Hope, Climate Change, and a New Story
Updated: Aug 27
Hope can feel like it's in short supply these days, especially after the recent release of The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report. The story told by the report is a grim one, but the IPCC leaves the possibility of a different storyline if we’re able to change our ways. The question is, how do we get ourselves to actually make those changes?
Marquette Park Beach; Gary, IN (photo by Dan Robinson)
My guess is you already know the headlines. The Report and its Headline Statements from the Summary for Policymakers state that “It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land,” and that these changes to the climate are “unprecedented” over hundreds and thousands of years. The report also does not have a lot of optimism that the changes can be limited to the original Paris Climate Accords’ goal of a 1.5° C (or even a 2° C) rise in temperature this century.
I’m guessing you also already know what climate change means for the Great Lakes region. According to the U.S. federal government’s Climate Resilience Toolkit, climate change in the Great Lakes will lead to a wide range of negative consequences for all life in the Basin, including, “flooding, erosion, declining water quality, and negative impacts on transportation, agriculture, human health, and infrastructure.”
Change is necessary... but hard
According to the IPCC report, the only actions humans can take that could keep us within some range of the Paris goals are “deep reductions in carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas emissions” in the next few decades.
Deep reductions in carbon dioxide require a monumental change in how we live as a society and sacrifices by people who contribute the most to climate change – those of us living wealthy lives here in the U.S. and other developed nations. Unfortunately, the consequences of these high-carbon lifestyles and the resulting climate change aren't affecting the wealthy and comfortable but rather those already suffering from environmental injustice – people living in poverty; Black, Indigenous, and People of Color; and folks living in developing nations.
Yet, when it comes to fighting climate change, we know what we need to do, and for the most part, we know how to do it. So, why don’t we do it?
Well, for starters (and this is not a surprise to anyone), change is hard. And sacrificing for change is even harder, especially for those of us not used to doing without. How do we convince people to make these hard changes? How do I convince myself that I need to change?
Fear and consequences certainly can play a role in change, sometimes for the worse, sometimes for the better. I can think of a few times when I was grounded as a child. Sometimes the lesson was to not to do whatever it was that got me in trouble. But sometimes the lesson was to learn how to do it better so I don’t get caught! Fear and consequences alone have a spotty track record when it comes to real change.
And yet, fear and consequences can get our attention. The California wildfires, the unprecedented heat in the U.S. Pacific northwest and Canada’s west coast., the floods in Tennessee a few days ago, a hurricane in New England, these all have focused attention in North America on the effects of climate change and have begun to convince people that we need to change our ways.
According to one recent poll of voters in 19 “competitive house districts” across the United States:
“70% of voters support addressing the challenge of climate change by shifting to greater use of clean energy, reducing carbon pollution from vehicles and industry, and making homes and buildings more energy efficient.
69% of voters support investments in clean energy such as wind and solar power by extending tax credits to spur innovation and manufacturing.
61% of voters support investments in electric vehicles and charging stations to reduce pollution and help more Americans buy clean cars.”
What’s interesting to me about those statistics is that the actions don’t reflect any actual change in behavior. Like my example from childhood, these actions just mean we keep doing what we’re doing, only doing it better.
Fear and consequences, then, can only get us so far. They can focus our minds, but they may not lead to any real change. And they can also freeze us into inaction. The situation can seem so bad that it’s hopeless, so why try? Like a majority of the Americans in the house districts, we may support some change, but do we think true, necessary change is really possible?
We need a new story
I started this article by saying that hope can seem in short supply right now. But sometimes hope and optimism get mixed up. Optimism, as Dr. Dan Weber pointed out in an earlier interview on this blog, is the belief that things will get better, while hope is the belief that things can get better. But “better” requires a little effort – or a whole lot of effort.
Hope, then, is an interesting mix of seeing new outcomes and possessing the energy and motivation to work towards those outcomes. That’s where spirituality comes in.
