This week, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report on the state of the climate crisis. It is a report that frames, in the cautious language of science, the dire state of the world. This panel of experts from around the world found that warming of 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius in the next century is certain unless there are extreme and immediate cuts in greenhouse gases. This level of warming would spread and intensify the kinds of extreme weather — hurricanes, wildfires, floods, and heat waves — we have seen unfold for over a decade. This report shows us the reality that our actions will not be enough to prevent catastrophic climate change. Immediate action on climate can prevent the worst effects of climate change — but catastrophe has already happened. Catastrophes are happening all around us.
What are we to do in the face of utter catastrophe? How can we possibly have hope amid the undoing of the world?
In his book on hope, Faith, Hope, and Love, theologian Josef Pieper argues that there are two kinds of hopelessness: despair and presumption. Both, at their root, are the same problem, for “they transform the ‘not yet’ of hope into either the ‘not’ or the ‘already’ of fulfillment.” Hope is not optimism. It is not the expectation that everything will turn out in the end. Nor is it the belief that we are doomed, despite our best efforts. Rather, hope is the possibility that through truth-telling and holy action, we might turn back to God. To have Christian hope is to act in courage, claiming what we know and what we can do. It is held together by realistic truth-telling about the world, acting to create a better world, and looking toward the redemption that comes through the grace of God.
Let’s tell the truth: We know what is happening. We know it is bad. We know who is causing it. We know how to change it.
The first two truths are well-documented by the IPCC report. The third is not. Phrases like “human-caused climate change” and “anthropocene” mask the truth of who is causing climate change: large corporations who profit off of the destruction of God’s creation and the exploitation of God’s people. We do not all bear equal responsibility for the climate crisis. Just 100 companies are responsible for 71 percent of climate pollution. Exxon Mobil, one of the largest oil and gas companies, knew as early as 1977 that its business model would result in several degrees of warming. Rather than sharing their research with the public, the company spent the next four decades sowing misinformation about climate science.
We know who is causing climate change, and we know that to stop it, these 100 companies must immediately stop burning fossil fuels. These polluters have built fortunes off the backs of the poor and ought to be held legally, financially, and morally accountable for their actions. They are like the rich who the prophet Amos scolds, “sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals … trample the poor into the dust of the earth and they push the afflicted out of the way.”
For Amos, and for us, the response to exploitation is justice flowing down like waters.
Let’s take action. The IPCC report shows us that actions we take now will prevent the worst effects of climate change.
Politically, we need leaders who will take action to make the necessary changes to our economy. In this moment, it is a moral imperative to transition to a clean energy economy. Political feasibility is a social construct. The climate crisis is not. We cannot afford to wait any longer to pass legislation that makes systemic changes in our economy. Congress needs to pass climate policy that is swift and sweeping, transforming our economy from extraction to regeneration. We need to remind ourselves that we know how to slow climate change. We know how to prevent the worst catastrophes from happening. We have the technology to transition to a net-zero carbon economy. Our leaders have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to show moral leadership.
Yet, political and economic transformation alone is not sufficient. The climate crisis is, at its core, a spiritual crisis. In our churches, we have the physical and spiritual assets to help our communities cope with the worst effects of the climate crisis. Many are already adapting to the new realities of the climate crisis, integrating it into the mission of the church. Across the country, Christian institutions are responding to the climate disasters in their communities. In the Southeast, churches are helping their communities adapt to the spiritual and physical traumas of sea level rise and intensifying hurricanes. In the South, they are acting as cooling centers, providing life-saving space for those without access to air conditioning. In the West, faith communities are housing climate migrants — those displaced both locally by wildfires and globally by other climate-related geopolitical disasters. Our Christian response to the climate crisis is not merely hope in action. It is a demonstration that hope is action.
Hope is also redemption. Even as we truth-tell and take action for a more beautiful world, catastrophe continues to unfold around us and destroy the places and people we love. In Colossians 1, we read of a Christ in whom all things came into being and through whom all things are held together. Through the body of Christ, all things came to be, and yet, just as Christ was crucified, so too is creation. It seems that today creation itself — creatures included — are being crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:20). Like the crucifixion darkness, our skies are darkened with ash from wildfires and 1,000-year-storm clouds.
This crucifixion darkness is a Holy Saturday moment. We sit in the darkness of the crucifixion with no presumption of resurrection. We can hope in God’s grace and redemptive mercy, but in the words of the prophet Ezekiel, “You alone know” if these bones can live (Ezekiel 37:3). As Ellen Davis writes, “Resurrection hope does not mean that things are not as bad as they seem. It does not mean that we may expect to be shielded from the worst effects of our selfishness.” Things are bad. Things will continue to worsen before they get better. But perhaps, by the grace of God, our best efforts might be redeemed by the resurrection power of Christ.
In an age of despair and presumption, the journey of Christian hope is a spiritual survival strategy. Every step of that journey — truth-telling, action, and redemption — is equally important. To collapse hope into the final step is to completely deny its theology. Presumption and despair have done little to address the depths of destruction around us. Perhaps by the grace of God and the work of our hands, we might have hope.