How Can a Church Deal with the Climate Crisis?

By Stephen Ernst

Stephen Jenkinson is a teacher, a student of life, a philosopher, and the founder of the Wisdom School in Ontario Canada. This story, about an experience he had while on a speaking tour to New Zealand two years ago, seems eerily prescient for these times.

The flight to Christchurch, a marathon at best, was an ordeal due to delays and the need to fly around a major thunderstorm. Our plane arrived just ahead of the storm and by the time I went through customs and got to my hotel, it was almost midnight, and the storm was raging. I closed the drapes on my windows, noting that my room looked right out over the beach, and fell exhausted into bed.

Several hours later, I was jolted out of bed by the sound of what had to be a steam locomotive about to run right through my room with the light of its headlamp blasting through the window’s curtains. I stumbled to the window, drew aside the curtain, and saw a large, two-rotor helicopter slowly sweeping its searchlight over the raging surf below. After several minutes, finding no one in need of rescue on this section of beach, it very slowly started working its way down the beach, continuing its search. I went back to bed, and, despite my rude awakening, fell instantly back to sleep. About 6 in the morning the helicopter returned. The storm was abating and as dawn broke, it turned its searchlight off and flew away.

It occurred to me that this may well describe our role in the coming storm—even as the storm is raging around us—to search, with no guarantee of success, for those that may need our help.

Now some may find this a depressing metaphor, but I find it strangely liberating. Acknowledging our inability to stop the coming storm or even to steer its path, can free us from an impossible burden, letting us focus on mitigations that are within our grasp:

  • Sounding the storm-warning sirens,
  • Dramatically increasing the importance of preparing for the storm,
  • Exploding the false choice between hope or despair,
  • Recognizing our desire to get back to normal as delusional and a fool’s errand,
  • Resisting the urge to hunker down until the crisis runs its course—because this crisis ends us before it runs its course.

But what role can the church, or more specifically, EUUC, play in dealing with such a systemic crisis, you might ask. I suggest that a society with a deeply embedded sense that we’re all in this together is much more resilient in the face of disaster than one that celebrates the cult of the individual. A sermon by Our Minister for Faith and Justice, Rev. Cecilia Kingman, on the purpose of the church comes to mind. If indeed, our purpose is to transform ourselves so we can transform our society, then transforming a culture’s point of view is squarely in our wheelhouse.

As conditions continue to deteriorate,1,2,3 we can expect the call to, in David Swanson’s words,

“rededicate ourselves to redoubling our efforts, again and again, with ever greater effort as we continue. The alternative of giving up is guaranteed not to be more enjoyable than working well together on a crisis that could bring out the best in us. The alternative of pretending everything is normal, scorning radical activism, and contenting ourselves with voting in yet another ‘most important election of our lifetime’ every two years is guaranteed to create a crisis of faith and a crisis of guilt. Let’s not go there. Or rather, let’s not stay there.”4

I believe that our church can go deeper to avoid a crisis of faith by encouraging our members to ask themselves, Is it essential to my continued efforts in this crisis that I believe the struggle will be won? If I come to realize that I’m in a struggle I cannot win, can I get back in the helicopter and offer what help I can to those caught in the storm, dedicating myself to ending with dignity and kindness, with the closest thing I can manage to the grace and wisdom that could have saved us?

Steve has been a member of EUUC since 1988. He has served on the Board of Trustees and the Committee on Ministry, and is a founding member of the Peace & Justice Committee.

1 By 2040, large areas of India could experience 5 consecutive days with wet-bulb temperatures topping 110 degrees F. The human body cannot survive for more than a few hours in such an environment. Unlike a famine that can be mitigated by importing food, or a hurricane where the damage can be repaired, there would be no way to escape the heat, no safe place to go, resulting in tens of thousands of people literally being cooked to death. IPCC report 2021.

2 None of [the] places, which today supply much of the world’s food, would be reliable sources going forward. As for the original dust bowl: The droughts in the American plains and Southwest would not just be worse than in the 1930s, a 2015 NASA study predicted, but worse than any droughts in a thousand years — and that includes those that struck between 1100 and 1300, which ‘dried up all the rivers East of the Sierra Nevada mountains’ and may have been responsible for the death of the Anasazi civilization. David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth

3 Since 2011, about one million Syrian refugees, fleeing a civil war inflamed by climate change and drought, destabilized many countries in eastern Europe and fueled a wave of authoritarian, “populist” regimes. The World Bank estimates that in the next 30 years, the number of refugees from sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and the rest of South Asia will swell to 140 million. The U.N. projections are bleaker: “a billion or more vulnerable poor people dispossessed of their home and turned outward to wander through hostile territories in search of a new one, with little choice but to fight or flee.” David Wallice Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth

4 From David Swanson’s review of Dahr Jamail’s “The End of Ice”