Approaching two years of a world-altering pandemic, as one world superpower embarks on a land-grabbing mission against its neighbor, many of us are naturally seeking a sense of safety. If we’ve had safety in our past, we long to regain it; if we’ve been deprived of it, we long to claim it.
Yet the accelerating climate crisis means a baseline sense of what is “normal” or safe will increasingly be forced to shift, as Monday’s installment of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report outlines.
The sixth report from the expert global panel states that 3.3 to 3.6 billion people (nearly half of the world’s population) are “highly vulnerable” to climate risks like wildfires, heat waves, and rising sea levels. Climate impacts are outpacing current efforts to adapt, which are inadequate. However, there are regenerative measures that can be taken, like reviving wetlands and increasing tree cover in cities. The panel concludes, with “very high confidence” that “any further delay in concerted anticipatory global action on adaption and mitigation will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.”
The report aims to prepare us for what’s likely and to give leaders a clear-eyed sense of urgency to implement solutions. But some may glance past its findings due to more immediate concerns. Others may ignore them to preserve the idea of a “normal” they can return to on the other side of plague and war.
Yet others may be tempted to take a lifeboat mentality.
What is a lifeboat mentality? We are living through several successive years of record-setting heating and emissions; widespread dismay at political leaders’ inaction, and a fatigued sense of collective solidarity (at least here in the United States). What’s harmed poor nations and poor communities for decades is now impacting rich nations like the U.S. and rich communities within them: A Washington Post analysis found that in the summer of 2021, 1 in 3 Americans lived in a county that experienced a weather disaster; in February, a report by CoreLogic, a company that provides property data, found that 1 in 10 U.S. homes had been affected by extreme weather in 2021. Now that climate change is affecting many who have mostly been insulated from its effects, some will take another scary report as a sign to protect one’s own and leave the unfortunate others to their fate.
This is why the climate crisis, if not stemmed, could result in what writer Amitav Ghosh calls the “politics of the armed lifeboat.” Ghosh predicts rich countries and their denizens will seek to buoy themselves from worsening climate impacts without regard for those cut off from habitable places to live. We see it in Congress' recent approval of a massive military budget increase, even as legislation to prevent and help communities adapt to the ravages of climate change was thwarted, purportedly on budgetary grounds. We saw it at last year’s COP26 climate conference when the United States and other wealthy countries did little to counteract the ongoing climate crisis, thus deepening a global climate apartheid where poorer countries are left without the resources to adapt and cope with intensifying natural disasters. Indeed, around the world, the stresses of global heating are already exposing eco-fascism — such as the 2019 Christchurch, New Zealand mass murder, motivated by fear of overpopulation — and eco-bordering — like U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson’s claim that climate risks justify strict immigration controls. These movements provide realist-sounding cover for white supremacy, ethnonationalism, and plain selfishness, all under the guise of self-protection.
When things are scary, all of us can experience the sense of threat, fear of scarcity, and the urge to escape.
These urges push us toward modern-day lifeboat images like gated communities, yacht clubs, billionaire bunkers, and rocket contests. The lifeboat mentality can also pop up in more mundane forms, like when we who have resources can do an internet search for “places least subject to climate change” and put aside money to move somewhere less risky if need be. It is understandable to seek our families’ protection and survival — in fact, this is one of the strongest reasons why people support climate solutions. But it matters what mentality it stems from: Are we imagining a world of collective support or a world of scarcity, where everyone scrambles for the last spots in the boat?
Religion can reinforce this lifeboat mentality. White Christian nationalism has woven separation, supremacy, and alienation into our country’s fabric, pushing many toward self-protection rather than solidarity. And biblical stories of apocalypse and disaster, when not interpreted faithfully against the incarnational arc of scripture, can lead Christians to respond fatalistically to disaster. Rapture theologies and hymnody reflect this: “This world is not my home, I’m just passing through” or “I’ll fly away.” When we don’t see the earth included in God’s redemptive plan, and don’t see ourselves related to the direst suffering happening on the planet, it’s easy to spiritually and emotionally jump ship.
But the gospel also contains plenty to challenge this mentality of escape, offering us different, better ways to face our fears and navigate loss.
As the climate emergency deepens, we believe the gospel challenges us to renew our minds(ets) and extend love, hospitality, and peace (Romans 12) through a faith centered on Christ’s incarnation, based on God’s love of this world and each living being on it.
This, too is a matter of imagination.
What if Christians saw their vocation as cultivating “refugia,” as Calvin University English professor Debra Rienstra suggests in her lovely new book, Refugia Faith? What if we nurtured safe places where we already are — places where God’s creatures, from humans to horned toads, can seek shelter and incubate as the storms and droughts pass?
What would it look like to reject isolated lifeboat safety and instead root down like the parabolic mustard seed, growing habitats where the most vulnerable can find a home (Luke 13:19)?
Or perhaps we imagine ourselves like the Israelites during Babylonian exile — cut off from the future once envisioned and longing to go back to a pre-exilic “normal.” What would it look like to hear and embody God’s words through the prophet Jeremiah: “Make yourselves at home. Put in gardens and eat what grows in that country” (29:5, The Message)?
In answering these questions, settler Christians may do well to learn from our Indigenous neighbors who have lived in the now-called United States of America a lot longer. As scientist Robin Wall Kimmerer of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation writes in Braiding Sweetgrass:
“After all these generations since Columbus, some of the wisest of Native elders still puzzle over the people who came to our shores. They look at the toll on the land and say, ‘The problem with these new people is that they don’t have both feet on the shore. One is still on the boat. They don’t seem to know whether they’re staying or not.’…Can Americans, as a nation of immigrants, learn to live here as if we were staying? With both feet on the shore?”
The IPCC report is clear that we are at an inflection point: a range of possibilities remain open to us — but further delay risks putting a liveable future out of reach.
What imagination will we as Christians choose to entertain? Will we envision the zero-sum competition of the lifeboat? Or will we actively reject such false scarcity and remain on land, in solidarity with our neighbors local and global? Will we try to escape our neighbors’ fate or contribute to solutions standing shoulder-to-shoulder?
We can choose courage and care over self-interest and scarcity. We can cast our lot with the rest of humanity and the world God created. We can follow our incarnate God in making this world more habitable for one another.
We have been given spiritual resources for such a time as this — gifts that are to be shared, reserves to be unearthed. We can use them and choose a different kind of imagination, to reject the fantasies of the lifeboat and remain on land with others. The time to begin practicing is now.