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Let hope—not despair—guide the climate debate

A bad rhetorical strategy has hurt the environmental movement


Participants, workers, and reporters wait to enter the U.N. climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland. Associated Press/Photo by Matt Dunham

Let hope—not despair—guide the climate debate
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Over the past month, headlines worldwide have been dominated by the latest protests, pledges, and predictions from the climate summit COP26 taking place in Glasgow, Scotland. Of course, it would be easy to roll one’s eyes and ignore yet another global gathering promising to combat climate change. In the end, the conference will be useless unless it can offer reasonable alternatives marked by incremental changes without hype and fear.

The summit comes at a crucial moment. The Covid-19 pandemic, together with growing green technology investments, came together in the first significant year-on-year emissions decline of the industrial era. However, emissions could quickly surge anew as economies roar back to life following the pandemic—and as geopolitical competition between the United States and China heats up. Indeed, a UN report in September suggested that existing international pledges to cut carbon were so weak that, even if each country delivered on its current promises, the world would see 2.7° C of average warming by the end of the century—far more than the 1.5° C target set by the 2015 Paris accords.

Meanwhile, the past few years have seen a slow melting away of climate skeptics’ claims that the earth is not really warming. Contrarians now are more likely to question how bad the damage will be—and whether stopping climate change is really worth the economic cost.

Activists, meanwhile, point to phenomenon like the extraordinary 2021 Pacific Northwest heatwave (one of the most extreme weather events ever observed) and the fact that seven of the 20 largest California wildfires in history have come since 2018 as evidence that the baleful effects of climate change are already upon us—with only 1.2° C of warming.

Still, even for those convinced that we have an urgent problem on our hands, it is less obvious that a real solution lies before us. Like all efforts to mobilize collective action without anyone to enforce the rules, global climate treaties can seem little more than public relations stunts—opportunities for each nation to make grandiose promises to transform its economy—and then to quietly renege on its promises once the cameras are off. And with two of the largest polluters, China and Russia, not even participating in COP26, any agreement to emerge from Glasgow is likely to be futile. The initiatives announced thus far—a commitment to stop deforestation by 2030, a dramatic reduction in methane emissions, and a financial plan to aid poor nations—have been met with a distinct lack of enthusiasm by environmental activists, who have called for far more dramatic action.

The environmental movement began with widespread political support—it used to be a priority of both conservatives and liberals. But it has doubled down on the wrong rhetorical strategy. Hope is always a more powerful motivator than fear, especially when making and keeping long-term commitments. And both are better than guilt, which climate activists eagerly stoke, chiding rich nations for the ways their self-indulgence will spell doom for vulnerable developing countries.

To be sure, the effects of climate change are unfair: at least in the past, the countries producing most of the emissions are the ones most able to weather the resulting disruptions. And there are real unknowns to fear—such as the devastation of our oceans as coral reefs collapse around the globe. But Christians have long known that hope triumphs over both guilt and fear. Climate activists would do well to frame their messaging accordingly.

They might emphasize that investment in green technologies is not just about paying extra for second-rate energy sources, but it is actually part of a new industrial revolution that will replace dated 20th-century systems with cutting-edge technologies no longer dependent on finite and dwindling resources. They might highlight that recent climate accords and new investments really have moved the needle, slowing emissions dramatically in western Europe and the United States. And they might focus on the fact that the agreements reached so far at COP26, if followed by action, will make real progress.

Of course, pledges are not the same as sustained action. Unless citizens across the world are convinced that incremental changes in behavior and technological investments can make a real difference over the long haul, most are likely to shrug their shoulders and take their chances with a warmer world. Christians convinced that we should steward the glorious creation entrusted to us have a crucial role to play at such a moment. We must demonstrate to the world what the responsible Christian stewardship of creation looks like. We must push back against the secular eco-theologies. And we must bring common sense to the table—and hope.


Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is a fellow in the Evangelicals and Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He founded and served for ten years as president of The Davenant Institute, and has taught for several institutions, including Moody Bible Institute–Spokane, Bethlehem College and Seminary, and Patrick Henry College. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Landrum, S.C., with his wife, Rachel, and four children.


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