In recent months I have been reading with deep concern about the acceleration of anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change. Many Christian denominations, driven by their understanding of stewardship and care of creation, are now turning their attention to what is happening to our planet. Some are engaged in advocacy to curb the human activities which are rapidly changing the make-up of our atmosphere. Others are focused more on ministering with those – many of them in poor, developing countries – who are most likely to suffer from the effects of climate change. Still others are participating in preparations, such as the Transition Towns movement, which will assist communities in adapting to a changed world.
Opposed to these efforts, however, are other Christian groups which not only deny the reality of climate change but are also actively opposing any efforts to prepare communities or to make the necessary alterations in our lives which may help to slow its acceleration and mitigate its effects. In my reading, then, I have been trying to understand the reasoning and the theology behind these oppositional forces. There seems to be a number of underlying causes involved.
First is the persistent strand of anti-intellectualism that has been part of the American persona since the early days of colonization. In a land where manual skills were foremost in assuring survival, a life devoted to scholarship was a luxury only the upper class could afford. Frequently members of that upper class were also part of the oppressor class, the landlords and overseers who made a difficult life even more of a struggle. Resentment against the highly educated was not difficult to find in the early years of the U.S. It persists to this day, as evidenced by derogatory remarks made by public figures about the “intellectual elite” and a widespread distrust of “experts.” We see it in the strangely dichotomous attitude which maintains that U.S. universities provide the finest education in the world, yet rejects the research results produced by graduates and professors at those very universities.
Second is a deep, and seemingly unbridgeable, divide regarding the nature of the universe between climatologists, who are providing our research, and that segment of literalist Christians who believe earth to be only six to ten thousand years old. Recent polling consistently shows that 40% to 46% of the U.S. population believes that humans were created by God within the past ten millennia. Though few of these polls ask a separate question regarding belief in when the earth itself came into being, literature from those termed Young Earth Creationists generally assumes a literal six-day creation as described in the first chapter of Genesis, with planet and all living beings on it coming into existence within a week’s time.
For those who hold such beliefs, consideration of geological time in terms of millions and billions of years is no more “real” than is the wonderland that Alice found when she tumbled down the rabbit hole. In order to have a fruitful discussion regarding the causes and effects of climate change, it is necessary to have some baseline of agreement on the underlying science. Sadly, these two cosmological views are so diametrically opposite each other that anything more than superficial conversation is rarely possible.
A third factor is the belief that God is good and God gave us the planet, so we can do whatever we like with it and no harm will come. The Cornwall Alliance, founded by Calvin Beisner to bring together major Religious Right leaders in opposition to the environmental movement, has produced a DVD series titled “Resisting the Green Dragon.” In it are claims that global warming is a hoax and environmentalism is a religion in competition with Christianity. Anti-environmentalism is coupled with an extreme libertarian capitalism to advocate for consumption of resources, including burning of fossil fuels, at or above current levels, and to deny that any harm can come from maintaining the status quo.
We enjoy religious freedom in the U.S. There are no legal sanctions for heresy, and restrictions on religious practice are allowed only when the practice in question poses substantial risk to the public interest. Persons who hold the beliefs that I have described may continue to do so without fear of punishment. We must ask, however, to what extent these beliefs may be permitted to drive public policy. What is the risk? Where do justice and morality lie?
If those who deny the science of climate change are correct, then there is no risk. No matter what we do, Earth will continue to produce abundant foodstuffs, the oceans will renew themselves and continue to absorb whatever we choose to discard in them, species will flourish without danger of extinction. Life will continue as we know it for the foreseeable future, and sooner or later it will end in glory with the second coming of Christ.
If those who warn of impending danger are correct, however, we have little time remaining to repent of our profligate ways. Bill McKibben, speaking recently at Franklin and Marshall College, quoted NASA scientist James Hansen as saying that we have at best sixteen more years to bring our discharge of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere under control. And even if we succeed, the cumulative effects of what we have already done cannot be reversed in less than a hundred years. By that time many species will have been lost and many beings will have suffered immense hardship.
The necessity of making a choice and taking action brings us again to the gospel. The ones who would suffer the most, the ones most vulnerable to the rise in sea level, the collapse of fisheries, the ever-more-frequent droughts, flooding, and severe storms, are the poor, the “least of these” with whose care Jesus charged his followers. Is it ethical – is it even Christian – to take the chance that the deniers are correct, and do nothing? Jesus had harsh words for those who refused to listen to the prophets of old. People like Bill McKibben and James Hansen are our modern-day prophets, calling us to turn again, and act responsibly to care for God’s good creation.