Climate Change and Christian Commitment - I

A climate of confusion, and a theology to match!

There are two crucial areas in which far too many Christians, evangelicals and others, adopt an “I don’t do that” attitude: science and theology. Crucial because science teaches us all that we are able to reliably know about the world we live in, and theology teaches us all God enables us to know about the larger realm which he invites us to share.

I donn’t do science!”L~

For a small number of Christians the reason they take against science is that some scientists are ardent atheists who wrongly pretend that science can prove the non-existence of God. This is not the article to help them. My concern is rather with those who close their ears to science because they assume it is too difficult for them. After all their school grades were always low, or they even went to school before science had become a subject. They use the applications of science (technologies as we call them) throughout their daily lives – in home appliances, transport, medicines and food, the clothes they wear, and just about everything else – but aren’t interested in what makes those life choices possible.

It is true that many of today’s thorny ethical issues are science-related: artificial insemination, life-support for those who cannot breathe or feed for themselves, abortion, stem cell research, genetically modified crops, to name a few. But unless such issues touch us directly they are nothing more than an interesting evening at the house group – where quite possibly nobody will really know what we’re talking about! But does it really matter?

I passionately believe it does – that the Church cannot expect to be taken seriously when it wants to contribute to debate on moral issues, if it speaks from ignorance. But that is not the heart of my concern either. The issue that alarms me is the lack of any sense of God-driven responsibility with which we approach the matter of climate change. The churches lag well behind others in getting behind campaigns to force governments to take the necessary actions. Amid the many “causes” that clamour for Christian attention it takes a lowly place for many of us. And I still meet Christians who vociferously deny that climate change is happening, or that our burning of fossil fuel is to blame.

Theological excusesL~

I have become convinced that the main handicap to a proper Christian response is theological. We have come to believe such things as the following:

~**Creation is something God finished long ago. God’s interest is now devoted to putting right what humans spoilt.*~~*God is in heaven and leaves the earth to us to steward or look after for him.*~~*God is spirit, and has graciously shared that spirit with us, whilst material things have no lasting significance.*~~*We’ll go to heaven and this earth will be destroyed.*~~*Salvation is all about saved people; God has no plans to save the rest of creation.*~~*These are among the mistaken beliefs that enable us to sit lightly to the natural world, to regard it merely as a stage on which our life journeys are played out, its resources to be used or indeed exploited solely for our own benefit.**~

None of those beliefs is biblical. Or at least, like almost any heresy, they can be claimed as biblical by taking particular texts, interpreting them in inadequate ways, and ignoring Scripture as a whole. The editor has invited me to add two further articles to this one, in which I will concentrate on some of those sub-Christian theological beliefs that enable us to feel that theology is of no real importance in the climate debate. But in a moment for the remainder of this introductory article, I do want to ensure that all readers understand the science. It really isn’t hard.

What happens once we have discounted the relevance of theology is that our response to climate change becomes the one we share with all humanists – namely that justice requires us to do something. Those who suffer most terribly from changing climate are the poor who live on coastal floodplains and in desert fringes, the places the rich can afford to avoid. In addition to those far away, it is those of our grandchildren’s generation that will reap the whirlwind we have sown, living with a much hotter climate, food and drinking water shortages, that we have caused. Our gospel principles of loving our neighbours as ourselves and doing to others what we would have them do to us, encourage us to get alongside others who share such philosophies in addressing the gross injustice caused by the carbon emissions of western nations and of each one of us.

So far, so good. But with one in three of the world’s population being Christians, imagine the difference if we started to address climate change for God’s sake rather than merely the sake of the poor! If we started to believe, on the basis of the Scripture, that God loves the cosmos (as John 3:16 famously says, but we grossly limit), then think what a difference we could make in this critical time! I write this before the Copenhagen climate summit, but at a time when general expectation is that it will not honour the unanimous decision of the United Nations in Bali in December 2007 to set legally binding limits on carbon emissions by the end of 2009.

The Church cannot expect to be taken seriously when it wants to contribute to debate on moral issues, if it speaks from ignorance.

Simple economics; simple scienceL~

The BBC has become very responsible in its reporting of global warming in the last couple of years, but many media sources continue to highlight sceptics to such an extent that much of the public genuinely believe there is doubt regarding climate change. This is enhanced by their love of living for today without thought for tomorrow, demonstrated by their living on credit, choosing to have things today by borrowing from their future. In the long term those who live that way are always poorer because of the interest they must pay, which always exceeds inflation.

