2018 has been a year of extreme weather, from exceptional rainfall and floods in some parts of the world to drought in others, California’s prolonged and deadly fire season and even wildfires in the arctic. While it is not possible to attribute any single event to climate change, the trend towards more and more powerful extreme weather events is almost certainly a direct result of the continuing warming of our world.
Climate change came up in a recent conversation with friends and one member of the group, while acknowledging that climate change was real and worrying, said that he couldn’t accept that it was caused by human activity. Everyone else in the room tried to convince him, arguing that the science was compelling and that there is not other plausible explanation. My friend remained unconvinced. Not because he mistrusts scientists, but because he finds it impossible to believe that anything human beings do could have such an enormous impact on the global climate. I can understand why he feels that way. After all, when faced with the forces of nature – drought, floods, wildfires, hurricanes, we often find ourselves powerless. Nature, in many respects, is mightier than we. That being the case, it is not unreasonable to question how we can have a significant impact on a system on the scale of the planet’s climate.
Sadly, I don’t have an answer to my friend’s doubts. Apart from pointing to the science and explaining that the effect of putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is cumulative, because once released (for example through the burning of fossil fuels) it can remain in the atmosphere for hundreds or even thousands of years, and therefore what we are doing now isn’t isolated, it’s adding to what humanity has been doing since the beginning of the industrial revolution in the late 18th century, what can I say? Many climate scientists have done a very good job at explaining why greenhouse gases affect the climate as they do. They’ve also done a good job at describing what will happen if we don’t limit greenhouse gas emissions and limit the rise in average global temperatures. But for my friend and others like him, what scientists haven’t managed to do is convince them that human beings, so often small and helpless in the face of powerful forces of nature, can really do that much damage. I don’t know how science can go about changing that perception, but it is vital. People have to believe that they can make a difference, whether for good or ill.
For Christians who find themselves in the position of my doubting friend, the Church also has a part to play. We are very good at reminding ourselves that we human beings are small and powerless. That without God, we can do nothing (John 15.5). While such teaching might be effective in encouraging humility and preventing arrogance, there is a chance that it also contributes both to a reluctance to believe that humans are powerful enough to change our planet and to a sense that we are powerless to stop what is happening. When it comes to the environment, Judeo-Christian tradition has much within it to encourage us to believe that we can make a difference. The prophet Jeremiah declares that the land mourns and birds and animals are swept away by the wickedness of human beings (Jeremiah 12.4). Paul writes in the letter to the Romans that creation itself has been subjected to bondage and implies that this bondage was imposed by human beings through their sinfulness (Romans 8.19-21). We are more powerful than we think when it comes to the impact we can have on our planet and its inhabitants.
If the Church wants to encourage Christians to take a more active role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating some of the effects of climate change, it could do more to show that our faith acknowledges that our actions impact not only on ourselves and our fellow human beings, but on the earth itself and the creatures who share it with us. This impact can be negative, as is the case with climate change, but it doesn’t have to be. At the end of Mark’s Gospel (Mark 16.15), Jesus tells his disciples to proclaim the good news to all creation. The best way to do that is to be good news to the whole creation in the way that we choose to live. The first step in being good news is to accept the ways in which we have failed to do that, including admitting the human contribution to climate change. Then we can start to make the changes in our lives that will limit or reverse the harm that we have done, and that will be good news to the earth and all its inhabitants.