What do we talk about? In Christian circles, some topics receive little attention or thoughtful conversation because of difficult subject matter. We hope this iAt series “Topics Christians Should Discuss” provides meaningful content for you to ponder, and we encourage you to begin or continue hearty conversations following what you read. Leave a comment if there is a topic you’d like us to address.
About five weeks into the syllabus, I ask students in my environmental literature course at Calvin University to read Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical on climate change, Laudato si.1 Students are astonished. They’re not used to Christians speaking openly and frankly about “the technocratic paradigm,” greed, the value of all living things before God, and the need for an “ecological conversion.” They find the pope’s feisty frankness bracing and welcoming. They wish Christians would talk about climate change more—as young people facing an uncertain future, they’re scared.
But we’re not talking about it. According to the Yale Climate Communications group, in 2021 about 65% of Americans were worried about climate change. Well over 70% wanted the US government to fund research into renewable energy and regulate CO2 as a pollutant.2 At the same time, only 35% reported talking about climate change “at least occasionally.”
The situation is similar if we look only at people of faith in the US. A 2022 Pew study found that 74% of American Christians consider climate change an “extremely serious” (50%) or “somewhat serious” (24%) problem. Yet only 21% of “religious attenders” (people who attend religious services at least once per month) talk about climate change in their faith communities. In fact, only 8% of Americans, according to this study, are both highly religious and highly concerned about climate change.3
Why are so many American Christians quietly worried, yet avoiding the topic?
Why are so many American Christians quietly worried, yet avoiding the topic? I would suggest three main reasons: politics, distorted theology, and fear.
That same Pew study also found that religious Americans’ views on climate change map to their political affiliations, regardless of any theological assertions they affirm about the need to “care for creation.” This may come as no surprise. Climate change has been successfully politicized for decades as a “lefty liberal” concern. Fossil fuel and other extraction industry interests overlap significantly with conservative think tanks, and of course fossil fuel companies lobby politicians lavishly at all levels.4 Fossil fuel reps have even deliberately deployed conservative White Evangelical power brokers to sow climate skepticism among their followers.5 Thus, concern about climate change has been successfully caricatured in some pockets of American Christianity as a radical liberal agenda dangerous to the faith. Long-cultivated skepticism about science among some Christians provides a useful foundation for supporting climate skepticism.
Unfortunately, distorted theology contributes to climate skepticism and indifference as well. American Christianity has become over-spiritualized and over-individualized. In other words, we too often functionally reduce Christianity to getting one’s own soul right with God and thus securing a heavenly reward. This truncates the Gospel while enabling us to benefit as much as possible from the status quo. If faith is only about personal piety and occasional good works, then we have no need to examine, say, massive economic systems that promote consumption, colonialized resource extraction, global wealth inequality, and the devastation of whole ecosystems. We can focus on our own—or mostly other people’s—individual sins while enjoying the windfalls of affluence and privilege.
Meanwhile, misunderstandings of Providence have led many Christians to imagine that “God will fix it” when it comes to the climate crisis. At best, this is a response to the sheer scope of the problem and an expression of people’s feelings of powerlessness. At worst, this is merely a way to dodge responsibility. In any case, this claim is easily refuted: history provides ample evidence that God usually allows us to reap what we sow. And moreover, God acts in history very typically through people: so why not you?
Finally, I think many people don’t want to talk about climate change simply because they are afraid. We catch headlines about 1.1°C average global temperature rise or 421 ppm CO2 or glacial melting, and we feel bewildered and overwhelmed. It’s easy to conclude that there is nothing we can do, certainly as ordinary folks. We also fear that any attempts to “solve” the problem will require sacrifices, changes, and losses that we don’t want to face. One of our basic human impulses is to hide from what we can’t face.
However, fearful hiding is not the way of God. Climate scientist and evangelical Christian Katharine Hayhoe—a masterful communicator—loves to quote 2 Timothy 1:7, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” God does not call us to avoid or ignore what’s happening around us. Instead, God calls us to faithful action.
“God does not call us to avoid or ignore what’s happening around us. Instead, God calls us to faithful action.”
In Hayhoe’s well-known 2018 TED Talk6 (with over 4 million views on YouTube), Hayhoe urges, “The most important thing you can do to fight climate change: talk about it.” Her 2021 book Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World, offers even more ample guidance for talking with others, knowledgeably and productively, about climate change.7
If we should be facing and talking about climate change, how can we do this well?
In the past five years, in response to my own “ecological conversion,” I have found that the best way to deal with anxiety about the climate crisis is to become well informed and face it square-on. I’ve been deeply engaged with IPCC reports, scientific papers, climate journalism, podcasts, and activist groups. I’m careful to listen only to expert, vetted authorities. Yes, there are days when knowing more leads to discouragement and grief. But more often, I feel determined, focused, and encouraged by all the people working hard to understand and address the problems with the full force of their ingenuity and passion.
Face the scope.
We have to understand that the climate crisis is a gigantic, complex, “wicked” problem. Mild injunctions to “care for the earth,” put in LED bulbs, and recycle are not going to cut it. As the recent IPCC Sixth Assessment Summary Report puts it, “Rapid and far-reaching transitions across all sectors and systems are necessary to achieve deep and sustained emissions reductions and secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.”8
It’s here, it’s us, it’s bad. The good news is that we know what we have to do. We need to transition our energy systems from fossil fuels to renewables, overhaul our agricultural and land use practices, and move toward circular economies, among other things. These are daunting tasks, but we do have the tools and technology we need—even the economics are now in favor of transition over “legacy” systems.9 And honestly, all of these efforts, engaged in with justice and equity, will bring “co-benefits” to everyone.
