How should Christians respond to a changing climate?

You might think climate change is simply the topic de jour; a news story that tomorrow will be fish-and-chips wrapping like the rest. But talk of alterations in our atmosphere is more than a fashion. While event-generated hype — like that around Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth film — might wax and wane, the issue will shine inexorably on.  Amanda Wells reports.

Magazines from Christian denominations throughout Australia and New Zealand have featured countless stories about climate change during the past six months, as Churches grapple with responses to the impact we are having on God’s creation.

It’s helpful to note at the outset that debating climate change can take a theological turn. Some view the changes to temperature and weather systems through an apocalyptic, Revelation-informed lens, putting them in opposition to those concentrating on duty to care for creation. Still other groups question the veracity of scientific evidence for global warming in the same way that they approach evolutionary theory.

But it’s easy to find hard facts about climate change. Underpinning global warming are the increasing levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere. In simple terms, these trap the heat that the earth would otherwise radiate into space, warming our atmosphere.

For example, marine scientists at the UK’s Southampton and Plymouth universities recently published research revealing that the upper 1500 metres of the ocean between Western Europe and the eastern United States have warmed by 0.015 degrees Celsius in the past seven years. The large capacity of sea water to store heat means that a water temperature rise of that size equates to warming the atmosphere above by almost 9 degrees. Disturbingly, the researchers suggest that this heat stored in the oceans could be released into the atmosphere in the future, potentially hampering our efforts to stabilise global temperatures with cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

Then there’s the fact that high sea temperatures starve phytoplankton of nutrients, decreasing their ability to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which then fuels further climate change. Research by a team of US scientists released in December 2006 analyses satellite data over the past 10 years to show conclusively, for the first time, that the growth of marine phytoplankton is being harmed by rising sea temperatures. Phytoplankton account for about half of the photosynthesis carried out by all plants on earth, meaning that any change in their ability to absorb carbon dioxide is hugely significant.

The developments outlined on the previous page are merely those making news during the writing of this article; further pieces of evidence are being published every week, making the reality of our altered world increasingly difficult to deny.

Dr Kevin Tate, who’s part of St David’s Presbyterian in Palmerston North, has spent more than 30 years looking at changes to the terrestrial biosphere. He was awarded the New Zealand Association of Scientists’ Marsden Medal in 2005 for his work into ecosystem processes and climate change.

Kevin headed up New Zealand’s biggest research programme into greenhouse gases and climate change, at Landcare Research, from the 1990s till his retirement in 2005.

He describes US-generated theological argument against responding to climate change as “frightening”. He says he’s often asked to give talks on climate change, with more church groups expressing increasing interest during the past couple of years. In December 2006, Kevin was asked to help the Interchurch Bioethics Committee put together a study guide on climate change, which is due out in mid 2007. He says he’s encouraged to see churches engaging with the issue.

Climate change requires urgent action now, Kevin says. “Even five years’ ago, we couldn’t say how fast impacts would appear. But now, especially in the Arctic, the effects are there for all the world to see, if they’re prepared to look.”

He says European countries’ level of concern has been heightened by stutterings in the Gulf Stream, which history shows has stopped catastrophically in the past, prompting ice ages.

But Kevin says care needs to be taken “not to blind people with frightening scenarios” and instead to offer positive courses of action. “We haven’t got much time left. Maybe 20 years.”

“If we don’t get our act together as a global community, the world will be a miserable place for our grandchildren. The impacts are far bigger than anything humankind has ever faced before.”

One of the greatest effects for New Zealand is the potential flood of environmental refugees, Kevin says. More than 100 million people from the Asian subcontinent will have nowhere to go if sea levels rise as predicted. Another consequence is that tropical pests and diseases previously unseen in New Zealand will become commonplace, creating a huge burden on our health system. And many coastal developments will become nonviable.

These kind of effects are now well-documented, Kevin says, and “not just speculative”, as some responses to them demonstrate. An article in New Scientist late last year outlined the extent to which the US energy industry is seeking to muzzle scientists investigating the issue, for fear of greater regulation.

Kevin says he’s heartened by rising awareness of the difference individuals can make through small changes. For example, energy-efficient lightbulbs use only 20 percent of the energy of a standard bulb, delivering substantial cost and energy savings over their eight-to-10-year lifespan. “It’s a very simple and painless thing for people to do.”

Other positive changes individuals can make include walking, taking the bus or cycling, instead of always using the car. The rapid escalation in oil prices during 2006 should have got people thinking, he says, and despite the current blip will inevitably continue to increase.

Churches can form awareness groups and encourage individual action. Corporate measures are also possible; for example, including improved insulation in new building or renovations. “There’s a lot to be done at every level, including churches. We can’t just talk about it, we’ve actually got to do it.”

Because of the impact on future generations, our response has become an ethical and moral issue, Kevin says, and churches need to engage with this. “How much do we care about future generations?”

