We learned last year that Americans are more afraid of terrorism than threats that have a greater statistical risk of harming them such as car accidents, falling furniture, heart disease or lightning strikes. But that’s the point of terrorism, to instill fear beyond reason or rational. Terrorism is a threat; no one is questioning that but the way in which we prioritize threats, in most cases, does not align with statistical or scientific data. For example, terrorism is regularly discussed on media outlets, but issues relating to climate change are rarely covered despite their greater risk of hurting you and those you love.
Late last year, the Paris climate talks created one the most important climate documents ever produced but most Americans had no idea because we were inundated with Kim Kardashian and Star Wars (the threat of both is still to be determined). Since it’s safe to assume that Kylo Ren’s Dark Force won’t be shadowing Earth anytime soon, we may deduce that risk factors are not what prioritizes issues in the American psyche.
Climate priorities are developed in unique ways. As Climate Outreach explains, “it may not be as straightforward as focusing on ‘local’ rather than ‘global’ aspects of the issue,” in “overcoming the so-called ‘psychological distance’ of climate change.” Most of us prioritize issues based on our emotional response, of which we have a strong response to Kim Kardashian for reasons that evade me. Our focus on the mundane is perhaps deeper than our interests and may be rooted in newly discovered psychological patterns in people around the world. Dr. Susie Burke Ph.D, FAPS contends that our lack of concern for the climate may not be as impassive as we once thought. On the contrary, climate change induces such intense levels of anxiety, anger, pessimism, or guilt that psychologists have created a new diagnosis called ‘eco-anxiety’ or ‘climate change anxiety.’
‘Guilt,’ an anxiety trigger, particularly impacts people of faith. When we ignore our sacred responsibility to manage and steward the creation God has given us, it makes us feel weak or negligible. But merely acknowledging this problem doesn’t help. As ecoAmerica’s guide, 15 Steps to Creating Effective Climate Communications suggests, leaders are better suited to ‘ditch the doom and gloom’ when motivating climate action. “Emphasizing these aspects promotes fatalism and emotional numbing, causing people to turn away and disengage,” the report proposes, continuing, “Solutions, benefits and personal empowerment are the message you want them to leave with.”
The guide goes on to mention that connecting with people's common values through “affiliation or “tribal” connectors such as being fellow congregants,” is a more impactful approach and lessens climate change anxiety through communal efforts. Faith leaders must actively address the impacts inflicting their congregation but they must also remain mindful of the guilt on which they apply these measures. ecoAmerica’s report, Beyond Storms & Droughts: The Psychological Impacts of Climate Change, explains that “high levels of distress and anxiety are often prevalent among people who have recently experienced an acute trauma,” long after the floodwaters subside. A finding consistent with current psychological reports that indicate high levels of PTSD among survivors of climate-related disasters. Dr. Burke contends that “these impacts, in turn may cause psychological conditions like anxiety or depression.”
Many Americans experienced this impact last week when temperatures spiked across the American Southwest reaching one-hundred and twenty degrees Fahrenheit, fueling wildfires that nearly destroyed my home town. Research from Environmental Health Perspectives indicates that these devastatingly dangerous heat waves may induce psychological changes and when coupled with the reality that humans contributed to these impacts, climate solutions can be overwhelming.
Despite all the evidence demonstrating that fear doesn’t work, how are we supposed to communicate to people of faith effectively that climate change is happening, it is human caused, and we must act now, while remaining sensitive to the trauma it has already inflicted?
I wrestled with this question while pouring over statistical data regarding climate concerns only to realize that starting with climate concern data was my first mistake. According to a recent poll conducted by Gallup Research, only two percent of Americans prioritize climate change as their primary worry. Many other concerns surpassed climate change, one of which was ‘religion, morals, and ethics,’ accounting for five percent of American respondents. That’s more than double the number of people who prioritize climate change, begging the question: is climate change the best place to start when communicating on climate change? Or should we connect first on shared values to demonstrate how our role as people of faith bears a responsibility to manage God’s creation?
Ryan Smith is a writer at Blessed Tomorrow. He received his master's degree in Religious Studies with an emphasis on faith and climate change from the University of California, Riverside. Click here to email Ryan.