Tuesday, February 07, 2012

An excellent (and brief) theology of climate change

"Reading the Bible in the context of climate change gives a vision of hope in God’s faithfulness to creation, a call to practise love and justice to our human and other than-human neighbours, and a warning of God’s judgement of those who fail to do so. In this context, closing our ears to the voices of those most vulnerable to climate change would be nothing less than giving up our claim to be disciples of Christ."

- "Hope in God's future: Christian discipleship in the context of climate change".

This 2009 report from the Joint Public Issues Team of the UK Methodist, Baptist and United Reformed Churches is probably the best brief theological treatment of climate change I have seen. I particularly appreciate its insightful discussion of hope in §2.2, as well as its handling of neighbour love in §2.4-5.

Regarding the former, the report affirms that God's faithfulness is greater than humanity's brokenness. Ultimately, there is nothing we can do to thwart God's redeeming purposes for his creatures. The wording in the report is carefully chosen, as I discovered when I pressed one of the authors in conversation. While the panel agreed that human failure has the capacity to cause us and the other creatures on our planet very serious and lasting harm, there was disagreement over this harm extended as far as the possibility of total self-destruction. Either way, when relating human responsibility and destructive capacity to divine promises of faithfulness, if the result is something other than a grace-filled sending into service of God and neighbour, then we're doing it wrong. Any theology that results in either frenetic desperation or apathetic passivity is thereby seriously deficient.

Regarding neighbourly love, the report very helpfully (though not uncontroversially) uses the category of neighbour to include a number of groups containing many members we have not met (and most likely never will prior to the resurrection). First, it includes our brothers and sisters in distant lands (Africa and Pacific island nations are highlighted), who are already being negatively affected by changing climates and sea levels, and for whom the future seems to hold the threat of far worse. Second, we are also neighbours to future generations, the young and as yet unborn. These begin with but extend well beyond our own children. In this context, our children are the symbol and most immediate instantiation of our obligations to the future, but our horizon must be lifted beyond one or two generations since our actions today will have major consequences for centuries and even millennia to come. Third, the report welcomes the community of creation as our neighbours and so implies that the sphere of our moral life extends beyond the human. Section §2.5 has a very useful summary of scriptural teaching concerning other creatures and whether we are comfortable with the application of the term "neighbour" or not, the underlying claim of their bearing moral significance ought to be entirely uncontroversial.

With these considerations in mind, the more one learns about the science of climate change, the more the commands to love our neighbour and seek justice invite us to see our present behaviour (personally and socially) as a gross violation of the responsibility to care for those in whom our Father delights.

The document emphasises the necessity of repentance in response to climate change. This is undoubtedly correct, yet let us remember that our climate predicament is not rooted in only greed and apathy, but also in a tragic failure of vision. In embracing an economy based on the combustion of fossil fuels, we exhibited a form of ignorance. We can debate the relative innocence of this ignorance in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, but it has been increasingly clear for at least five decades that our failure of foresight is culpable. Carbon-intensive energy production has shaped our habits, assumptions and aspirations in just a few short years to the point where living without them has become unthinkable. But unless we learn to think anew then they will make our planet unliveable.

Let me end with another sobering quote worth pondering.
"In encountering biblical warnings about the consequences of failing to love and deal justly with those in need, it is hard to escape the conclusion that in continuing to emit carbon at rates that threaten our neighbours, present and future, human and other than human, we are bringing God’s judgement upon us. Even here we should not despair: that God judges rather than abandons us is a sign of God’s grace and continuing love for us. But in our encounter with God’s word in the context of climate change we should be clear that, while we have grounds for hope in the future God will bring if we act in accordance with God’s love for all creation, we also have grounds for fear of God’s judgement if we continue to fail to respond to the urgent needs of our neighbour."


byron smith said...

Just came across this quote about the 4ºC world that we may see as early as 2060s and which is the middle of the road estimate for 2090s based on our current efforts and promised emissions reductions:

"a 4°C world would be facing enormous adaptation challenges in the agricultural sector, with large areas of cropland becoming unsuitable for cultivation, and declining agricultural yields. This world would also rapidly be losing its ecosystem services, owing to large losses in biodiversity, forests, coastal wetlands, mangroves and saltmarshes, and terrestrial carbon stores, supported by an acidified and potentially dysfunctional marine ecosystem. Drought and desertification would be widespread, with large numbers of people experiencing increased water stress, and others experiencing changes in seasonality of water supply. There would be a need to shift agricultural cropping to new areas, impinging on unmanaged ecosystems and decreasing their resilience; and large-scale adaptation to sea-level rise would be necessary. Human and natural systems would be subject to increasing levels of agricultural pests and diseases, and increases in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.

"In such a 4°C world, the limits for human adaptation are likely to be exceeded in many parts of the world, while the limits for adaptation for natural systems would largely be exceeded throughout the world. Hence, the ecosystem services upon which human livelihoods depend would not be preserved. Even though some studies have suggested that adaptation in some areas might still be feasible for human systems, such assessments have generally not taken into account lost ecosystem services."

From “The role of interactions in a world implementing adaptation and mitigation solutions to climate change” by Rachel Warren.

Anonymous said...

If you begin with the presumption of "brokenness", fragmentation, separation or disunity, then everything that you create and do will inevitably be, to one degree or another, an extension of your "brokenness" etc.

We inevitably transform the world by our presumptions of what we are as human beings - with no exceptions

So that as time goes on humankind has inevitably created the now degraded environment - and human "culture" too.

Especially as there are now so many of us, and because we have powerful technologies with which to wreak our destruction of the biosphere.

byron smith said...

More fundamental than our brokenness is our creaturely goodness, which is redeemed in Christ.

I do not believe in human brokenness. I simply note it as the case. I believe in the one who heals the broken.

Andy Goodliff said...

Byron just to say this was a report from the Joint Public Issues Team (Methodist, Baptist and URC)

byron smith said...

Andy - Of course, you are correct! My memory was deficient. I will adjust the post to reflect this.