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Stephen McNultyAugust 10, 2022
A "Fridays for the Future" protest in Bonn, Germany on March 3, 2019 (Mika Baumeister via Unsplash)A "Fridays for Future" protest in Bonn, Germany on March 3, 2019 (Mika Baumeister via Unsplash)

This week, Joe Biden is expected to sign into law the largest ever U.S. commitment to fighting climate change. As a result, it’s estimated that, by 2030, our carbon emissions will fall more than 40 percent compared with 2005 levels—putting the nation nearly on track to reach Paris Climate Accord targets.

Frankly, this is stunning. Many of us, especially young people, have been conditioned to believe that something like this would never happen. We believed that any climate bill would die at the feet of Joe Manchin, that our legislators were hopeless septuagenarians who simply didn’t care enough, and that life as we know it would come to a grinding halt in our lifetime. I know so many of my peers who simply gave up hope for a moment like this.

I don’t think older Americans fully understand how prevalent and how devastating that feeling is. Many in my generation have grown up with such a thoroughly paralyzing fear of climate catastrophe that psychologists have even coined a term for it—“eco-anxiety.”

This level of angst and nihilism is not normal.

One team of researchers, including Stanford Professor Britt Wray, tried to quantify “eco-anxiety” among young people in 2021 by surveying 10,000 of them across 10 countries. The results? Seventy-five percent said that the future was “frightening.” Fifty-six percent said they had experienced the feeling that “humanity is doomed.” Most strikingly, around 40 percent were “hesitant” to have children due to climate concerns.

This level of angst and nihilism is not normal, and it’s been beaten into a whole generation by watching setback after setback for major climate legislation. It’s out of sync with reality, though. The climate crisis is a solvable problem, and the international community has successfully tackled environmental issues before. Remember that time when the ozone layer was shrinking? Most young people don’t—and that’s because in 1987, we passed the Montreal Protocol and banned the chlorofluorocarbons responsible for ozone layer depletion. Now, our ozone is recovering and will be healed by 2060.

That is not the only success story. In the late 20th century, environmental scientists and activists loudly rang the alarm bell about acid rain. In response, after a drawn-out legislative fight spanning multiple decades, Congress passed the Clean Air Act, which included specific measures to combat the crisis. Sulfur dioxide emissions have since fallen precipitously, as have key indicators of acid rain across the United States.

Looking back at the long history of successful climate efforts might teach us something about the path that lies ahead, and more importantly, how to overcome climate denial. I think, however, that we're stuck with an old-fashioned view of what that denial actually looks like.

Then comes the final stage of climate denial: “Humans caused climate change. It will be terrible and we could have stopped it, but we’re out of time. We’re doomed.”

As many have pointed out, climate denial comes in stages. The first stage is “climate change doesn’t exist.” Then, it’s “climate change exists, but humans didn’t cause it.” By that point, we get to “O.K., humans caused climate change, but it won’t be that bad.” Once you cross that hurdle, you arrive at “climate change will be bad, but there’s nothing we can do about it.” Then comes the final stage of climate denial: “Humans caused climate change. It will be terrible and we could have stopped it, but we’re out of time. We’re doomed.”

That kind of thinking is dangerous. We aren’t out of time and the cause isn’t doomed. If this week has shown us anything, it’s that meaningful climate action is possible, and all available evidence leads us to believe that our actions will have a substantial impact on the climate crisis. There’s reason to hope.

There is something deeply Christian about that realization. The Jewish and Christian traditions, after all, have a long history of political and spiritual optimism that dates all the way back to Israel’s slavery in Egypt and runs through the Babylonian captivity and to the Book of Revelation’s empathic defiance of the Roman Empire (“Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!”). The story of the Jewish people, and of the Christian faithful, is a story of defiant hope against all odds.

As a matter of faith, Christians must live in hope for themselves, for each other and for God’s salvific power. It is not optional.

That hope is important on a personal level, too. I’m reminded of Judas. The apostle is famous for his betrayal of Jesus, but I’ve always been most struck by what happens afterward: He realizes just how wrong he was and loses hope. Judas comes to believe that his own sin was greater than God’s infinite goodness. Thomas Aquinas identified this “despair” as a form of “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit,” the famously “unforgivable sin.”

It would be wrong (despairing, even) of us to presume that anyone is closed off to divine forgiveness. Yet Thomas communicates something else here—that to be a Christian is to live in hope, and to give up hope is to give up everything.

As a matter of faith, Christians must live in hope for themselves, for each other and for God’s salvific power. It is not optional.

Can we carry forward some of that energy to our political lives, even in the face of a climate crisis? Can my generation rediscover the virtue of hope—not just in God, but in each other?

I sure hope so.

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