Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Our Planet is Changing. We're On It—Together

Perspective on Change in the Earth System

Change is a natural component of Earth’s geological, biological, ecological, and processes.  The topography of the Earth has changed over many millions of years.  Mountains have gradually risen to stand where vast seas once flowed—and vice versa.  Likewise, the theory of evolution is all about biological change happening over very long timescales.  While it’s still a source of debates between scientists and theologians, I personally believe evolution offers the most credible explanation of how we’ve arrived at where we are today. Similarly, throughout Earth’s history, climate has fluctuated and ecosystems have changed in response.  Glaciers have slowly advanced and retreated, and so on. Given long enough, a lush forest can become a desert.

For many millions of years, the components of the ecological system stayed in balance.  Whatever resources creatures needed to take for their survival, the Earth was able to replenish naturally. After humans emerged, the rate of change accelerated.  In the creation narrative of Genesis, we learn that God created humankind in his image and gave us dominion over creation—Genesis 1:26-28.  This poetic description of the origin of humans seems consistent with what science has shown us.  While no one knows exactly how it happened, it is clear that there was a jump in the intellectual—and spiritual—capacity of humans, allowing us to develop capabilities setting us apart from all other creatures.  Among the most noteworthy is that we seem to have a built-in sense of morality—regardless of our specific faith or lack thereof.  We also have a unique sense of the world beyond ourselves and are capable of entering into relationships with others, and with God.  These traits are not intrinsically good or evil—we have free will to choose what to do with them.

The irony is the same free will that is required for a creature to reflect the image of its Creator can also be misused to destroy the very creation that the Creator so loves.

Human beings have changed the planet more than all other creatures combined.  Some of that change has been extremely good and beneficial, but some of it has been quite ugly and destructive.  From the very beginning, God placed limits on human beings and we struggled to live within them—Genesis 2:15-17.  Driven by our desire for progress and prosperity—and ultimately our desire to be in control— we often chose to ignore those limits with disastrous consequences—e.g., Genesis 3.  We’ve interpreted the words of Genesis 1:28 as justification for being allowed to take whatever resources we desire, with little or no regard for the impact on the creation itself—including other creatures and even other human beings.  In so doing, we’ve pushed way beyond the system’s natural ability to replenish itself.  We’ve consumed resources like water and oil exponentially faster than they can possibly be replenished, and pumped out waste products, which threaten the water we drink and the air we breathe.

Evidence mounts that the early 21st century is a critical point for Earth’s climate.  At some point our conspicuous consumption was bound to catch up to us, and we appear to be rapidly reaching that point.  To put it simply, the planet just can’t take anymore. 


Nowhere is climate change more evident than in polar regions like Greenland.  Jacobshavn Glacier in West Greenland is often cited as a dramatic example of the rate of climate change accelerating in recent years.  The lines show the extent of the glacier in different years.  Note how far inland the glacier has retreated since 1850; in particular, notice the rapid retreat just since 2001.  Image credit: Originally from NASA
How Should We Respond to Climate Change?

While most now accept that climate change is happening, many still claim that it is not a serious issue, especially relative to other issues we face as a society.  They point to past “natural” changes and argue that the human contribution is small relative to the forces of nature.  Some will even argue that government agencies like NASA have a vested interest in making us believe the worst about climate.  As someone who has spent nearly half his life training in science and “working for NASA”, I strongly disagree.  While not all data is perfect, it is not wise to defame NASA’s credibility over one or two claims that are later refuted because of bad data or new evidence.  This does not indicate an overall conspiracy to “cook the books” to make things look bad.  The fact is that NASA and other nations have gathered decades of satellite, aircraft, and ground-based data to support the claims made about the reality of climate change. The global view enabled by satellites over the past ~30-40 years has been particularly important in observing this change over time [1]. Establishing a clear human footprint on climate change is harder, but scientists are making progress in sorting out natural changes from those that can be attributed to human activity.  Scientists don’t make the claims they make lightly.  Anything published has to be “peer reviewed” meaning that the credibility of claims made has been scrutinized before it becomes public.

Others may admit climate change is happening but argue we “can’t be sure” human activity is to blame, so it would be irresponsible to risk our economic prosperity to change policies (such as limiting the amount of carbon dioxide we release into the atmosphere) when there is still “so much uncertainty” surrounding the issue.  While it’s true there are still some uncertainties in the exact causes of climate change, the overall conclusion they reach just doesn’t hold up to serious scientific scrutiny. 

The Earth’s climate is changing at rates unprecedented in Earth’s history.  The majority of scientists now agree that the change has a distinctive human footprint [2]. The question is no longer if climate change is happening, but rather what should be our response? 

By the time we are “absolutely certain” about whether the “smoking gun” of climate change points toward humans, it will likely be too late to do anything about it.

Should Christians Care About Climate Change

Some believe that creation care need not be a priority for followers of Christ—since our ultimate destination is heaven.  I too believe we are destined for heaven, but not yet—hopefully not for a while; I think what we do now in this life has just as much eternal significance as what we do in the life to come.

