Saturday, January 25, 2014

Thinking Biblically about Climate Change

About a month ago I signed up for my first try at on-line learning.  The course that intrigued me sufficiently to take that step is Climate Change in Four Dimensions, offered by the University of California – San Diego and made available through Coursera.  According to course statistics announced at the conclusion of the first week, there are over 12,768 enrolled in the course, with 5595 actively participating.  A fee-based option with additional required work and the opportunity for personal interaction with the professors is available.  The number of students who have chosen that option in order to earn academic credit has not been disclosed.
The “four dimensions” in the course title refers to the examination of the issue of climate change from the points of view of natural science, technology, social science, and the humanities.  The first two weeks of material have concentrated on the natural science undergirding the study, but have also drawn in considerations of social science.  Natural science and social science necessarily intersect as soon as the question is raised about opposition to the current scientific consensus.
Two papers that were presented for our reading (Oreskes 2004; Cook et al 2013) both conclude that the scientific consensus about the reality of climate change and anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming is about 97%.  The most recent report (AR5 – 2013) issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that “[i]t is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.  The evidence for this has grown, thanks to more and better observations, an improved understanding of the climate system response and improved climate models.  Warming in the climate system is unequivocal and since 1950 many changes have been observed throughout the climate system that are unprecedented over decades to millennia.”
Polling consistently shows that attitudes and beliefs of Americans regarding climate change lag substantially behind the scientific consensus.  The 2012 ecoAmerica report “Trends in America’s Climate and Ecological Attitudes” indicates that belief that global warming is happening declined from a high of 70+% in 2007 to 57% in 2010, then edged up to 61% in 2011.  Depending on how the question is asked, various polls taken in 2011 and early 2012 show that 40% to 60% of Americans believe that global warming is human caused.
Needless to say, this disparity between what the best scientists studying global warming and climate change understand and what the American public believes is quite disturbing.  It is axiomatic that a community must acknowledge that a problem exists and have a working comprehension of its origins and scope before significant steps can be taken to address it and begin to find solutions.
There are multiple reasons for this gap in understanding and knowledge.  One explanation is that in the current economic climate a large proportion of the populace is focused primarily on day-to-day living.  Another factor is political affiliation.  Surveys completed by Brookings and Pew Research in late 2011 revealed that 78% and 77%, respectively, of Democrats say that there is solid evidence of global warming, while the percentages for Republicans are only 47% and 43%.  A more recent (March 2013) Pew Research survey indicates that the percentage for Democrats has risen to 87%, while for Republicans it remains nearly unchanged at 44%.
A third influence is the organized, deliberate campaign of disinformation that has been mounted by those persons and corporations who perceive they have much to lose if the actions necessary to slow climate change and mitigate its effects were to become national policy.  Using many of the tactics that were employed by the tobacco industry to forestall accountability, this campaign of climate change denial has steadily increased in subtlety and ubiquity since the 1990s.  Drexel University sociologist Robert Brulle, in a major study published in December 2013, concluded, “The anti-climate effort has been largely underwritten by conservative billionaires, often working through secretive funding networks. They have displaced corporations as the prime supporters of 91 think tanks, advocacy groups and industry associations which have worked to block action on climate change.”
In light of all this, I have been asking myself the question, “What insights might we gain from studying the Bible?  What passages might help me better to understand, and perhaps in some way to counter, the forces that are keeping us on the path toward potentially devastating social and ecological disruptions due to our rapidly changing climate?”
Though I am just beginning to follow this train of thought and have reached few conclusions, three passages have so far suggested themselves.  The first is the idea that children are punished for the sins of their parents, even to the third or fourth or seventh generation.  This appears in Exodus 20:5, specifically as punishment for idolatry, and is expressed in more general terms in the saying quoted in Jeremiah 31:29.  Reading this as descriptive rather than prescriptive, we can see how perceptive the ancient Israelites were in understanding how the harmful actions of one generation can negatively affect succeeding generations.  Too often we think only of immediate results of our actions.  We need to adopt the practice of considering generations yet unborn in our decision making. 
A second is the exchange between Jesus and the rich young ruler, as recorded in Luke 18:18-25.  The teaching we can gain from this story is recognition of how very difficult it is to give up the riches and comforts that we are used to enjoying.  The young man sincerely wanted to do what was necessary “to inherit eternal life,” but he was too attached to his belongings to take the final step of selling everything and giving it to the poor in order to follow Jesus.  The decision to adjust our industrial-world lifestyle to the degree that science indicates is necessary if we are to maintain a livable planet requires both individual and collective action.  It will not be easy, but it is possible if we all resolve to share our resources so that the burden does not fall unfairly on the backs of the poor.
The final incident which I am presently considering is found in Acts 16:16-24.  Paul and Silas encounter a slave girl who is possessed by a spirit of divination and whose owners are exploiting her because of it for their own gain.  When Paul heals the girl by casting out the spirit, her owners are furious at losing their money-making capability.  They drag Paul and Silas before the authorities and falsely accuse them, so that they are thrown into prison.  The parallels with the behavior of climate change deniers are quite apparent.  Accumulation of wealth is valued above the wellbeing of the exploited, and any opposition is met with lies and vicious retaliation.
The course has eight more weeks to run.  I’m eager to continue learning and to seek more insight from scripture to add to my understanding.

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