During the summer of 2021, as extreme heat, heavy rains, wildfires, and hurricanes showed unusual harsh patterns in weather, and as growing evidence of human impact and models of predicted damage prompted calls for urgent action, members of RNA shared thoughts about “Climate Anxiety”.
The conversation started like this . . .
The recent news regarding our climate has been disconcerting, to put it mildly. Record high temps in the North American west, yet another fossil fuel explosion in the gulf, and still no signs that American politicians are taking this as seriously as they should. From my layperson perspective, it seems like while we can certainly keep trying to move forward in making a dent in the various climate-based issues we face, it honestly seems like we are indeed too late to avoid the worst that climate scientists have been warning us about for decades.
I’m 31 and live in Houston, TX, a place that will certainly be seriously transformed by climate change in the upcoming decades. I don’t have kids, though I have nieces and nephews that will face even worse situations than I will in the future. As much as I want to focus on positivity and just keep trudging forward with changing minds, I keep finding myself in a spiral of anger and despair. Planning for anything long term, like finding a new career or starting a family, seems like an exercise in futility.
I know that I personally have a tendency to fall into negative spirals that don’t necessarily correlate with reality, so I want to ask:
How do y’all, especially the younger among us, deal with this seeming apparent doom we face?
Is this an overreaction from click-bait news that thrives on doom scrolling?
Is there a path to living a healthy, experience filled life without completely falling into escapism?
Or, are we approaching a time where genuinely radical, revolutionary action is needed, to the point that we should put down our personal lives for the sake of (maybe literally) fighting for a future that may well be already doomed?
As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.
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I’m not as young as you, but in my early 40s, and I’m feeling just as discouraged. Things that are happening now would have likely been considered “alarmist” a decade ago. It seems we’re tracking for some really awful outcomes earlier than anticipated.
I genuinely believe a radical and revolutionary overhaul is needed. Grids are failing, heat waves are more intense and longer, seas are rising and causing issues in coastal states, and pandemics are expected to increase in frequency due to development and loss of biodiversity. I think we’re on a razor’s edge. I’m already an activist and have helped to make some small strides locally. But there is so much more to do.
I have one child and these past few months have made me question the morality of bringing a human into the world (different topic, I know). Not that I regret it; I don’t at all. I love my child more than anything. But I’m glad I chose not to have another. I just see the present and the suffering and it scares me about the future. . . I expect more of this, not less.
Here’s a decent article on the state of things.
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You are bringing up the most important topic facing our times.
My recommendation is to find out what groups there are in your area who are working on that project. And connect with them.
A critical item is to educate people about this important topic. I’m planning to do that in my locality (Berkeley).
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I am not so young (I’m 54), but I teach college students and struggle with offering them (or me) hope.
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Have you seen Daniel Hunter’s Climate Resistance Handbook? It’s a 67 page booklet, which you can download for free and has an intro by Greta Thunberg.
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This is useful info, I think – about 90 pages.
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To the point, from today’s Washington Post.
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If you haven’t seen them, I recommend the YouTube videos by Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist (married to an Evangelical minister, incidentally) who says the best thing we can do about the climate crisis is to talk about it. Denial is a serious problem for everyone, including politicians, policy makers, and corporations, and talking about the climate crisis makes a difference.
Recently, I’ve been reading Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth. It’s a book and a website, and she has YouTube videos. It seems like a good proposal for an ethical way forward. The “doughnut” image is a symbol, as well as a teaching tool, as well as a summary of where we’re at and what we need to do, as well as a proposal of our place for surviving and thriving in Nature.
As to your question on how people are dealing with the sense of impending doom, since 2019 I’ve taken action, including organizing workshops on climate action and regenerative action and meeting with city council members to talk about the climate crisis and social justice measures. I know that system change is what is needed, but I also deal with it by making my house more energy efficient, working toward a plant-based diet and a plastic-free zero-waste life, supporting local organic farmers, helping organize a native tree giveaway for the neighborhood, etc. . .
