even so, your children or grandchildren will look back on this as the coolest decade they will ever experience. In Maui, in Canada, and in countries around the Mediterranean, the fires have raged like a blowtorch. Last summer, the ocean off southern Florida rivaled the hot tubs at the resorts as they hit 101°F. As United Nations General Secretary Antonio Guterres recently declared, “The era of global boiling has arrived.”
Years ago, historian Jared Diamond made the case that having a reliable climate was a necessary factor for enabling humans to initiate and maintain civilization. But beginning with the industrial revolution, humanity has broken the continuity of creation, or as Pope Frances wrote in his landmark 2015 encyclical Laudato Si, we have turned the earth, our common home, into “an immense pile of filth.” Recognizing that it was time to confront the source of the problem, in both 2018 and 2019 Pope Francis convened the CEOs of the world’s largest fossil fuel corporations. In the years since those conversations, those fossil fuel corporations have seen profits skyrocket and executive salaries soar, confirming Gus Speth’s remark above about the continued rampage of selfishness, greed, and pride. Last month, on St. Francis of Assisi Day, Pope Francis released Laudate Deum, a follow-up to Laudato Si. He devotes an entire section of this new Apostolic Exhortation to the COP28 talks in Dubai, and calls for “the abandonment of fossil fuels.”
But will people of faith hear his alarm? About 76 percent of Americans regard religion as “very important” or “fairly important” in their life. But only 9 percent of Americans view global warming as a religious issue. How can this be?
Few churches embraced the environmental movement when it launched in the 1970s. Few theologians and pastors paid attention when scientists like Carl Sagan and James Hansen sounded the global warming alarm in the 1980s. In the 1990s, when fossil fuel corporations initiated their media campaigns denying climate science, the vast majority of religious leaders and people of faith stood silently by—or worse yet, drank the Kool-Aid—and ceded the protection of God’s creation to the arena of ideological dispute rather than making it a foundational responsibility of every person of faith.
But more than 40 years ago, activist Dollie Burwell heard the alarm.[iv] When the state of North Carolina proposed dumping toxic PCBs at a waste site in Warren County, she rallied hundreds of faithful neighbors—mostly Black women—to meet in a little United Church of Christ (UCC) church, where they planned six weeks of peaceful nonviolent civil disobedience, hoping to protect both their well water and God’s creation. Their courageous resistance gave birth to the environmental justice movement, and inspired the UCC to release the groundbreaking 1987 report Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States.[v] For the first time, this report presented data that showed the truth that people of color and poor people suffer first and worst when the environment is harmed. It linked the intersectional concerns of environmental justice, racial justice, and economic justice.
A Satyagraha Moment
Mahatma Gandhi taught the world to recognize truth as a force (satyagraha). Using the force of truth, it becomes possible to bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice. That’s why opponents of environmental justice, racial justice, and economic justice will do whatever it takes—including attacking our legal system, our schools, our libraries, even democracy itself—to discredit, undermine, confuse, and oppose the truth. For example, by the mid-1980s, Exxon, Shell, Chevron, and the other fossil fuel corporations all knew that climate change was real, that it would soon create an existential global threat, and that it was caused by the use of their product. Nevertheless, between 1986 and 2015 the five biggest fossil fuel corporations in America spent a combined $3.6 billion on advertisements to deceive the public.[vi] And in 2023, thanks to funding provided by some of our country’s biggest frackers, Florida students will be treated to children’s videos about climate change from PragerU, the conservative-minded advocacy and media organization. Marissa Streit, PragerU’s CEO, recently declared, “Young kids are being taught climate hysteria.” To create what she calls “a healthy balance,” PragerU’s videos wildly claim that wind and solar power pollute the earth and make life miserable, and that recent global and local heat records reflect natural temperature cycles.[vii]
When these and other forces attack environmental justice, racial justice, and economic justice, they are also targeting hope itself. Why? Because truth is the foundation of hope. To put it another way, facing reality is a pre-condition of hope.
Hope Starts with Honesty
Because I believe that hope is the most important contribution people of faith can and must make as humanity confronts the climate crisis, it’s critically important for us, as people of faith, to stare reality in the face and bind ourselves to truth. We must be willing to face not only the scientific facts of a rapidly warming world but also the political fact that there are individuals, groups, and entire industries devoted to spreading misinformation and lies about the climate crisis. If hope is essential to Christians, then exposing the lies of the powers and principalities that deny climate change must become a first-order priority. Christians cannot stand by and allow the greatest moral challenge humanity has ever faced to be framed as an ideological dispute by people with vast financial resources acquired by the abuse of God’s creation.
