Climate Change | November 1, 2015

Changing the climate with justice, mercy, and humility

Photo by Petr Kratochvil

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8, NIV).

What better touchstone than this could we ask for, as we wrestle with how to live faithfully as God’s people?

Whether we’re among family, neighbors, coworkers, or strangers, this verse’s guidance is clear: Our actions should pass the “just, merciful, and humble” test. We’re bound to fall short, of course, but this verse keeps us focused in our prayers and in our striving and reminds us who we’re called to be.

What if we were to extend the reach of this verse to include all of our neighbors—near and far, human and nonhuman, present and future? What would a just, merciful, and humble response to a changing climate look like? In our opinion, it would, at very least, involve the following:

First, in the name of justice and mercy, we must acknowledge that a changing climate is having devastating effects on others—particularly those who have contributed to the problem very little or not at all and lack the political and economic means to address it. We must speak up on behalf of the voiceless and help sound the call to action. We must recognize that wealthier nations such as ours bear a special burden to help poorer nations cope with climate change, and we must prod our leaders to bear in mind poorer nations’ legitimate needs for increased development when crafting international agreements. We must stress the urgency of acting immediately and decisively to address the crisis and to minimize long-term consequences to be borne by our children, grandchildren, and the whole of God’s creation. In the name of humility, we must summon the courage to take an honest look at our lifestyles and explore the ways in which our own daily choices are contributing to the problem. Admittedly, this is challenging when it is difficult to see the connections between our actions and their impacts, when we are embedded in a culture where such destructive actions are viewed as normal, and when we would perhaps really prefer to go about our lives in blissful ignorance.

When we do come to recognize and acknowledge our role in the problem, it is easy to end up on a dead-end route to guilt, despair, and immobilization. The good news is that there are other, more productive and uplifting paths to choose. What if we were to consider each action we take that reduces our fossil-fuel use as a joyful expression of our faith—as a sacrificial gift that we are giving to God and to our neighbors? What if, while hanging out laundry or walking or bicycling to a place we’ve previously driven, we embraced the opportunity to notice and reflect upon the beauty of creation? What if, in choosing to consume less stuff, we got greater clarity about where true sources of contentment may be found? What if, in intentionally changing our daily living patterns, we experienced the sense of integrity and deep inner peace that come from aligning our lifestyles more fully with the spiritual values we hold dear? What if we joined with others attempting to walk the same path?

We all know the power of community in helping us feel the Holy Spirit at work, sustaining our hope and enabling us to stick to a challenging course of action. Remaining on the path that Jesus asks us to walk is sometimes quite daunting, particularly when we’re hacking out the path as we go, with societal norms and pressures continually tugging us toward wider, smoother roads.

In the case of responding faithfully to climate change, there’s an even bigger obstacle to overcome: As historians Naomi Oreskies and Erik Conway have documented in their painstakingly researched book Merchants of Doubt (now also out in movie form), a carefully coordinated media campaign has been waged for decades to delay action on climate change. Funded by fossil-fuel interests and taking a page out of the tobacco companies’ playbook, the campaign’s main strategy has been to create the impression in the public’s mind that the jury’s still out—that scientists aren’t in agreement about whether human-caused climate change is happening—when, in fact, the scientific consensus is quite strong, at 97% or higher. Being an active member of a group walking the path together can help each of us become more resistant to such profit-driven manipulation, as well as more resilient, energetic, and determined—not to mention effective and joyful. As commentator David Brooks reports, “Joining a group that meets just once a month produces the same increase in happiness as doubling your income.” When that group is engaged in deeply meaningful and vitally important work, how much greater the increase?

While some organizations devoted to addressing climate change use confrontational tactics that might strike us as being uncomfortably at odds with the spirit of humility, there are plenty of others that adopt a non-polarizing, consensus-building approach. Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL) is one example. This group advocates for passage of “fee and dividend” legislation, in which a fee is levied on all fossil fuels at their source of production, and the funds collected are distributed equally among all Americans, to offset any price increases associated with the fee. The fee and dividend concept has support from politicians in both political parties and from a number of economists, both liberal and conservative. CCL’s approach includes listening, finding common goals, and building relationships to reach consensus.

A second example of a collaborative group is Interfaith Power and Light, a religiously based organization taking direct action to address climate change by promoting energy conservation, energy efficiency, and renewable energy. Their projects include helping low-income homeowners with weatherization, and supporting congregations in installing solar panels on their houses of worship. How might our congregations join in or even amplify these efforts? How might our denomination?

In December, humanity will have a precious opportunity to make genuine and dramatic progress toward re-stabilizing the climate. At the Paris Climate Conference (also known as COP21), approximately 25,000 official delegates from governments, United Nations agencies, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and civil society will gather with a breathtakingly bold aim: to achieve a legally binding and universally accepted agreement on climate that would keep global warming below 2°C (3.6°F)—the level most climate scientists agree would minimize the risk of triggering massive, disastrous, and irreversible changes. The more people of faith who actively engage with this issue in the coming months, the stronger the signal we will send to the world’s leaders that we expect them to seize the moment and achieve historic progress.

We are called for just such a time as this. Will justice, kindness, and humility prevail in Paris? What will we do—peacefully, simply, together—to help ensure that they do?

Sharon Yohn is assistant professor of chemistry at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. Laura (Ranck) White is a small business owner and serves as the financial manager of the Huntingdon Farmers’ Market. She is especially involved in expanding access to the market for low-income community members. See all Climate Change articles in this series.