American Civic Life

As COP26 Conference Gathers, Faith-based Environmentalists Fight ‘Eco-grief’

November 3, 2021

(RNS) — There’s a word for climate disaster fatigue: It’s called “eco-grief.”

As the United Nations Climate Conference (known as COP26) gathers world leaders in Glasgow, Scotland, over the next two weeks to discuss climate change, and even Democrats in the United States try to cobble together a reed-slim coalition to pass significant climate change mitigation measures, people of faith long active in environmental advocacy haven’t succumbed to pessimism.

“I adamantly refuse to surrender to hopelessness,” wrote Katharine Hayhoe, chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy, in an email interview. Hayhoe, with author Bill McKibben, is participating in COP26, where President Joe Biden and other world leaders spoke on Monday.

For some climate change veterans, a positive perspective is central to their faith.

In the Sikh tradition, said environmental scientist Bandana Kaur Malik, “we approach the challenges of the world in a spirit of optimism.” Collective efforts, she said, can have an enormous impact. “We’re actually here to give people hope, and to find that help. Even when things are darkest, if we are brave and see light within the situation, there will be more light.”

A Sikh’s attitude toward the environment, Kaur Malik said, is influenced by the words of founder Guru Nanak, who wrote, “Air is the Guru, Water the Father, And the Earth the Eminent Mother of all.”

Activists don’t understate the magnitude of the challenges of a global climate crisis. But responding to it is, they say, much more than a matter of self-preservation. It’s rooted in the central tenets of their faith traditions.

“It really is terrifying,” Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, a Modern Orthodox rabbi, said of the spate of recent climate news. “I think we have to start by embracing how terrifying this is, and how disappointing it is that this is all human-caused. Yet I remain very hopeful.”

That hope, said Yanklowitz, creator and president of Uri L’Tzedek (the Orthodox Social Justice movement) and the animal advocacy organization Shamayim, is based on the activism the climate movement has generated. “I see a revolution started, a spiritual revolution of people who are changing their lives and are working to change their communities,” he said.

Tori Goebel of Evangelicals for Climate Action. Courtesy photo.

Tori Goebel of Evangelicals for Climate Action. Courtesy photo.

James Rattling Leaf runs a consulting firm while coordinating climate partnerships for the Great Plains Tribal Water Alliance. Courtesy Photo.

James Rattling Leaf runs a consulting firm while coordinating climate partnerships for the Great Plains Tribal Water Alliance. Courtesy Photo.

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