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A Primer on Climate Change
The Earth won’t crumble and fall apart, but an increasing number of scientists are encouraging us to recognize that something fundamental is changing on the planet.

An increasing number of Canadians, including Evangelicals, say they are concerned about the environment. So Faith Today asked two experts to share their understanding of climate change, informed by an evangelical perspective.

The sign in front of the church read “So you think this is hot?” It was an uncharacteristically warm August in 1972. A searing heat wave was gripping the West Coast. This clever pastor had just set up his Sunday sermon – he didn’t even need to complete his comparison.

Today that witty sign feels dated and not quite as funny. Global warming commands headlines and climate change is talked about everywhere from elementary schools to Parliament Hill. 

The media often show us some amazing photos of planet Earth taken from space. Who doesn’t wonder at the beauty of our watery blue planet, hanging like a jewel?

This “beautiful, warm, living object,” recalls James Irwin, an Apollo 15 lunar module pilot, “looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart. Seeing this has to change a man, has to make a man appreciate the creation of God and the love of God.” 

Indeed! Although in the whirl of our lives today many of us can easily take for granted the ordinary blessings of God’s good Earth, many of us are also trying to assess the dire warnings about climate change that are abroad in our day.

No respected voices are claiming that the Earth is likely to crumble and fall apart, but an increasing number of Earth scientists, climatologists and astronauts are encouraging us to recognize today that something fundamental is changing on the planet. Humans now have the power, leveraged through our remarkable machines, to alter entire Earth systems significantly.

A popular issue

Global warming and energy efficiency became topics of coffee conversations across Canada two years ago, thanks in part to An Inconvenient Truth, the Oscar-winning movie by Al Gore, the former American vice-president. Then in October 2007, the Swedish Nobel Committee awarded its Peace Prize jointly to Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).


By claiming that the amount of carbon dioxide we are adding to the atmosphere is a moral issue, Gore has helped change public debate.

But a backlash has also grown, as it always does with such politicized issues. Word is getting around that some details in the movie are wrong or exaggerated, and some of us have decided we can safely ignore it. 

Frankly, Gore has overstated some details, but it would be a mistake to dismiss the entire question of climate change based on those flaws. As Canadian astronaut Roberta Bondar has said, the movie “despite its weaknesses … started important discussions in society.” 

Hollywood of course gives out Oscars for powerful stories, not for scientific accuracy. But the Nobel Committee gave Gore the Peace Prize for his “effort to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change.” 

At least Christians need to acknowledge we can have sympathy with his highlighting the moral aspect of this issue in public discussion.

In one way or the other, Canadians seem to have taken the message to heart. A recent Environics poll suggests 49 percent of Canadians want our country to be a world leader in taking action to fight climate change.

However, that doesn’t mean all the controversy about global warming has passed.

Science and politics

To understand the controversy requires a basic understanding of the physics and chemistry of atmospheric processes. Most climate scientists point to two major processes at work setting planetary temperatures.

… most, but not all, scientists agree.

First, we know the Earth is warmer overall than it would be without naturally occurring greenhouse gases, such as water vapour, carbon dioxide and methane. Acting like a one-way window, they save some of the solar energy that would otherwise be radiated back to space. Without this natural warming, the typical surface temperature would be a chilly – 18 degrees or so. We would be living with unearthly conditions like those of the planet Mars where the atmosphere no longer has these heat-trapping gases. 

Second, as the IPCC reports, humans are making additions of greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide. The IPCC concludes that these human additions are raising surface temperatures – and most, but not all, scientists agree. A few argue that temperatures are not rising significantly, or that greenhouse gases are not the main cause, or that trying to reduce these human additions is not worth the cost.

(There are certainly disputes within the IPCC, as would be expected with more than 2,000 scientists from around the world involved. It should be noted that some Evangelicals, especially in the United Kingdom, have been deeply involved in the IPCC process.)

World climate, like any complex system, will always contain some level of uncertainty. Scientists have been telling us for over a decade that significant warming is occurring. And what the technical studies have been saying seems to be evident for all to see. From ice fields melting in the Rockies to the sea level rising in the Maldives islands, or record drought and flooding in Mozambique, the story is the same.

Governmental responses to climate change are the most political part of the issue. In response to joint statements of concern by many national academies of science around the world, some international treaty action has developed. The Kyoto Protocol has been symbolically important – but spectacularly ineffective – in achieving the policy goal of emissions reduction.

The reasons for this failure are currently being dissected. Among them, and often overlooked, is that the public does not believe or understand the scope of the problem – not to mention its moral magnitude. Of course it’s also very hard to get political support for policy change when faced with the potential economic costs. 

But recently this political situation seems to be changing. We’ll have to wait to see how long the changes in popular opinion and political will can continue here in Canada. Some early adopters of new technologies – such as Sweden, Germany and other European Union countries – are already seeing economic benefits. If these prove significant, they could help fuel continued change in Canada.

A bigger picture

Global warming and climate change are emblematic of a larger set of issues around global industrialization that must also include the relationship between science, faith and technology.

