Climate change can't be "stopped," at least not in the way our activism often pretends. But when we take stewardship of our communities more seriously, we can start setting better social policy for how to address the humanitarian and environmental crises already here.
When my grandfather died, his books and magazines were packed up and shipped halfway across the country. In that treasure-trove of old reading, I found science-fiction paperbacks, ancient Greek plays, early 20th-century poetry and philosophy, the occasional beaver magazine (which my father hastily took from my curious nine-year-old hands), and… MAD magazines from the 1970s. I didn’t get all the media references, but I was fascinated by all the oil crisis and pollution banter. Growing up in the late 80s and early 90s, everything was ozone layer this, acid rain that. Did every generation have a different environmental crisis? Did they build on each other? Would everything just get worse?
At the time, of course, I didn’t know what we all do now: that oil companies in the 1970s knew their businesses would cause immense harm to the environment, and that they proactively sought to manage PR to deflect from their internal research’s findings. I didn’t know that 20 companies have produced over a third of greenhouse gas emissions since 1965, with Chevron, Exxon, Shell, and BP amounting a full 10% just between themselves.
In university, I started to realize that the way we talked about environmental crises played right into this long-term game of corporate deflection. There was so much focus on how we could become better individual respondents to climate change. We became seasoned hands at accusing one another of being planet-ending monsters for not recycling, or for using a straw, or for not always “doing our part.” We became less deft, meanwhile, at pushing for our governments to compel accountability from corporations. It was hard to know how to advocate effectively for restrictions to reduce their harmful impact on us all.
All about that spin
Moreover, early messaging around the world’s current environmental crisis was like one of those “12345” passwords: easily hacked. If you call something “global warming” because the overall average temperature is rising, your description doesn’t accommodate extreme weather phenomena, up to and including ice storms and brutal winters. That leaves an opening for dissenters to leverage average people’s doubts, along with their desire not to have to worry about an environmental crisis if they can help it.
Okay, fine. So you switch to “climate change.” There. That covers rising global temperatures and the way that they create dramatic localized weather events, right? Well. Sort of. Except that this crisis is also changing the tides and ocean levels, but… that’s not “climate,” exactly, is it? And so, again, it’s easy for dissenters to drive a wedge between scientific data and average citizens. “Look at what they’re trying to do,” the manipulative counterargument goes. “They’re trying to lump everything into this one catch-all term to scare and control you!”
This is why we need to be talking more about “environmental change.” And we need to stop pretending that it’s going to be halted.
The world’s average temperatures are rising, and with them, levels and intensities of seasonal fires and droughts. The acceleration of polar-ice-cap collapse from this added heat is also driving up ocean levels, even as disrupted aquatic ecosystems undergo significant oxygen depletion and species-diversity decline.
And on a human level, this means huge upticks in internal and international displacement, along with increased likelihoods of more devastating famines and disease. It means more wars driven centrally by resource scarcity, for all their superficial demographic-division excuses. It means more people dying, along with so much of our shared natural world. And it means a coherent number of policy spaces where we can and should still act.
Whose environmental crisis?
The problem with mixed messaging, which corporations have had a leg-up on enacting since they first tried to get ahead of their “PR problem,” is that it creates an “us” and a “them.” It gives the impression that everything is about “spin” and the need to decipher the deeper political agenda. PR is always “for” someone, and therefore “at” someone else’s expense.
In many religious spheres, our environmental crisis has also been spun in this highly corporate way, into an attack on religious primacy. The argument tends to go that all this buzz about environmental change is a way of “infiltrating” believing throngs and sowing spiritual doubt.
Did it have to be this way? Not even close. There’s plenty in Abrahamic faith traditions that speaks of ours as a fallen world, and humans as express stewards of it and each other. So, there really wasn’t any intrinsic need for an extreme form of Evangelical denialism to take center stage among the faithful. Christians could even have been leading the charge for environmental advocacy, if Western mainstream news media had gone another way.
So, why didn’t it? Well, yes, in part because of Western Evangelical wealth, and anxieties about its loss. In prosperity gospel circles, outsized affluence is a sign of divine favor. Not an outcome of systemic injustice. Not due to corrupt earthly practices bringing the world to ruin.
(And unfortunately, for all that some Christians claim the Bible only looks poorly upon the rich, there is plenty of textual support for thinking that wealth is an entitlement of the godly. So, prosperity gospel probably isn’t going anywhere any time soon).
But it’s not just a “religious” problem
In even greater part, though? We lost the plot because we let corporations write it, and because we let news media spin so much of this issue into simplistic “for” and “against” debates. Because, for all the many people fighting and protesting on the ground all these years, most of us have still been focussing on the wrong everyday sites of action.
We let ourselves get caught up in what we can do as individuals to reduce our negative impact. In the process, we lost an opportunity to reach across the aisle and rally for common cause. What we could have done instead, and what we can still do now, is twofold: identify the core policy changes compelled by environmental change, and the language we need to enact them.
These policies include being more present for people in need, and putting a more transcendent goal, of helping humanity in general, ahead of nationalist chauvinism. And, good news! This is in line with what many other religious groups already believe is their god’s main ask of them.
So why not build upon the humanist inclinations that we share?
Thinking like a group species, for once
Environmental change cannot be stopped, but it can be mitigated. We can still put pressure on our governments to invest in more significant shifts toward green energy and social practice. We can acclimate our communities, too, to lessening their valuation of borders over human lives. And we can use broader and more inclusive vocabularies, when rallying humanists both secular and religious under a common cause. We can celebrate the work our religious friends and colleagues do in their spiritual communities to promote environmental advocacy. We can seek deeper collaborations with them, too, when pursuing political actions of our own.
We’re all living in the same, fragile lifeboat (even if some corners are far worse off than others). And we all have just this one natural life in which to make an impact. When it comes to climate change, corporate PR has manipulated the discourse to cover industry transgressions for decades. Some religious groups, as well, spin the idea that environmentalism is primarily a threat to faith. And they want secular folks and other theists to believe this, too.
But we don’t have to. None of us: the secular and the religious alike. There are more of us, after all, across the full spectrum of cosmologies: humans who remain curious and compassionate, and who want to do better by one another wherever we can.
So, we hand out the bailing buckets and patch kits widely. And we refuse to let either corporate or Evangelical gimmicks divert us from a crisis that is, unfortunately, already well at hand.