Spirituality, as understood in this Project, is coming to some understanding of our place within the wider reality of our existence, within the Divine or God, and then living out that understanding. Of course, that understanding is always changing, so our spirituality is always evolving. We're always telling ourselves new stories to better understand who we are and what the nature of existence and the Divine are. Some stories help us with the inevitable change in our lives, while other stories help us deny that change, often with disastrous results.
We even see this with climate change. Within my own Christian tradition, for example, I have heard new stories that call Christians to a better understanding of their role in caring for the Divine gift of creation, that call us to change how we live. At other times, I’ve seen Christians tell the story in a way that prioritizes heaven over this world, to the extent that we don’t need to worry about what happens here. We don’t need to care for this earth because this earth doesn’t matter. The tide is shifting, I think, as more Christians come to see their role as caretakers, but both sets of stories are still there.
We humans are meaning-making, religious, moral creatures
In his book, Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key, Dr. Larry L. Rasmussen writes that the human species as a whole has certain characteristics. We are, by nature, meaning-makers. We can’t help but create a set of symbols and stories that help us make sense of the world around us and our place in it. National flags and origin stories of nations, keepsakes we have and the stories of friendship and love they represent, the religious symbols we create from water and earth to tell the story of how life came to be here – we can’t help but make meaning from symbols and stories.
So what are the new stories, or the old stories told or remembered in a new way, that will give us hope in the face of climate change?
A few of those stories can be found in this Project. Huda Alkaff told the story of Mother Hajjar and her search for water for her child, a symbol of the importance of water, God’s care for humans, and the important role of women in Islam. Rabbi Jonathan Biatch told the story of the Jewish celebration of Tu Bishvat. Originally a celebration of spring and the sap rising in the trees in ancient Israel, the holiday has come to be a celebration of caring for creation.
Dr. Patty Loew shared the story of how Ojibwe spirituality differs from Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, in that it is tied to a particular place. While the practices of those three religious traditions can be done anywhere in the world, Ojibwe spirituality is lived through a connection to that community’s home land and water. What would the spirituality of people across the Great Lakes Basin look like if it were intimately tied to this particular place? How would we live differently?
Rasmussen goes on to write that humans are born to religion, that we can’t help but make meaning together, and together create symbols that tell the story of our relationship to existence and the Divine. “Through symbols and the work of the symbolic consciousness, religion imaginatively construes human experience of the world so as to invest it with meaning and provide motivation, energy, and direction.” (p. 33)
That motivation, energy, and direction, Rasmussen says, is often channeled towards moral questions, because humans are born to morality. “We experience one kind of world, the world that is. But we imagine another, the world that might and ought to be,” Rasmussen writes. “This is where human life is lived, suspended in the tension and across the gaps between is, ought, and how (getting from is to ought). That tension and those gaps give rise to human moral experience, which is to say, choice and agency. Moral agency is the capacity to act in large and small ways on the difference between the world we face and the world we desire.” (p. 36)
Making the choice to act
To apply Rasmussen’s ideas to climate change, we have a drive towards morality, towards choosing to act on the difference between the world we face (with the growing negative consequences of climate change) and the world we desire (free of those consequences). Religion and spirituality can help give us the direction, motivation, and energy to act on that moral choice through new stories and symbols.
Or those stories and symbols can drive us further away from fighting climate change.
Religion and spirituality are powerful motivators and two-edged swords, but they are not optional. We will inevitably make meaning and stories that move us into the coming decades. So, we can create stories that show us the path to a healthier future for all, or we can create stories that keep the status quo and environmental injustice in place. The choice is ours.
The ability to make that choice gives me hope, if not optimism. Through our collective efforts, we can tell new stories and make new meaning that will give us the motivation and energy to fight climate change. We can harness the power of spirituality to provide us the energy and direction we need to change our future. But it will take a little effort by all of us ... well, actually, a lot of effort.