Action, combined with time for regeneration, is an antidote to despair.
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Pleased to see the topics of climate change/global warming/environmental degradation popping up again in RNAnet posts.
I and my family live in Portland, Oregon and I assure you that living thru the recent heat dome and seeing the impact of it was a powerful experience. . . Portland (cuddled in the green, moist, cool Willamette Valley) is now the city with the 3rd highest temperature ever recorded in the U.S (116 degrees F.). Hotter than LA has ever been. Hotter than Miami or Atlanta or Dallas have ever been.
The day the heat abated slightly – down from 113 to 95 – I found myself gazing at the four elder Douglas Fir that tower nearly 200 feet in our backyard. Each must be near 200 years old – maybe 250. If trees sobbed, they’d have been sobbing. Maybe they were. These giants, so benign and beneficial, so indicative of a healthy ecosystem, had never in their centuries of life felt such heat. They were suffering. Of that I have no doubt. Our Oregon Grape (the State Plant) and rhododendrons, along with native spirea and ocean spray are fried with curled brown leaves and wilted shoots that should have been still growing from their Spring burst.
Our heat dome crisis came within a 9-month period that also included two powerful windstorms that downed millions of trees, one monster ice storm that stripped branches and toppled trees throughout the Valley, and multiple wildfires incinerating developed as well as wilderness lands. Then of course there was the pandemic. Not a year to instill confidence in the omnipotence of mankind.
I continue to be of the firm belief that if a critical mass of humanity found the natural world to be sacred, and if that critical mass of humanity recognized its embedded place in the natural world, then we’d be moving more rapidly in the right direction. And I continue to believe that humans assign sacred status to those factors in their lives of existential importance – provided they understand and internalize the importance.
Religious Naturalists can and should play a vital role in imparting that understanding. That role, in my opinion, should be our prime focus.
I picture the day when enough people understand that humans are of the natural world and how critically important healthy natural ecosystem functioning is to the well-being and continuation of the human species.
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It is indeed sad that pessimism is in the air. However, I’m halfway finished with a surprising possible optimism. The book is by Bill Gates and the title is “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster”. It has lots of interesting details that gives a thoughtful path for how the disaster can be minimized.
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Pope Francis made an excellent statement on climate in his encyclical Laudato ‘Si, and he has given his blessing to the work of Greta Thunberg.
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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about “What can, or should, we do?” – as individuals, and at RNA as a group.
Building on some statements that have been made – about how “the best thing we can do about the climate crisis is to talk about it” and how it can be valuable to reach out to and find ways to work with those who have different views, I’ll ask a question, and will welcome any suggestions – on what people feel has worked best, in attempts at conversation with those who feel that climate concerns are false or overblown.
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Some responses pointed to . . .
6 Arguments to Refute Your Climate-Denying Relatives This Holiday. November 25, 2019.
So You Want to Convince a Climate Change Skeptic. EarthDay.org.
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The undergrad I’m working on is geography/environment, the diploma is restoration, and the co-op terms are on climate services. And I’m feeling the climate despair.
I’ve known it academically. I’ve felt the depression, and lived through it before (are there enviro-students that haven’t felt it?). With the heat wave in British Columbia, this hits a bit closer to home, literally and figuratively for me:
I believe in reverential naturalism. I’d always read about the bleaching of the coral reefs in my classes. One of the most productive ecosystems on Earth, the reefs, so beautiful, so interconnected, so dynamic, yet fragile to temperature changes.
Well, so is almost everything else. We are just a bit unconscious of it, as we’ve grown our societies in a fairly stable climate over the last 10,000 years.
Adaptation is all about risk management, and at the heart of that, is crossing thresholds and the impacts that happen when thresholds are crossed. Not only the averages changes, not only the extremes change, not only the variability changes, not only the frequency changes . . . Almost everything we know about how to manage our risks will change along with the reality of a changing climate.