Once we accept that truth is the foundation of hope, it follows, as environmental activist Greta Thunberg reminds us, that “hope starts with honesty.”[viii]
And if we are honest about the climate crisis, we will acknowledge that our hearts are full of grief. Many of us feel dread about what lies ahead, outrage at what is happening to our planet, and sadness about what has already been lost. Too often, too many of us keep these feelings to ourselves and suffer in isolation.
But Walter Brueggemann reminds us that grief, spoken aloud, is “the counter to denial.”[ix] And we can all recognize that one of the central ministries of the church, the synagogue, and the mosque is to practice solidarity with people who are grieving, to hear them out, and to respond to their pain. My years as a pastor and my reading of scripture have taught me that, in fact, our honest expression of the grief we experience, however overwhelming it may feel, is a precondition of hope.
Let’s make sure that our houses of worship are “safe enough” places for us to honestly share our grief. When we do, we will see that the smoke of grief and the fire of love are inseparable. Fueled by the fire of our love for God’s great gift of creation, as scripture tells us (1 John 4:18), we will cast away our fear and conjure the resolve needed to reverse our current course so that we may restore our common home.
A Claim on Every Last One of Us
This is our generation’s vocation. You and I and everyone who is alive today have been given the opportunity to be part of what is the most consequential generation of human beings that has ever lived. The climate crisis places an inescapable moral claim on every one of us. If our generation is to restore God’s creation, we will have to leave about $100 trillion worth of oil, coal, and gas in the ground.[x]
This will require our generation to embrace a fresh understanding of human freedom, fulfillment, vocation, and salvation. Congregations committed to working on the climate crisis will recognize:
• that we are most free when we embrace our interdependence;
• that we are most fulfilled when we are grateful for having enough;
• that God’s call—our vocation—tells us we’re all in this together;
• and that God is offering us not just personal salvation, but collective salvation.
God’s call to restore creation and advance climate justice is an essential part of our identity as people of faith—every bit as much as prayer is essential to our identity. Believing that a renewed and more just world is possible, let us become the generation that (finally!) blows the whistle and declares, “Not on my watch!” Let us become creators of a new story: a story that will leave a fair and stable planet for our kids and grandkids, a story that will expand the Golden Rule to recognize all future generations as our neighbors, a story shaped by:
• the unifying power of shared vulnerability;
• the welcome embrace of the challenge of change and reform;
• the humbling reward of justice restored;
• the expansive fullness of interdependence;
• the contagious generosity of caring for the least of these among us;
• and our universal calling to protect and restore God’s great gift of creation.[xi]
The Rev. Jim Antal ’78 M.Div. serves as Special Advisor on Climate Justice to the General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ. His book, Climate Church, Climate World, now available in a newly updated 2nd edition, has been studied by hundreds of congregations since it first came out in 2018. From 2006-2018, he led the 350 UCC churches in Massachusetts as their Conference Minister and President. An environmental activist from the first Earth Day in 1970, he wrote and championed three groundbreaking national UCC resolutions, including the 2013 decision that made the UCC the first national body to vote to divest from fossil fuel corporations. In 2017 YDS honored him with the William Sloane Coffin Award for Peace and Justice.
[i] Quoted in Jim Antal, Climate Church, Climate World (Rowman and Littlefield, revised and updated edition 2023), p. 9. See also the Urgent Call to Action endorsed by Speth and others at the 2007 gathering of scientists and evangelicals united to protect creation.
[iii] On Aug. 20, 2023, Palm Springs and other parts of Southern California received historic amounts of rain and flash flooding when the first tropical storm in 84 years hit the region.
[v] Charles Lee, “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States—A National Report on the Racial and Socio-Economic Characteristics of Communities with Hazardous Waste Sites,” Commission for Racial Justice, UCC (1987).
[vi] See, for example, Shannon Hall, “Exxon Knew about Climate Change Almost 40 Years Ago,” Scientific American, Oct. 26, 2015; and Benjamin Franta, “Shell and Exxon’s secret 1980s climate change warnings,” The Guardian, Sept. 19, 2018. See also Antal, Climate Church, Climate World, pp. 162-3.
[vii] See “Florida schools ‘hijacked by the left’ turn to anti-climate cartoons,” Climatewire, Aug. 7, 2023.
[viii] See Greta Thunberg, “There Are No Real Climate Leaders Yet—Who Will Step Up at Cop26?,” The Guardian, Oct. 21. 2021, and “We Need to Talk about Honesty,” an interview with Thunberg by Giordano, The Juice Media Podcast, Nov. 14, 2021.
[x] Bill McKibben, “This Simple Math Problem Could Be the Key to Solving Our Climate Crisis,” Rolling Stone, April 2, 2023.