‘Climate Change is Not the End of the World’

Professor Mike Hulme insists that the Church should not fuel young people’s eco-anxieties

(This column appeared in The Church of England newspaper, 12 November 2021 issue)

There has been a troubling rise in recent years amongst young adults and teenagers of a phenomenon known as eco-anxiety.  This has been especially marked in western societies where the shrill prophets of climate doom have been loudest.  A general, and appropriate, concern about the changing climate seems to have given way to existential fear and dread about the future.  Increasing numbers of young people now worry that by the time they approach middle age they will have no world left to inhabit. 

The Church should not be party to such doomism.  Christians have a different message to that of the world around.  It is one of care, justice and hope, not of endings or fear.  Church leaders should be concerned about youth eco-anxiety.  We have a duty of care to young people.  We should not leave them psychologically and emotionally adrift amidst a secular culture that is increasingly shaped by crisis narratives of despair.

Let’s be clear.  Climate change is real, is happening and continues to be largely driven by carbon-based energy technologies and human consumptive behaviours.  Dangerous weather has always threatened human and social well-being, but these risks are now compounded by changing weather patterns.  These changes demand adjustments to our technologies, institutions and lifestyles.

We inhabit the future through our imaginations and it can be a scary place to live.  It is well-established that environmental anxieties and the apocalyptic imagination have often co-existed in the western imagination, not least since the new environmentalism triggered in 1962 by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

But the world is not ending. 

Adolescents and young adults are especially vulnerable to catastrophising the imagined future, whether driven by their own emotional insecurities and emerging identities or by their perceptions of external risks. 

Young people’s mental health in the west has been worsening for a generation, But over the last three years a new apocalyptic mood of growing anxiety and despair has spread widely amongst younger western adults and teenagers, nourished by the way some climate scientists and activists choose to frame climate change.  Witness Greta Thunberg’s “our house is on fire” rhetoric and David Attenborough’s recent lament, “If we don’t act now, it will be too late”.  Commentators from Extinction Rebellion such as Rupert Read speak of this civilisation as already “doomed”.  

Church leaders, and other Christian commentators, are not immune from this form of messaging, witness Archbishop Justin Welby’s recent comments about the “clock having run out” on climate change.  And a recent opinion column from the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity puts it thus: “Read the latest IPCC report before bed and expect nightmares …COP26 is our last chance to avoid runaway climate breakdown”. 

Young people are impressionable.  Many have come to believe – intellectually and emotionally — that the nightmare awaits them, that there is no future beyond 2030.  For example, a recent survey of young people in a sample of countries around the world suggested that 40 per cent now fear mothering children because of anxiety about climate change.

It is far easier (and quicker) to instill fear in a population than it is to dissipate it.  (As we have seen with the pandemic).  When communicating the predicament that is climate change, a calmer approach is needed, particularly with respect to young adults and teenagers.  Church leaders should not be echoing the language of secular campaigners, with their ticking-clocks, imminent endings and too-lateism. 

I suggest three course corrections.  First, church leaders should not subscribe to the unfounded narrative that ongoing climate change will lead to the world falling apart.  There is no climatic cliff-edge waiting for us to fall over; the notion of runaway climate change is a speculative scenario not a scientific fact.  Changes in future climate unfold through matter of degrees, not thresholds.  Whilst every tenth of a degree of increased warming adds risks to well-being, every tenth of a degree of warming avoided represents progress to be celebrated.  Any disappointment following the Glasgow COP will far more be the result of over-inflated expectation than a failure in international politics.

Second, focus on beginnings not endings.  It is not too late, and never shall be, to do the right thing.  There are plenty of signs that carbon emissions are close to peaking, that current initiatives and new technologies can contain warming below 2°C.  Focus on the virtuous circle.  The steady ratcheting of ambition put in motion after the Paris Agreement shows that nations can learn from each other’s achievements.  Ted Nordhaus explains it this way: “Falling technological costs and shared commitments to technology and development increasingly replace zero-sum geopolitical calculations”.

Third, introduce people–especially young people–to meaningful stories which help neutralise anxieties about the future.  One of the ways developed by human cultures to do just this is through myth.  Re-establishing the presence of myths is especially important in a post-Christian culture.  They represent the in-breaking of the sacred world into human experience.  As the Alliance of Religions and Conservation remarked 15 years ago, “the climate change activist world … has all too often sought refuge in random use of apocalyptic imagery without seeking to harness the power of narrative and myth.”  The generally laudatory reception given to the Pope’s 2015 Encyclical reveals the extent to which the contemporary world is looking for a guiding narrative, hope or telos. 

The Church, and Christians in general, should be planting messages of hope in the next generation, not joining the climate prophets fuelling eco-anxiety and despair.  Instrumentally, it is not the way to design good policy or generate positive action towards solving our problems; morally, it is not fair on young people.  The Christian faith offers a story which, while on the one hand faces the full reality of human sin and its consequences, on the other transcends this reality by offering redemption and hope.  We owe our young people nothing less. 

Mike Hulme, University of Cambridge, 5 November 2021.  His latest book ‘Climate Change (Key Ideas in Geography)’ was published by Routledge in July 2021.

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