How to Care about Climate Change When You’re Not The Pope

June 23, 2015

The religious community is abuzz with commentary on the Pope’s recently released encyclical on climate change and the moral imperative to address its consequences, borne disproportionately on the backs of the global poor. Caring for our environment as a theological concern is not a hard sell in most of the world. The question is how we do it, not why. In American evangelicalism, however, the issue has been hijacked by increasingly contentious culture wars, lumped along with other hot-button topics like abortion, evolution, and gay marriage. When the religious leader of over a billion people worldwide tackles it head on, it is worth noting that the relevancy of climate change transcends culture wars, and is indeed, a global problem.

Framing something as a global problem makes it sound like only the Pope can deal with it. The Pope can do things we can’t: mobilize world leaders and policy makers, project a voice of theological authority, and draft beautiful Italian documents. As a social justice Christian, I struggle with this tension. All the problems seem too overwhelming to tackle, the issues loom too large to confront. Caring for the poor, dismantling systemic greed, reversing climate change—how do we, as ordinary people, begin to take action without letting the enormity of global problems swallow us into complacency?

I think there’s a lot of fear. Scientists are coming out with bad news in regards to climate change all the time. Yet the response to fear is not to deny overwhelming scientific consensus. The antidote to fear is not even necessarily bravado, because we need more than ego to confront this problem. We fight fear most fiercely when we are committed to finding and creating beauty, which seems fitting as we seek to care for our incredibly beautiful earth.

I suggest developing curiosity, generosity, and solidarity. For me, this breaks it down into bite-sized actions steps we can follow: ask questions, give $$, and be kind.

Curiosity. Don’t become jaded adults who wallow in status quo. Ask relentless questions like a two year old. Why do things work the way they do? Where does the stuff we consume come from and where do they go? How do the systems in our economy sustain our livelihood? Does it help or hurt us? Learn history. How did people live in the past, are we better off now or worse? The questions we ask will define and clarify the role we play in becoming a more responsible citizens of the earth. The math-y person will be the one calculating carbon emissions. The entrepreneur will cast a vision for a new economy that add greater value to society with less environmental impact. The poet will observe the world and sustain our work with beauty.

Generosity. Many of the culprits of climate change can be boiled down to greed: the need to maximize profit, consume without limit, and expand national power without regard to global neighbours. We must confess our sins of greed and combat it with generosity. And no, not by giving more stuff (!), but by channeling funds toward organizations with a vision for a more sustainable future. Consider investing in green companies. Or give to scientific research as we gather more information about our world. Or donating to orgs like Eden Reforestation Projects, where your money goes to hire local employees in places like Haiti, Madagascar, and Ethiopia to replenish forests with thriving trees. Boost local economy, help front-line climate change victims, bring life both to the people and the land – it is hope multiplied.

Solidarity. Both for our global neighbours out of sight, and for our children’s future beyond our lifespan. Care for the well-being of those beyond our immediate reach. Be selfless, and kind, and concerned for how our actions here and today affect those out there and in generations to come. The scientific analysis of climate change is complex. The policies dictating world economies is difficult to construct. But the moral premise is strikingly simple: love others. Recycling is an act of compassion. Reducing carbon emissions is a call for solidarity. Repurposing our stuff is a gesture of profound care. With every small act of caring for our environment, we are building value into our fellow humans, declaring that they matter. It’s hard and easy at the same time.

We may not all be ordained the Bishop of Rome, but we can do our small part. Given the scope of our global challenge, I think the Pope may need us just as much as we need him.