Sorry, wish I had more hopeful things to say. Because as people have said, talking matters, storytelling matters, people’s resilience in community matters.
When we will be at risk of losing almost everything we know, the stories we tell each other about what matters, what is sacred, what is meaningful, that will be one of the very few things we can hang-on to.
Maybe, just maybe, that will be where RN comes in.
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In order to remain in good standing with a granddaughter, a while back I watched Frozen II. In it, Anna has to make choices, even when she is not sure about the outcome. Here are a few of the lyrics:
Just do the next right thing
Take a step, step again
It is all that I can to do
The next right thing
I won’t look too far ahead
It’s too much for me to take
But break it down to this next breath, this next step
This next choice is one that I can make
So I’ll walk through this night
Stumbling blindly toward the light
And do the next right thing
That’s what we’re doing. The next right thing, the steps we can see. And because so many around the country — indeed, around the world — are attempting to get us to go in the same direction, sometimes we actually succeed.
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My granddaughter sang these lyrics to me and it helped me through some tough times.
I believe in the concept of doing the right thing each time, whether the road ahead and the future steps are clear or not.
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This approach to life, taking the next step as best we can, with limited knowledge, is a complement to the Taoist principle of Wu Wei – “effortless action”. For the Taoist, the idea of trying to stop the tide from rising is folly. The best you can do is to look around you and acknowledge reality. Then make your choices in accordance with reality. This is not passivity. It is, like Reinhold Niebuhr says:
Grant me the
serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can, and
wisdom to know the difference.
So we go on, stumbling in the darkness, trying as best we can to get it right. We don’t know for sure what’s right and what’s wrong, and we can’t stop the tides that are too powerful for us to control. We can at best go with the flow and make our changes to that flow with our insufficient knowledge. In the end, I hope that, although all of us are imperfect in body, mind and spirit, we can say that, by and large, we tried as best we could within our limits.
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And one of the right things to do is offer support to those who also look far ahead and articulate paths that are the right ones to follow.
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Sounds like a role for religious naturalists, and for the Religious Naturalist Association.
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I’m wondering whether RNA might want to support an IRAS conference on the climate change topic
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IRAS did it in 2017.
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I’ve been enjoying following this thread, as this subject is something that’s caused a fair amount of anxiety for me and, consequently, I’ve given some thought to it.
I’m a pretty young guy, turning 36 at the end of this month, and I’ve often wondered: given that I was born into this specific period of time, how can I be helpful? I felt quite powerless in the political/business realm (which is where I believe the most significant good can be done), so my response was to pursue a path in clinical spiritual care. Which brings me to the reason I’m chiming in at this point in the thread.
You made a request for information regarding “what people feel has worked best, in attempts at conversation with those who feel that climate concerns are false or overblown,” well it just so happens that for my MA I wrote a paper titled “Climate Change: A Practical Guide for Health Care Chaplains”.
There is a section devoted to examining attitudes towards climate change including denial and other such tools of psychological distancing. I will attach it to this email for your consideration. I hope it helps bring some useful insight into the common response of denial and perhaps gives some clues as to how to overcome it.
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Thanks for sending a copy of the paper you wrote.
One part of this that stuck with me was discussion of how perception is often that risk and impact from climate change will be greater/more serious/worse “somewhere else”. As you wrote:
“With an issue like global climate change, and the associated media coverage from especially problematic locations around the world, it is remarkably easy and even comforting to think that way. This helps explain why there is a general apathy towards climate reform and lifestyle change among the public: the problem seems distant, and things are relatively fine here.”
So, one simple thing that may contribute can be to encourage people to think about climate change and its impact more in local terms.
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You bring up the attitude of it happening somewhere else, but I’d like to add to that the attitude of climate change happening “somewhen” else. Like the proverbial frog in a pot, much of climate change is too slow for our awareness. Sea level rise, increased drought, decreased biodiversity, and the resulting decreased supplies and services all happen on a different timescale than daily emergencies. As such, our instincts are to not pay attention to it until it’s too late.
