Accepting the Reality of Climate Change

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Could churches, synagogues, and mosques help us work through our grief so we can embrace the radical changes that must be made?

Why is it so hard for people to respond effectively to the reality of climate change?

Changing people’s minds—with facts, tables, and predictions—has proven extremely difficult. Even showing people the miraculous beauty of the planet alongside the predicted losses is not working. Guilt, anxiety, and anger can be motivating forces, but they have debilitating side effects: They are all soul-destroying.

So I wonder about our hearts. Have we ignored our emotional and spiritual connections to the planet? Could the noise swirling around climate change—science, politics, media blitzes, as well as the weather disasters themselves—drown out the voice of a loss so profound that it rests unnamed in our souls? Could our breaking hearts be part of the reason we are immobilized?

In the 1960s, Rachel Carson’s image of a “silent spring” due to the proliferation of pesticides was as heartrending as it was controversial. Carson was ridiculed, her predictions dismissed. The corporate world paid millions to have her silenced. But eventually the love of bird songs won out. People read Carson’s book, grieved at the prospect of a silent spring, spoke up, and insisted the chemical-company-supported politicians ban DDT.

Today, the iconic images surrounding climate change are different: the human mother watching her child slowly die from malnutrition, the majestic polar bear mother with her cub on a shrinking ice flow, or the head of state of a small island nation pleading with delegates at yet another international conference to save his homeland from disappearing under the rising ocean waves.

These things are happening right now and, sadly, most often to those innocent of the causes.

Earth: an incarnation of God’s love rendered in soil, water, atmosphere, and living beings. It is a gift we must, by all rational, emotional, ethical, and spiritual measures, protect and preserve for future generations. It is a gift to all of us—not just some. Christians are compelled to ensure that the “least of these” who are most vulnerable are protected from the ravages of a changing climate. So if we are to truly love our neighbors as ourselves, we must put ourselves in their shoes and imagine watching our own malnourished child die or the place most precious to us disappear beneath the ocean waves.

We rarely talk about loss, grief, and climate change. The losses come in many forms. Clearly the victims of weather-related events, such as Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, grieve deeply when faced with the immediate losses of homes and neighborhoods. People drawing their livelihoods from the land and sea notice changes that will eventually eliminate that way of life for them, at least in that place. Some of us may have chosen changes in lifestyles to reduce our carbon footprint; it is something we do out of love, but there can still be accompanying feelings of loss.

For the many who feel God’s incarnate presence in nature, part of our grief may be an underlying feeling that some part of God is being lost through the changing climate.

Granted, for many other people, the reality climate change remains distant—somewhere else, sometime later. The responses proposed—recycle more, drive less, watch your personal carbon footprint—seem so ridiculously small, futile, and incongruous that they are simply dismissed: Why bother? Let me just live my life, right now, the way I always have.

But I wonder if there could be a hidden sense of loss at work even beneath this self-absorbed, preoccupied exterior.

Decades ago, Joanna Macy spoke about the threat of nuclear annihilation. Her words are tragically appropriate to the reality of climate change today: “[E]very generation throughout history lived with the tacit certainty that there would be generations to follow … that its children and children’s children would walk the same Earth, under the same sky. … That certainty is now lost to us. … That loss, unmeasured and immeasurable, is the pivotal psychological reality of our time.”

Indeed, we are the first generation of people who now know that our children’s grandchildren will indeed not walk the same Earth. They will live on a planet so less hospitable and predictable than it is now that it is unimaginable to us.

Perhaps we are beginning to realize the opposite of Bill McKibben’s suggestion about “the end of nature” from his book of that name. Maybe nature is ending us. At the pinnacle of our hubris, we find we are not above the intricacies and workings of the planetary system. The primary loss, then, is of our accustomed relationship to the planet. The associated grief is both deeply personal and hauntingly universal. It is a frightening, existential grief that leads to a profound sense of sadness and insecurity, perhaps not unlike the grief felt by the disciples after the death of Jesus.

