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The Climate Crisis is a Spiritual Crisis

By Anna K. Del Castillo and Maya Pace, Contributing Opinion Writers
Maya Pace is a second-year Master in Theological Studies student at the Harvard Divinity School. Anna K. Del Castillo graduated with a Master in Divinity from the Harvard Divinity School in 2021.

We can both recall the precise moment the reality of the climate crisis came crashing down on us. For Anna, it was in 2022, in Jackson, Mississippi:

Last year, my hometown made national news as a water crisis kept nearly 150,000 residents, including my family, from safe drinking water. Systemic disinvestment in water infrastructure and climate change are at the heart of Jackson’s water crisis. Tucked away in my corner of campus, I prayed for my mother and father, that their bodies would not be poisoned. I wished for protection of the babies bathing in contaminated water. My heart changed as it thirsted for justice and protection of that which is sacred: water.

For Maya, it was the day the sky turned red in Northern California:

"I stepped outside of my house and felt my breath leave my body. Even today, I find it difficult to express the disorientation of looking up at the sky and seeing a milky red haze, the color of light pouring through skin; it felt like God had closed their eyes. I can remember the despair, paired with a deep confusion. As fires ravaged my home county, I was living in a state of hyper awareness, checking the alerts on my phone to see if my family would need to evacuate. But in that moment, all I could do was stare up at the sky, mouth agape."

Although we live in different states facing distinct impacts of the climate crisis, both of our homes are bound by a shared reality: this time, the crisis is profoundly urgent.

While climate change has material implications, the environmental devastation also has urgent psychological, spiritual, and social implications given the toll that loss of life (human and non-human), habitat, and livelihood have on human wellbeing. Recent reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Climate Council of Australia, as well as studies published in Nature and PNAS, note that climate change is linked with 1) an increase in climate-related anxiety and PTSD, 2) a rise in the likelihood of armed conflict, and 3) growing suicide rates among farmers. To mitigate these potential outcomes, communities will need to deploy social and spiritual resources to attend to the emotional fallout from ecological devastation, especially for communities of color which climate change disproportionately impacts.

In times of crisis, humans turn to spiritual leaders; spirituality has been integral to some of the most formative movements of the past century. Faith leaders are among the most effective people to spark action, and we see examples of ecotheological thought across nearly every major religion. As spiritual practitioners, we believe that land and spiritual wellbeing are deeply interconnected. This is not a revolutionary notion. Indigenous leaders have been raising the alarm that our spiritual and physical realities are intertwined for centuries. We must listen to and learn from them as we mobilize collective, spiritually rooted action worldwide.

More recently, we have seen the potential for spiritual leaders to activate communities around critical climate action: the leaders of Standing Rock mobilizing collective action around the sacrality of water, Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ donation of 5,700 water shares back to Great Salt Lake, the joint Appeal signed by almost 40 faith leaders ahead of COP26 in 2021. Chaplains and spiritual practitioners, including ourselves and our classmates at the Harvard Divinity School (where we’ll be gathering April 10-14 for Climate Justice Week), are offering spiritual care to people in the wake of climate disasters and in the face of climate anxiety.

Climate action is often discussed through a lens of policy, science, and infrastructure, especially here at Harvard. These interventions are, of course, essential, yet climate change asks more of us. Acknowledging our impact on the earth demands that we contend with bigger questions like: What is the role of people on this earth? How do we care for each other during increasingly challenging times? How do we live well, live sustainably, treat the land and its species as sacred? How do we find strength and courage to walk forward with an open heart in the face of devastation?

These are the questions we ask as we look at red skies and wonder if our loved ones have clean water to drink. The grief, disorientation, and despair of these moments will find healing in community and spiritual care. If we spend more time responding to these questions, just maybe our planet will heal too.

As we look to the next decade — which will determine just how much temperature change our world will experience — we cannot afford to disregard the existential nature of what we are facing. Our earth will be forever changed. We are being asked to love a world of increasing chaos and difficulty. We must turn to one another, look at the fires and poisoned water, and ask ourselves what more we can do. Our future is at stake.

CORRECTION: April 7, 2023

A previous version of this story misstated the name of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as the Church of Latter Day Saints.

Maya Pace is a second-year Master in Theological Studies student at the Harvard Divinity School. Anna K. Del Castillo graduated with a Master in Divinity from the Harvard Divinity School in 2021.

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