I wrote this opinion piece for Religion Unplugged with support from Young Evangelicals for Climate Action.
We have heard a lot of sweeping statements claiming that we are in unprecedented and unique times. And, of course, in many ways that is true. Yet this is not the first time we have been called to drastically change our way of life.
This is not the first time Christians have been charged to lead in compassion and selflessness in the midst of uncertainty. This is not the first time that humanity has confronted an existential threat. No, in fact our experience with COVID-19 is pointedly similar to our experience with climate change.
Both are worldwide problems. Both threaten our way of life. Both require a combination of individual responsibility, collective action, and scientific solutions. Both cry for Christians to be leaders in practicing selflessness. Both have scientists pleading with us to change our behavior.
And then a couple of months ago, albeit by accident, we began falling into line with the recommendations of climate scientists and activists: we’ve cut airplane travel, many of us are being forced to eat less meat, we rarely drive our cars, and we’re reconsidering our dependence on oil.
The connection is blatant to those of us concerned about climate change — our misplaced efforts are making an impact. It’s hard to calculate precisely, but an analysis from Carbon Brief theorizes that we could have nearly a 10% cut in CO2 emissions in 2020. But any shred of hope is poisoned by the accompanying reduction in our GDP. And then of course there’s the loss of life and jobs, isolation, and significant disruptions in our supply chain. Our planet isn’t breathing a sigh of relief because of our proactivity, but as a result of our suffering.
So how must we respond?
It contradicts God’s tenderness and compassion to rush to “silver linings.” Where there is this kind of tragedy we grieve first. We take our cue from Jesus who, when learning his friend Lazarus died, allowed himself to mourn (John 11:35).
But premature “upside” responses are not just anti-Biblical, they also rush past an opportunity to engage with our mysterious and omniscient God. Contrary to how we may feel, God’s goodness and redemption are still with us in this moment. We must meet him in the mystery and listen to what he is trying to teach us.
We have already learned so much. We have learned that widespread, collective action is not just possible but effective. We have learned that good science can inspire people to change their behavior. We have learned that our nation’s leaders can work for bipartisan solutions when we identify a universal enemy.
We have also learned that last-ditch efforts yield heartbreak. We must not forget how horrifying it is when entire industries, without time for sufficient innovation and adaptation, are forced to change their way of doing business. We must consider the evidence that at-risk communities are more vulnerable to disasters and fiercely seek to protect them just as Jesus paid special attention to “the least of these” (Matt 25:40). We must humbly and urgently persuade our communities and leaders to understand the danger of climate change. We must not let climate change drive us to the desperate solutions COVID-19 has.
Finally, we should find hope in the idea that what we have learned in this season wasn’t just a temporary solution for a unique time, but rather another example of God displaying His mercy in the midst of our pain, helping us understand the long-lasting changes we must make to protect His creation. God has, in effect, given us a crash course on human change and innovation, injustice and our interconnectedness, fragility and unpredictability. What God is teaching us and enabling us to do will serve us well, if only we pay attention.