Climate change is one of the most profound experiences faced by humans, as revolutionary a prospect as when Copernicus suggested that the Earth moves around the sun. As then, the change in our self-image cannot help but tie intimately into our thoughts about God. Some people of faith may assume that God’s second coming will change everything and alleviate the pain and grief from climate change. Others are unsure of how, but are certain that God will not “let” the human species die. Many of us, though, accept that, as Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us”: Humans are capable of “free-willing” ourselves into oblivion. That God will remain with us until the end is still a given, but as we are told in Genesis, we are not the only act of creation seen as “good.” There are no guarantees of human existence on Earth beyond our folly.

It is a world turned upside down.

So, I wonder, could it be that one root cause of inaction in the face of climate change might be immobilization from caring not too little, but too much? How do we deal with the sadness of all this?

Therapists and pastors have long recognized that grief is a process, not a state of being. It is to be lived through, not cured. Using the familiar stages of grief defined by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, climate scientist Dr. Steve Running perceptively describes five stages of “climate grief”:

  1. Denial that the Earth is warming and that the warming is caused by humans.
  2. Anger that anyone should suggest that their lifestyle be changed.
  3. Bargaining by suggesting that “it won’t be all bad” (for instance, growing seasons will be extended in some places).
  4. Depression at the almost unimaginable reality of the problem.
  5. Acceptance, enabling active exploration of solutions.

Faith communities are often turned to in moments of grief. Could churches, synagogues, and mosques help us work through our grief so we can embrace the radical changes that must be made?

William Worden, author of Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, suggests four “tasks of mourning.” Grieving over our losses due to climate change might look like this:

Accept the loss of our previous relationship to the planet. Denial of climate change is yesterday’s news, but we still need to understand the meaning of the loss. Anthropogenic climate change harms the biosphere, threatens modern civilization, and is already especially harmful to the poor. But what does that really look like? Faith communities near those most affected (the poor, climate refugees, immigrants) can help articulate the stark realities, as well as what it might mean to more privileged people.

Work through to the pain of our grief. This is the most salient task if we hope to break through the present inertia. Joanna Macy reminds us how the journey through the “dark night of the soul” has always been recognized by traditional paths as sacred. Moving deliberately through the darkest places will help people emerge with empathy and empowerment as they realize their own capacity to change.

Congregations can speak, write, draw, dance, sing, and cry in grief over what is happening and will continue to happen. We can share our fears and anticipated losses and validate each other’s grief. We can draw upon the laments of the psalms in our services, actively mourn the changes already here and those to come. We can actively express our anger at God. And we know about rituals surrounding loss; could they not be effectively used here as well?

Adapt to an environment in which our traditional relationship with the Earth has been replaced with a new one. Everything must change, from how we dry our clothes to the underlying assumptions about our economy. Faith communities can provide support to people trying to adjust, trying to make a difference.

Much of the gospel is about healing and justice between human beings. We need to learn to adapt that to encompass the larger ecological community of which we are a part. Although they might not call it “God,” there are many non-churchgoers in the surrounding community who experience the sacred in the natural world that could share in this dialogue.

Emotionally relocate preconceived notions of control and dominance of the planet and move on. We need to relegate our old Earth/human relationship to the past and move into a new community of being.

This seems overwhelming, but in a sense it has happened before. Jesus challenged people to change their allegiances, worldviews, and lifestyles, much as we are being challenged today by the reality of climate change. He suggested an entirely new community, bonded together by love. “This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for one another” (John 13:35). Only after his death did his followers realize that this new community of love had the power to break through their grief, enabling them to finally move onward in hope.

Instead of guilt, fear, and depression, can we face our profound loss, talk about it, acknowledge our grief, and move forward within this new community? Can we dry our tears and embrace a new relationship with Earth infused with wonder, reverence for all life, and gratitude to God for remaining with us through the perils of what we must face?

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work. But neither are you free to abandon it. 

—from the Talmud

Katharine M. Preston is an ecumenical lay preacher and writer, concentrating on issues of social justice and climate change. Reprinted from Sojourners(August 2013), a monthly Christian magazine that seeks to proclaim and practice the biblical call to integrate spiritual renewal and social justice.

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