Jim Antal recognizes that most Americans are not engaged by the climate change issue. “Two in three Americans think global warming is happening (67%), yet most Americans (65%) rarely or never discuss it,” he writes, citing a Yale study in his new book, “Climate Church, Climate World.”
Antal thinks a central reason we have ignored global warming is because the problem is a “long emergency” and overwhelming in scope. “(N)euroscientists tell us that our brains are not suited to respond appropriately to long-term threats such as climate change,” he writes.
This is why, he suggests, we know how to respond to the immediate threats and destruction caused by a major hurricane, like Harvey: by repairing Houston’s collapsed bridges and infrastructure and other present-tense problems. But we always seem to miss the big picture — for example, the fact that “Hurricane Harvey was Houston’s third once-in-500-years flood in the last four years.”
The question Antal poses is when will climate change feel immediate enough for us to think and act decisively on behalf of future generations? He argues that we’ve developed an “environmental generational amnesia,” and that we need to think long term in both directions. Thus, he includes a useful history of climate science and of our evolving understanding of the problem. This runs from the 1850s, when John Tyndall first suggested that CO2 created a greenhouse effect, trapping the sun’s energy and warming the climate, to Wallace Broecker’s groundbreaking research and climate projections in the 1970s, to Bill McKibben’s landmark 1989 book, “The End of Nature,” and leading up to the policies of the Trump administration.
Given that President Donald Trump withdrew from the Paris climate accord and — along with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt and U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry — doesn’t view climate change as a crisis, nor tie it directly to human behavior, Antal doesn’t place his hope for change in the current political leadership.
The subtitle of the book suggests where his hope does lie: “How People of Faith Must Work for Change.” A longtime Congregational pastor and activist himself, Antal identifies with the social gospel and prophetic tradition of the church — going all the way back to the abolitionist movement. Early in the book he shares his central vision.
“I believe that people of faith the world over have the capacity to determine the trajectory of our common future,” Antal writes. “Here in America, if Christianity continues to emphasize personal salvation while ignoring collective salvation, if we continue to reduce the Creator to an anthropocentric projection who privileges and protects humanity, however alienated we may be from God’s created order, then the practice of religion will continue to diminish and it will add little to the redemption of creation.”
After analyzing the history and social implications of climate change, Antal reimagines the role of church communities and their capacity to confront and resolve the problem. After each chapter throughout the book, there are discussion questions aimed at prompting readers to engage in their communities — through everything from Bible study to civil disobedience. Clearly, Antal’s purpose in writing is not simply to educate but to inspire readers’ hearts, heads and hands to “repurpose” the church, and reimagine its moral calling.
The chapter titled “Discipleship: Reorienting What We Prize” outlines the basic changes in social and economic priorities Antal thinks are necessary to realize this goal. Americans, he believes, must reject and rethink “our insatiable desire for material growth, our uncompromising insistence on convenience, and our relentless addiction to mobility.”
But this is of course no easy task. Such a shift in priorities is antithetical to America’s thriving high-tech culture of accumulation and convenience. The challenge is formidable. And it’s complicated by the fact that climate change has not been a central focus or mission of the church until recently.
In his introduction, friend and fellow activist McKibben, explains: “For religious people the environment was a second tier problem: for liberal Christians it was secondary to the ‘real issues’ of hunger and war; to conservative people of faith it represented a way station on the road to paganisim.”
Nevertheless, in spite of all the challenges, Antal’s central message is one of engaged hope. Like Pope Francis and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, he sees the current climate debacle as “a Kairos moment, an opportune moment fraught with God-inspired possibility.”
“(O)ur present social and economic system needs a moral intervention,” Antal writes. “And so does the church. It’s time to declare a new moral era.”
Tom Montgomery Fate, author of the nature memoir “Cabin Fever,” is a professor of English at College of DuPage.
‘Climate Church, Climate World’
By Jim Antal, Rowman & Littlefield, 242 pages, $25