… yes, we now know at a high level of confidence that there are human-caused climate impacts. 

Our industrial civilization is “not physically sustainable in its present” way of operating, argues retired engineer Jack Swearengen in his new book Beyond Paradise: Technology and the Kingdom of God (Wipf & Stock, 2007). Demand for natural materials, energy and disposal sites, he says, “is exhausting our sources and saturating our sinks, not just within our borders, but globally.” 

Some ask if we actually have reached a limit, polluting on a global scale. In theological terms they wonder if God would allow human greed, sin and technology to span the globe. This nicely sums up one major disagreement. 

A second source of controversy lies within the science itself, and how scientific discoveries inform public policy. The IPCC Fourth Assessment Report has recently been released. In it is the consensus not only on climate science but also on policy implications. The assessment makes the point that, yes, we now know at a high level of confidence that there are human-caused climate impacts. 

The report estimates in detail the impacts around the world. In Africa, for instance, 250 million people may struggle with water stress in just over a decade. Africa is said to be “one of the most vulnerable continents to climate variability and change because of multiple stresses and low adaptive capacity.” 

The report illustrates how climate change puts pressure on social dynamics and amplifies existing structural weaknesses, not only ecological ones. But we can only paint these scenarios with very broad brush strokes. Each region will have its own particular set of challenges. 

Nor will every change be detrimental. Undoubtedly, the report says, some places will benefit from climate change. It is possible that parts of Canada may actually benefit in the near-term. (But the potential risks to future generations are great and must be considered when it comes to legislation on carbon emissions.) 

One of the more difficult facets of climate change is that the effects fall unequally on both the rich and poor around the world. There will be ongoing debate around the process of placing what we know from science into a policy context. 

But does a consensus report mean all scientists must agree? Certainly not – scientists never do totally agree, but the impression given in the press that deep and equal divisions exist is not accurate. For example, a series called “Climate Change – The Deniers” in the National Post has profiled 38 scientists, giving the false impression that scientific dissension is widespread. The British Channel 4 documentary The Great Warming Swindle also quotes a variety of dissenters. Given such apparently strong differences of opinion, how can we be sure about the scientific story? 

The problem here, says Henry Hengeveld, emeritus science adviser for Environment Canada, is that scientists have not done a good job communicating how science works. 

No matter how sound the science is, he explains, it is never entirely certain. For very complex systems, we are learning that the typical statistical test, at a 95 percent confidence level, will not answer all questions. 

Newer, less certain and still controversial “risk management approaches similar to those used in the SARS epidemic” are developing, Hengeveld says. When people started dying from this new ailment, the medical community did not wait for definitive proof of cause but began to act. 

Atmospheric and Earth-systems scientists are still discovering basic and fundamental facts about how the world works. But waiting until we have all the information in hand would foolishly risk the lives and livelihoods of millions of people, not to mention creatures too. From our perspective the science is clear enough to begin taking action.

Canadian relief agencies react

Thankfully, many Canadian Christians realize it is unwise to wait for complete consensus before they act on this issue. Nearly every Christian relief agency is already dealing with the effects of climate-related change. And their actions help illustrate a way past the impasse of public debate about climate change.

We are beginning to see the global implications of what were once only local considerations.

Relief agencies are linking what were once only environmental questions to the social justice concerns of poverty, hunger and shelter. We are beginning to see the global implications of what were once only local considerations. 

“Most relief agencies are well aware of this problem,” says Wayne de Jong, a board member for the Canadian Christian Relief and Development Agency (CCRDA). 

Deforestation, flooding, crop shifts and failures, and desertification of once-prime agricultural land are all occurring in developing countries, seemingly with increasing frequency.

“We are already experiencing the effects” at CCRDA, De Jong says, “and seeing a clear pattern in our work.”

Canada is one of the great breadbaskets of the world. And Canadian charity for people in need is well known. Still it can be a challenge to hear the cry of the poor over the cacophony from business as usual.

Steve Bell, the Juno-winning Gospel musician from Winnipeg, recently visited Ethiopia. He found a sobering connection between here and there. “Some of our daily actions,” he concluded, “are influencing droughts half a world away.” He summed up the trip saying “Climate change is one of the most pressing moral issues of our day.” He is backing up those words on tour, together with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, for a campaign called End Hunger Fast

Another hopeful example is Habitat for Humanity-Canada. In its international work Habitat is focused, De Jong says, “on the environmental impact of housing.” This includes making environmental impact assessments required by the government funding agencies (CIDA) for development projects. 

Habitat is proposing a sustainable corrugated bamboo roofing industry in Nepal. Using locally grown materials and a manufacturing process developed in India, this community-based project will encourage reforestation (thus reducing flooding) and provide agricultural jobs in rural communities. 

Several major conferences touching on climate change are also coming up for evangelical organizations in Canada. This fall a second Creation Care conference will be hosted in Winnipeg by Canadian Mennonite University and the Christian environmental group A Rocha Canada (read about the inaugural 2006 event at www.cmu.ca/news/creationcare06.html). This spring CCRDA members will undoubtedly discuss the topic at their development conference, as will members of the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association, which will hear papers fitting the theme of “Biblical and Theological Perspectives on Creation and the Environment” at its annual meeting in May.

