If Climate Change Makes You Feel Hopeless, Maybe Religion Can Help

People suffering from climate despair are turning to spiritual leaders. This is the advice they get.
A photo illustration of a preacher standing in a church filling up with water.
Photo illustration by Lia Kantrowitz

Reverend Jim Antal travels across the country delivering sermons on climate change. Wherever he goes, he meets people who are fearful about the future. "If you speak in California, you'll meet people who know someone who was killed, or who survived one of the fires," he said. "This is all over the country, whether it's flood or fire or other forms of extreme weather."

When these fears come up, Antal, who serves as the special advisor on climate justice and conference minister at the protestant United Church of Christ, guides people toward the inspiring action of others. "It is often the case that people converge hope and optimism," he said. "And what happens is, when people see a headline, they feel like they have the optimism rug pulled out from underneath them, and with it goes their hope."


After years of talk about climate change denial, more Americans now see it as the major issue of our time. The latest edition of the Climate Change in the American Mind survey, a poll from Yale and George Mason universities, found that 69 percent of Americans were at least "somewhat worried" about climate change and 72 percent said the issue was "personally important" to them—the highest marks recorded in the poll's 11-year history.

But with awareness can come despair. Climate change is likely to make wildfires worse and droughts more frequent; coastal areas are threatened by more destructive storms, with severe weather disproportionately harming the already poor; as the world warms, more disease may spread. Knowledge of these consequences often comes with the feeling that serious action is out of our hands. We know deep inside that trading plastic for paper just isn't going to cut it. For the many Americans of faith who would normally believe that a higher power will intervene, the threat of climate change can become paralyzing.

Some religious groups, especially American Evangelicals, have become associated with resistance to climate science. A 2015 Pew study found that only 28 percent of white Evangelicals believe the Earth is warming due to human activity, and only 24 percent viewed it as a serious problem. But as concerns about the changing world grow, more and more faith leaders are thinking about climate change. They're becoming climate activists, and in some cases soothing worried congregants.


Antal calls Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's climate policy, which he is excited about, the "second Green New Deal." He says God gave us the first, in abundance, in the form of energy from the sun, wind, and water. Through Antal's eyes, humans are already equipped with the tools we need to undo the damage done to our planet. "For the past 15 years, we've had the technology to go fossil fuel-free," Antal said, exasperation in his voice. "And what has kept us from embracing that fossil fuel-free technology has been the [fossil fuel industry's] lobbying campaign."

But leaders of congregations have more to worry about than just the political challenge of climate inaction—they have to confront individual fears about the future. "I haven't had people coming in to my office saying, 'Rabbi, this is on my mind,' but in a lot of casual conversations people have been confessing their despair, their sense of hopelessness, their sense of being stymied about what should be done about this," said Rabbi Ruhi Sophia Motzkin Rubenstein, of Temple Beth Israel in Eugene, Oregon. "I do end up doing a lot of listening and doing a lot of meaning-making for people."

Motzkin Rubenstein does this by connecting basic tenets of Judaism and faith to the issue of climate. Protecting the earth isn't a rewards program—actions like recycling and taking the bus won't prevent doom, but we should do it anyway. "I find personally, and I offer to the people with whom I am in conversation, I find that language of obligation to actually be very strengthening and very heartening at this moment," the rabbi said. "We don't act because we're sure we can save X particular species. We act because we have an obligation to try; we act because we're obligated to take any steps that we can."

Lee Plenty Wolf, a Lakota Nation spiritual leader, gives similar counsel. He's based in Denver, but he frequently travels—he was at Standing Rock when protesters attempted to halt the Dakota Access Pipeline by camping out in the path of its construction. He tells his community that you should do whatever you can, whether that's appealing to your local government or participating in daily actions that will save water and energy, like riding the bus or taking shorter showers. The most important thing, he says, is that you do something—inaction is a death sentence.

"I have always kept my faith and talked with groups to stay in prayer," he said. "I think because of Standing Rock, people around the world realized that climate change is affecting everyone, that we need to educate as many as possible, that we need to think about the future of our children and grandchildren and beyond. The problems with climate change are real for us all and we need changes now."

"One thing I talk about frequently is the definition of faith," said Motzkin Rubenstein. "And faith is not the belief that if you do the right thing, the outcome you hope for will happen. Faith is the space between denial and despair. Faith is the space where you can realistically look at a situation and say, 'Yes, this is happening and this is terrible and we don't even know what the consequences will be,' and yet, we understand that we are called to do something about it, even if what we feel is despair, even if our efforts can't do any good."

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