I believe that Scripture witnesses to this truth from beginning to end.  Both the Genesis text and scientific discovery concur that humans are unique from all other creatures God created.  We are the pinnacle of Creation and are meant to have a special role in caring for it.  The poetry of the Psalms and prose of the Prophets proclaim God’s glory revealed through Creation.  Several Prophets paint pictures of a day of the Lord, when God restores the Earth to its original glory.  We, God’s followers, are the ones God uses to do that restoration. In the Gospels, we see that Jesus was connected to Earth; he was after all the incarnation of God, and lived on Earth for 33 years.  He spent most of his time in the countryside of Palestine speaking to people familiar with working the Earth and evokes images of plants and animals frequently in his teaching. (Paul by contrast spent most of his time in urban areas.)  Revelation ends with images of a new heaven literally descending to Earth. 

The Earth matters to God and caring for it is a calling for God’s people.

Climate change is an issue that transcends any particular religious identity. It has the potential to impact every person living on planet Earth in some way; thus, we all have a stake in figuring out what to do about it. We can no longer ignore it and/or expect others (e.g., environmentalists, politicians, future generations) to resolve it.  Indeed, we are all on planet Earth together.  What impacts one of us impacts us all; what impacts the quality of life for our children’s children should concern us.

We’re On It—Together

Your planet is changing.  We’re on it. —NASA, Earth Right Now 
The NASA News Team came up with the slogan above for a recent campaign. It conveyed what is now pretty much accepted as fact: The planet is changing. The second part said: We’re on it, which I think is intended to have a double meaning.  On one hand, it conveys the message that we (the NASA News Team) are on top of the latest stories about climate change and will report them to the public.   On the other hand, it also implies that we (all of us) are all on planet Earth together, which most scientists agree, is changing at rates unprecedented in its history.

Interdisciplinary scientific study has led us to the point where we now understand climate change to be one of the great societal concerns of our time but science alone won’t lead us to a solution; I believe interdisciplinary faith dialogue will be required to solve the problem. 

Interestingly, one of the leaders in this dialogue has been Pope Francis.  He has been a revolutionary Pope in many ways since becoming leader of the Catholic Church in 2013, none the least of which is his overt concern for the environment.  Francis released the first Papal Encyclical entirely devoted to environmentalism, in which he encourages all people on the planet to make care for the environment an important part of living out their faith [3].  The Pope writes:

A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon. Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it —Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, 23.

Be Like the Bereans… and the Wesleys

When Paul encountered the Berean Jews on his journey, he described them as having “more noble character” than those he had met in Thessalonica.  Why did he conclude this?   Because, rather than rejecting his message on face value, they were willing to go home and consider it.  He says they examined the Scripture for themselves to see if what Paul was saying was trueActs 17:11.

When considering a controversial issue like climate change, there are bound to be passionate defenses of "both sides". People of faith can honestly disagree over what the “correct” response is but we human beings have this rather nasty tendency to “demonize” those with whom we disagree.  We must avoid that temptation. 

When these kinds of issues arise, as they inevitably will, we need to be more like the Bereans. Our challenge is not to accept (or reject) the words in this essay on face value—i.e., to form an opinion just because the author “works for NASA”.  Study the issue and seek to discern the truth for yourself.

Our call is to be ready to give account for what we believe beyond simply quoting the “gospel” of our favorite news program or talk show host. We should consider information from a variety of perspectives and develop our own ability to discern what sources are credible and trustworthy. 

Remember that reason is a key component of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, which is intended to help us discern our way through issues—along with Scripture, tradition, and experience.  Scripture is considered “first among equals” but you won’t find much about topics like greenhouse gas induced global warming in Biblical writings, the most recent of which is just under 2000 years old.  So we have to depend on other sources to draw our conclusions.  And that’s okay!  There is no call to “check our brain at the door” for followers of Jesus—and particularly for followers of the Wesleyan Way. Complex issues such as these require the union of knowledge and vital piety that Wesley longed to see.

Responding to the Call to Care for Creation

Pope Francis will visit the U.S. in a few weeks, including a visit to Washington D.C.  Among the other activities on his busy agenda while in DC is an address to a joint session of Congress.  It is likely he will lift up environmental concerns in his speech.

There is an opportunity to add your voice to this important conversation on climate change coming up at an event called, Coming Together inFaith Celebration [4], taking place Thursday September 24 at National Cathedral in Washington, DC. 

This gathering will bring together faith communities for inspirational messages, songs and poetry to inspire and connect faith and climate leaders and build momentum for action.

Our planet is changing.  We’re on it—together.

It almost seems like this slightly modified NASA slogan could have been God’s slogan from Day One.  From the very beginning, God has entrusted human beings with care of creation; God calls us to continue the work of creation.  Today, our planet faces a critical moment and God once again depends on us to live up to our calling. I pray that people of all nations, races, and faiths can figure out a way to work together for the common good of the world, and that by doing so, our society can figure out effective means to address climate change—one of the pivotal issues of our time.  The stakes are too high for us to get this wrong.  I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that the ecological future of Earth lies in the balance. 



[1] The link is to a YouTube of a presentation called "The Satellite Record of Climate Observations, Not Beliefs". The speaker here is Compton “Jim” Tucker who works at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and is a well-known climate scientist, which makes a very strong case for the human footprint on climate change.
[2] The link is to the International Governmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report (AR5). 
[3] The link to the Vatican website, where a pdf of the full Encyclical can be downloaded.  A helpful summary of Laudato Si’ can be found at be found at www.catholic.com/blog/jimmy-akin/pope-francis’s-environmental-encyclical-13-things-to-know-and-share.
[4] Visit the link to learn more about the event, including scheduled speakers, and to order tickets.

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