We are looking at a tougher climate, but we could also be looking at a much better earth community: more just, more equitable, healthier for people and other creatures, more joyful. That’s the vision that excites me. It’s a redemptive vision, in line with God’s kingdom purposes. Many, many people share it: that keeps me going.
“We are looking at a tougher climate, but we could also be looking at a much better earth community: more just, more equitable, healthier for people and other creatures, more joyful.”
Bring the faith.
While learning about the climate crisis, I’ve also been studying ecotheology. I’ve discovered a rich strand of the Christian theological tradition I knew nothing about, and now I’m following the current blossoming of serious Christian reflection focused on sacramentality, our kinship with the rest of creation, and a deeper understanding of the Incarnation, among other things.
Christians, along with other people of faith, have much to contribute to our great task in this generation. As the pope urges in his encyclical, the climate crisis is fundamentally a moral challenge. We know that the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people are already suffering the most from climate impacts, even though they have contributed the least to climate change. To love our neighbors at this moment in history requires mitigating climate change not only for the most vulnerable today, but also for the young who still have long on this earth, and for future generations yet unborn.
The Rev. Jim Antal, a UCC pastor with decades of leadership experience in climate activism, observes that the climate crisis “places an inescapable moral claim on our generation and, therefore, on every one of us.” Responding to that call, he urges, is our “communal vocation” right now as people of faith.10
Find the joy.
Christians who decide to face the climate crisis with faith and resolve will not find themselves in a lonely place! Rather, they will feel as if they have opened the door to a world full of already busy people. Christians—and people of all faiths—are working diligently all over the globe. I have found so much joy in recent years meeting incredible people—grounded, faithful, creative, delightful people—all contributing in their own way. Farmers, writers, theologians, biologists, engineers. Organizations focused on climate justice, local activism, energy transition, interfaith alliances. And I’ve learned about faith communities all over the world who are putting solar panels on their churches, starting community gardens, re-nativizing landscape, engaging in local policy work on flooding mitigation, taking youth groups out on ocean research boats—people are resilient, and God is working through them indeed.
The task is daunting, yes, but when we engage it together, with faith in God’s purposes and gratitude for each other and the earth, there is joy in the journey.
Check out our in All things book reviews of Kathryn Hayhoe’s book here: Bicycles, Bridge-building, and Commuting Intentionally and Conversations on Creation Care.
For basic suggested resources: https://debrarienstra.com/refugia-faith/suggested-resources/
For more about my own journey: Refugia Faith: Seeking Hidden Shelters, Ordinary Wonders, and the Healing of the Earth (Fortress, 2022).
For a 30% discount through April 30, use the code EARTH23 and visit https://www.fortresspress.com/store/promotions/EARTH23?fbclid=IwAR2ahIBd3gxjdyyJD1NophvtNDl_EEcuX9c5_JNHzNgFTirQvO-5BPBZWNA
For ongoing faith-and-climate news: https://refugianewsletter.substack.com/
Pope Francis ↩
“Yale Climate Opinion Maps 2021,” …. https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/visualizations-data/ycom-us/ ↩
Becka A. Alper, “How Religion Intersects with Americans’ View on the Environment,” Pew Research Center, 17 Nov. 2022. https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2022/11/17/how-religion-intersects-with-americans-views-on-the-environment/ ↩
Inci Sayki and Jimmy Coultier, “Oil and gas industry spent $124.4 million on federal lobbying amid record profits in 2022,” OpenSecrets.org, 22 Feb. 2023. https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2023/02/oil-and-gas-industry-spent-124-4-million-on-federal-lobbying-amid-record-profits-in-2022/#:~:text=Close-,Oil%20and%20gas%20industry%20spent%20%24124.4%20million%20on,amid%20record%20profits%20in%202022&text=The%20oil%20and%20gas%20industry,OpenSecrets%20analysis%20of%20lobbying%20disclosures ↩
Brendan O’Connor, “How Fossil Fuel Money Made Climate Denial the Word of God,” Splinter, 8 Aug. 2017. https://splinternews.com/how-fossil-fuel-money-made-climate-denial-the-word-of-g-1797466298 ↩
Katharine Hayhoe, “The most important thing you can do to fight climate change: talk about it,” TED.com, 2018. https://www.ted.com/talks/katharine_hayhoe_the_most_important_thing_you_can_do_to_fight_climate_change_talk_about_it?language=en ↩
Katharine Hayhoe, Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World, Atria/One Signal, 2021. ↩
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Synthesis Report of the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report (AR6), Summary for Policymakers, March 2023, p. 30. ↩
Bob Holmes, “Why Green Energy Finally Makes Economic Sense,” Knowable Magazine, 14 Jan. 2020.
Jim Antal, “UCC minister: God’s call – come together to address the climate crisis,” UCC.org, 9 Sept. 2021. https://www.ucc.org/ucc-minister-gods-call-come-together-to-address-the-climate-crisis/ Also, Rev. Jim Antal, “Fighting Climate Change: Our Responsibility, Our Vocation, Our Salvation,” in Leah D. Schade and Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, eds., Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis, Rowman & Littlefield, 2019, pp. 123-128. ↩