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I personally think that, as a religious organization, the RNA should best respond to climate change in terms of its religious aspects. The approach described in the paper seems to me to be the appropriate response.
I have a suggestion, and this comes from our particular viewpoint as naturalists. One fundamental precept for a naturalistic viewpoint is adherence to the truth.
A big stumbling block in the way of climate change is denial – that this change is caused by humans or even that there is a change. The distortions that come from cognitive bias make it hard for people to admit that something is happening that does not fit their bias. These biases come from our emotions. You must be able to look around you and see what is, not blinded by your hopes, wishes and fears.
But that is one thing that we as Religious Naturalists can do that involves both our religious aspects and our naturalistic aspects. Find a way to incorporate a passionate search for the truth into a religious viewpoint that encompasses the other emotions and values that are part of the human psyche and the bedrock of religion.
This is not easy. . . To hold fast to the truth means giving up beliefs you hold dear but do not truly reflect reality. This is complicated by the fact that truth – at least scientific truth – is provisional, not absolute, so you end up stumbling and making mistakes along the way.
One of my great heroes was Malcom X. What I admired in him as a basic honesty. He had a tortured path through life, but there came points at which he looked at himself and decided to change what he was doing and where he was going. I celebrate him for making an honest effort to arrive at what is right and true, as best he could. I wish that more people were like him.
I think the best way that the RNA can help is not just to attack climate change, but to attack the spiritual and conceptual problems that got us here in the first place. I am not advocating that we convert the other religions to our way of viewing things in everything, but what we can do is this: demand that every religious person acknowledge the reality of the natural world – that reality is out there whether you believe in it or not. And that a healthy religion is one that makes it possible for a person to live in the real world as it actually is.
If we make progress in this, we can not only make a difference for climate change but for all of the other challenges that humanity and the earth will face as we move into the future.
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I’m attending a “green” seminary so this is discussed a bit. The research says that facts don’t mobilize action. . . I think we need to work on cultural change and religion plays a big part in culture (for better or worse).
I wonder if there is a way that RNA can play a larger role around modeling that kind of approach in a way that is multi-faith friendly and not dogmatic.
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I’ve mostly been a quiet observer of the RNAnet conversation. For me, writing requires considerable effort. And I have preferred to put my energy into climate activism. But since that has emerged as a topic, it feels like time for at least brief commentary.
I retired early 8 years ago because I felt “called” to do something about the Climate Crisis. I’m a pessimist regarding the chances of staving off self-reinforcing negative feedback loops, but aware that pessimism combined with inaction is a self-fulfilling prophecy, so felt moved to act. I’ll never know whether it has made a difference, but it just feels like the right thing to do.
I’m 76—part of the generation that is largely responsible for the current situation. I won’t be around to suffer the ultimate consequences. All the more reason to do what I can for the sake of my daughter (who is 31 and reluctant to have children) and generations to come.
What I chose to do was help build a new national organization – Elders Climate Action.
I founded and until recently led the first state chapter here in Massachusetts. Beginning with my network of friends and colleagues, I’ve focused on mobilizing older folks who believe there is a climate crisis and are looking for something to do. What we’ve chosen to do in Mass. is lobby for progressive legislation at the state level that addresses climate change. I’m lucky to live in a state where there are many others committed to act on their concern about the climate, so the tough question is where to put priority. We’ve chosen to back what became known as the Next Generation Climate Roadmap. After several years of advocacy, it became law this year, which feels very satisfying. Probably too little too late, but worth a shot.
In my 8 years of activism I’ve become convinced that the problem is not climate deniers. They are now in a minority. The challenge is to get people who believe there is a problem to do something about it.
My hope is that this conversation will motivate some RNA members who understand there’s an existential crisis to act on that understanding.
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I completely agree with you about activism. It is our main hope.
