Posted by: gcarkner | November 6, 2019

Climate Change: a Christian Response

A Christian Response to Anthropogenically Generated Climate Change

Olav Slaymaker, Professor Emeritus of Geography at the University of British Columbia

Summary statement: “the really inconvenient truth about climate change is that it’s not about carbon–it’s about greed”.

Since 1990 the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change process has demonstrated with ever increasing precision the correlation between carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere at Hawaii’s Geophysical Observatory and the average temperature in the northern hemisphere. And the focus of the discussion has been the rising temperature, hence the expression “global warming”. But climate is about much more than temperature: it includes incidence of flooding, aridity, glacier melt, permafrost thawing and much else. And the driving force is much more than just carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere. It is no less than the cumulative behavior of society, especially our neo-liberal consumer society. The driving force behind our society is quite simply greed and the irresponsible, unsustainable way in which we use our resources.

One of the most helpful books on climate change is by Mike Hulme, a Professor of Environmental Science at the University of East Anglia in the UK. The book is called “Why We Disagree about Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity” (Cambridge University Press). He uses biblical imagery to enlighten the discussion. He points out that climate change is not a physical problem looking for a solution (although in 1990 this was the way in which the problem was couched by the IPCC) but to use his phraseology, climate change has become a kind of Christmas tree onto which we all hang our favourite baubles. He highlights the way in which the issue has been appropriated by so many different groups to promote their own causes. Four ways of thinking about climate change, Hulme suggests, can be labelled: (1) Lamenting Eden; (2) Presaging Apocalypse; (3) Constructing Babel; and (4) Celebrating Jubilee. These are all biblical metaphors which imply that climate change is not a problem to be solved but an idea of the imagination that requires deep reflection.

Lamenting Eden: This perspective views climate as a symbol of a pure and pristine Nature. Climate becomes something fragile that needs to be protected or saved. This is an idea which is associated with Western Enlightenment and treats Nature as a category that is distinct from Culture (the so-called Nature/Culture binary). A suggested Christian response would be to recognize the profound interdependence of Nature and Culture and to reject the ecotheology of the deep ecology movement.

Presaging Apocalypse: This view appeals to our instinctive fear of the future. Wildly exaggerated predictions of environmental collapse is an ineffective, counterproductive way of inducing behavioural change. A suggested Christian response is to examine very closely the extent to which such disaster scenarios are consistent with the available data.

Constructing Babel:  A confident belief in the human ability to control Nature is a dominant attribute of the international diplomacy that engages climate change and geo-engineering is a dangerous instance of humanitiy’s hubris. A Christian response would be to be highly suspicious of the claims of geoengineers. The Enlightenment project objectivizes climate through standardized measurement and quantification: hence prediction, management and mastery are the foci.

Celebrating Jubilee: This critique uses the idea of justice, freedom and celebration. This way of thinking about climate change uses the language of morality and ethics. For those in social and environmental justice movements climate change is not merely a substantive material problem nor simply (as in lamenting Eden) a symbolic one. Climate change is an idea around which their concerns for social and environmental justice can be mobilized. Climate change offers humanity the chance to do the right thing.

Climate change cannot be understood by focusing only on its physicality. We need to understand the ways in which we talk about climate change. What climate change means to us lies beyond the reach of science, economics and political science. “When we have found all the mysteries and lost all the meanings, we will be alone, on an empty shore”. (Stoppard, 1993, Arcadia). Christians can safely change the conversation and introduce the language of faith in a loving God.

The four ways of thinking about climate change above are mirrors that reveal important truths about the human condition. Lamenting Eden tells us of our desire or even yearning for a simpler time. Presaging Apocalypse tells us of our worries about the future. Constructing Babel tells of our desire for mastery and control. Celebrating Jubilee tells us of our human urge to respond to injustice. Climate change opens up new ways of understanding the greed, willfulness and structural causes of inequality and injustice in the world, but also reveals the limits of individual moral agency.

Other Material on Creation/Environment Care

Earth-Wise by Calvin B. DeWitt (Faith Alive Christian Resources 2007, 2nd ed.)

The Care of Creation ed. RJ Berry (InterVarsity Press, 2000)

For the Beauty of the Earth: a Christian Vision for Creation Care by Steven Bouma-Prediger (Baker Academic, 2001)

Serve God Save the Planet by Mathew Sleeth, MD (Zondervan, 2006)

Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community   by Wendell Berry

Blowout by Rachel Maddow

This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein

An Inconvenient Truth by Al Gore

Christ the Heart of Creation by Rowan Williams

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