"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."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."