As with much biological species development and much of human history, it all comes down to the cumulative results of activists FOR a project (climate adjustments) vs the cumulative results of those who are against or those who are recalcitrant.
Supporting groups who are trying to educate, or trying to research, or trying to legislate, is what most of us can attempt.
I hope it is enough.
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A look at the Elder Climate Action website gave a glimpse at some of what is being done in your group, where education and encouraging action from political and other leaders are useful parts.
There’s also each of us doing what we can do – both to contribute, in small ways, to reducing harmful impact, and also to acting as good examples and contributing to raising awareness.
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Here is an article on climate change communication/research.
It’s specifically looking at religious communities.
The dominant public narrative of climate change is secular and has sometimes been actively irreligious. It emerged from scientific language and dispassionate data. When environmental organizations converted this into wider communications, they applied the framing of their own values and ideology, emphasizing the impacts on the natural world and the role played by personal consumption and political vested interests.
The challenge for people of faith is to find narratives about climate change that will respect and can build on that science, yet can also speak to their own faith traditions effectively and compellingly. For over ten years, the world’s main faiths have been designing declarations and making calls for action that convert climate change into the language of their traditions. Often, though, these statements have been dry, academic, and theological in tone.
The opportunity remains to find language that can have a wider popular appeal and be better disseminated though grassroots movements
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This article, about framing the climate change challenge in terms of beliefs and values, is excellent. Thanks very much for sharing it.
Some conclusions and suggestions that stuck with me include the points shown, below.
In opinion polls, the majority of people recognize that climate change is real, is caused by humans, and is a cause for concern. However, . . .climate change has a very limited hold on people’s attention.
This has been exacerbated by a collective silence.
The primary challenge for faith communications must be to break this silence,
Faith leaders should establish that talking about climate change, preaching about it, and bearing witness to it are essential and defining expressions of faith.
Four key narratives were found to be effective across all the faith groups
1 The natural world is a precious gift.
Caring for the natural world is an act of worship.
We have a sacred responsibility to care for the earth and be its stewards.
2 Climate change is a moral challenge.
Climate change is harming the poor and vulnerable.
We should be generous and care for them.
It is our responsibility to preserve the legacy of our parents and provide for the future for our children.
3 Climate change is disrupting the natural balance.
There is a divine balance to the world.
Climate change is disrupting that balance.
Climate change is a message that something is wrong.
By taking action on climate change we can restore that natural order and balance.
4 Taking action brings us closer to God.
Climate change is taking us all away from the divine system, will or plan.
Through action on climate change we can become deeper in our faith and better people, individually and collectively.
While climate change communicators have always tended to assert rewards in terms of external measures (“saving the planet”/protecting future generations), this narrative suggests that people may be motivated by internal rewards measures:
(becoming more the person you believe yourself to be, and
becoming a stronger member of your peer group).
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Finally working my way through the Deep Adaptation article. Good stuff.
Some notes for myself that might be useful to others who don’t have time to read the many pages . . .
Areas of adaptation:
What norms and behaviors are worth keeping from the “old ways”?
How do we keep what we really want to keep?
What do we need to let go of in order to not make matters worse?
Letting go of expectations for comfort
Abandoning the coasts
What can we bring back to help us with the coming difficulties and tragedies?
Rediscovering approaches to life and organization that were eroded by fossil fuels
eating seasonal foods
play and entertainment without electricity
local productivity and support
With what and whom can we make peace with as we face our mutual mortality?
Accepting the fact that we won’t know if we’re making a difference or not
Preventing yet more harm, by reconciling ourselves with disaster, thereby remaining calm as they come
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Articles (newspaper and web)
Marlowe Hood. Phys.Org
New York Times
Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and George Mason Center for Climate Change Communication
Institute of Leadership and Sustainability (IFLAS)
by Kate Raworth
By Katharine Hayhoe (a climate scientist)
By Kate Raworth (re: Doughnut Economics)
Social/political action organizations