Three years ago the Stern Review decisively investigated the economics of climate change demonstrating the same truth. To tackle the issues now will cost us, but to fail to do so is to borrow from the future when it will be much more expensive. Putting figures on it Stern said that reducing greenhouse gas emissions to avoid dangerous climate changes would cost 1% of global GDP each year from then on. That means we’d all need a one off 1% lowering of our standard of living. By doing nothing his models estimated that the world would inevitably lose between 5 and 20% of GDP evermore.

Enough of economics! Back to science. Yes, there are rogue scientists – even one or two who don’t work for oil companies! But it is now more than twenty years since any article appeared in a reputable peer-reviewed scientific journal that doubted whether humans were causing global temperature rise. Instead thousands of articles have shown in immense detail that we are definitely doing that. Fortunately the underlying reasons for the unanimity of responsible science are simple enough for a primary school child to understand…

Temperatures are risingL~

Modern thermometers are highly accurate. Earth’s surface temperatures are measured daily in thousands of locations on land and sea. The average (around the world and across the year) global temperature has risen by one degree centigrade in the last hundred years. In the last one hundred and fifty years, eight of the ten hottest have been since 2000. One degree Celsius in a lifetime may not seem much, but remember that is an average. Typically land temperatures have risen faster, and in the Arctic the average temperature is nearly three degrees hotter than in the mid twentieth century. This is because ice reflects the sun’s heat, and since the general warming has reduced the ice to half its summer extent the Arctic Ocean picks up the sun’s heat much more efficiently.

Carbon Dioxide is rising tooL~

The chart shown is one of many similar ones from different observation stations around the world. This one shows carbon dioxide levels in the upper atmosphere over Hawaii, and so far away from any local industry. Most of earth’s land, and therefore most of its trees, are in the northern hemisphere. Each spring the new leaves take in carbon dioxide for photosynthesis, and much of it is released when the leaves fall in autumn. This accounts for the saw-tooth shape of the graph, but the trend is plain. Until the early twentieth century the level of carbon dioxide never exceeded 300 parts per million; but now already it is approaching 400 parts per million. These small amounts have huge significance. With no greenhouse gases in the atmosphere the average temperature of earth would be 35 degrees Celsius less than it is – unfit for life of any kind.

The main source of the excess carbon dioxide that has accrued in the atmosphere since the start of the industrial revolution, and particularly in the last sixty years, is the huge and still increasing burning of gas, oil and coal for heat, electricity and in transport fuel. To a lesser extent the depletion of forests has reduced the number of trees that turn carbon dioxide into oxygen. Among other greenhouse gases, methane has a significant effect on global warming and is produced in significant quantities from rice paddies and from cattle farming. But our use of fossil energy is by far the largest cause of the current global warming, which has never been paralleled for speed in the history of the last half million years

The relationship between the twoL~

Ice cores drilled from the Atlantic ice sheet preserve air bubbles from that last half a million years. The annual cycle of winter snow and partial summer melt preserve them much as the varying thickness rings of a tree preserve a record of climate. Those air bubbles can be analysed for carbon dioxide, and through comparing the ratio of the two common isotopes of oxygen the temperature at the time is also measurable. The chart shows the relationship between the two.

You can clearly see how closely temperature and carbon dioxide concentration relate. You can see how in the depths of the four long ice ages of the past temperatures were around 6 degrees lower than today. You can see the 18,000 year warm period that has enabled human life to flourish. And you can see the carbon dioxide increase in the last sixty years. Doubtless you can make some prediction of what temperature is due to do.

There cannot be certainly about how far and how soon temperatures will rise from the carbon dioxide we’ve already added to the atmosphere, and which it will take hundreds of years for the oceans (in the main) to absorb. Scientific models are becoming ever more finely tuned, and the best current estimates are between 3 and 7 degrees rise in average temperature (more across land, remember) by 2100. Continuing business as usual will take carbon dioxide to about 1000 parts per million by then and temperatures to around 20 degrees hotter, but with a lot worse to come in the 22nd century.

This is the context in which the world has to act, and in which we need to look again at our theology to find out how this relates to God’s purpose. And I’ll begin that task in the next issue.