The Rev Dr Keith Carley, retired former dean of Auckland theological college St John of the Evangelist and part of the congregation at Kapiti Uniting, says the assumption that a theology of nature is not a good thing has stood in the way of church engagement with environmental issues.

Keith is involved in the Earth Bible project, which has developed five volumes of studies of Biblical passages that put a case for our responsibility to care for the environment.

This broad-based initiative aims to get the Church thinking seriously about its responsibility for the environment. “It’s part of our responsibility, rather than something that God takes care of for us.”

Developed by a team of scholars from Adelaide, with Australian Lutheran Norman Habel as chief editor, the project aims to read the Bible from the perspective of justice for the Earth. More information can be found online at: 

The first five volumes published so far cover: Reading from the Perspective of Earth, The Earth Story in Genesis, The Earth Story in Wisdom Traditions, The Earth Story in the Psalms and the Prophets and The Earth Story in the New Testament.

Keith says there is a multitude of resources available online designed for Christians who want to be better informed about climate change. For example, is a collection of resources dedicated to the “season of creation”, which equates to four Sundays in September. A number of readings and liturgies are available for download from the website, which also contains material for children, a theology for the season of creation, and plenty of other resources.

Many of our churches are responding to environmental issues. In 2006, Island Bay Presbyterian ran a Lent study on climate change, says the Rev Nathan Parry. Out of the study grew an environmental task group, which invited a series of speakers along and continues to generate ideas and plans. The church has developed its own environmental guide, which is a leaflet of suggestions things individuals can do to make a difference. These include directions to where batteries can be recycled in Wellington, where to buy energy efficient light bulbs, and examples of cleaning products that are environmentally friendly.

Decisions are also being made at a national level. General Assembly 2006 agreed to urge congregations to be conscientious in ordering congregational life on sound principles of sustainability, and honour our responsibility to be God’s stewards for Earth. A notice of motion that General Assembly urge congregations to be pro-active in their local communities in challenging and educating people about sustainable living was also passed.

At its November 2006 meeting, the Council of Assembly established a task group, under the direction of Assembly Executive Secretary the Rev Martin Baker, focused on ecological issues. The group will aim to provide resources and guidelines for churches as well as auditing the Church’s national operations and developing a “Declaration on the Care of Creation”.

On the international stage, the World Council of Churches called on government representatives meeting last November to discuss the Kyoto protocol to “listen to the scientists and the cry of the Earth and address the reality of climate change with the extreme urgency that it demands”.

“Faith communities are addressing climate change because it is a spiritual and ethical issue of justice, equality, solidarity, sufficiency and sustainability. The situation is critical. We must all act now,” the WCC said.

A theological view

By Susan Werstein

No matter what you think about global warming, the Bible tells us that all God’s creatures praise their creator and groan in travail for redemption (Romans 8). God wants us to care for and conserve our planet. Just read over Proverbs’ teaching to the young, and the Torah’s instructions about caring for all living things. Remember our grandparents’ wisdom in sayings like “ waste not, want not”. And remember Paul’s admonitions in 2 Thessalonians that believers “ not be idle” while awaiting the Lord’s return.

So how do we encourage nurture of the earth and its creatures? We need to be intentional about it, because society emphasises two approaches to nature – both egocentric. On the one hand, there’s a large push to use and throw away the world’s resources: you deserve to be happy; take what you want. On the other hand, there’s a move to recycle and reuse and care for the earth’s resources. Why? Society’s reason: so we can enjoy life.

Is there a Biblical approach that balances our use of resources with caring for the planet? Indeed there is. We see it in God’s commandment to keep the Sabbath - our animals are to rest from their labours also. We see it in the multiple instructions to let the earth remain fallow (for example, Exodus 2 :10–12), which is a process that restores the soil’s health. We see it in Paul’s prophecy that the earth and all creatures will be reborn, “earth itself will be set free to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God (Rom 8:21)”.

What can your church do?

Conduct a green audit

This means evaluating the impact your church’s operations are having on the environment. One helpful template is online at:  

Start a discussion group

Check out some of the online resources referred to in the article or surf Google for more, and perhaps invite guest speakers.

Encourage individual action

What can you do?

Simple switches

Include energy-efficient light bulbs, low energy appliances, and insulating your hot water system.

Consider transport alternatives

Maybe you can give someone else a lift to work, or think about taking the bus. Cycling and walking require more organisational effort and initial motivation but the pay-offs in terms of health and time for reflection are commensurate.

Reduce the other resources you consume. Cloth bags make for better shopping and it’s not hard to choose products with less packaging.

Or look at your diet

How far has that food travelled to your table? Perhaps there are local, seasonal alternatives. Some disturbing facts to inform your thinking: producing a kilogram of beef consumes 50 times as much water as producing a kilo of rice. Seven kilos of grain are needed to produce a kilo of beef. Currently, 36 percent of the world's grain goes to feed livestock and poultry. If the 670 million tons of the world's grain used for feed were reduced by just 10 percent, this would free up 67 million tons of grain, enough to sustain 225 million people or keep up with world population growth for the next three years. 

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