The cultural roots of climate change run deep. It will take a careful conversation to help us see our neighbour today in this new light. A recent editorial headline, “Crisis for capitalists: Make people want less,” identifies a key issue. The core logic of increasing desire, which has brought such economic growth to some of us – can it be maintained when extended to a global scale? The crisis of sustainability is a matter of sufficiency and trust. 

Using a profound ecological metaphor, Jesus challenged His disciples regarding these same issues (see Matthew 6). Look, He said, at the birds of the air. And consider the lilies of the field. They don’t toil, worry and run after all these things. But they remain beautifully clothed by the Father. 

So we need to reflect carefully on how the world works. Much of our problem today stems, we suggest, not from a crisis in greenhouse gases but in a crisis of trust. 

Reflecting on our attitudes and values should have practical implications. If we conclude we do want to reduce our “carbon footprint” (how many things are burned to produce the products and energy we consume), we need new tools to help. 

Yes, some of us are already trying to do our part. A recent poll for The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) suggests that roughly two in ten Evangelicals are increasing their use of public transit “very often,” seven in ten consciously try to reduce electricity use at home “very often” and three in ten buy products that are produced with minimum impact on the environment “very often” even if they cost a little more.

An additional one in ten Evangelicals are “sometimes” using transit more, two in ten are “sometimes” conscious about saving hydro, and five in ten “sometimes” buy green products, according to the Ipsos Reid poll. These are small but important steps.

The Christian environmental group A Rocha Canada is helping develop additional options. Director Markku Kostamo describes its new Climate Stewards program as a long-term, community-based way to account for carbon. It encourages people to calculate how much carbon is emitted in an airplane trip or to heat a building. Users can then donate a related amount to fund tree planting, which helps reabsorb carbon dioxide. Donations are channelled through local A Rocha chapters working in a community context.

Another website for Christians is www.re-energize.org, produced by Kairos: Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives. 

One other missing element has been the lack of deep and informed reflection by many Evangelicals on climate change. The Church does have some fine publications, including God’s EarthKeepers: Biblical Action and Reflection on the Environment published by a partnership led by the EFC. But until recently the discussion of climate change has not been getting traction among Evangelicals. Now campaigns such as End Hunger Fast and the Micah Challenge are making new connections between the Bible, social concern and environment. Christian relief agencies and environmental groups are leading in care and calling us to prayer, reflection and action on these important public issues.
 
Thoughts on creatures

Humans are not the only creatures under stress from climate change. The Fourth IPCC Assessment lists many natural systems at risk. Rivers and lakes are warming – and ice breakup and melt-water run-off are occurring – earlier each spring. Global warming is changing the timing of biological processes from fish spawning and leaf unfolding to songbird arrival and insect hatching.

… we seem to have missed God’s love and care for the rest of creation. 

These ecological facts present a challenging theological question. We know from Scripture that humans are the apple of God’s eye. He loves us with an everlasting, redeeming love through His Son Jesus Christ. But in our zeal to emphasize this central truth, we seem to have missed God’s love and care for the rest of creation. 

When we read Paul’s paean of praise for the supremacy of Christ in Colossians 1, do we notice the expansive language? “All things have been created through Him and for Him . . . and in Him all things hold together . . . and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things.” Nothing it seems is left out. 

The evangelical thinker Francis Schaeffer put it this way nearly 40 years ago: “If I love the Lover, then I love what the Lover has made.” 

Shalom is what we seek. But the biblical concept we call “peace” is so much more than a simple ceasing of hostilities between enemies. It is, as a number of theologians tell us, nothing less than the full flourishing of all of creation – the “webbing together of God, humans and all creation in justice,” as one has said following the sentiment of the psalmist.

In some ways climate change is only a symptom of a bigger challenge we face. We are being asked if we truly care for the entire creation – human and non-human alike, each in its appropriate place and role. Now that is a moral question.

For further reading: The John Ray Initiative in the United Kingdom has produced some excellent materials on climate change and other environmental questions for Christians. John Houghton, an Evangelical who co-chaired part of the IPCC for four years, does an admirable job with the science and the biblical implications.

Dr. John R. Wood is professor of biology and environmental studies at The King’s University College (TKUC) in Edmonton, where he directs the environmental studies program. He also serves as academic dean at the Au Sable Institute, a centre for Christian environmental study based in Michigan. Dr. Geoff Strong is an atmospheric scientist who retired from Environment Canada in 1998. He is past-president of the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society and an adjunct professor at the University of Alberta (in Earth and atmospheric sciences). He also teaches physical geography at TKUC.

WEB ONLY NOTE: Dr. Wood notes that students at TKUC in Edmonton are also planning a conference for March 5-6, 2008 on the theme "My Climate. Your Climate. Our Change." It is geared to students, pastors and the Christian public in Edmonton and will have Dr. Cal DeWitt as the main speaker. Contact: ftnedmonton@gmail.com.

Originally published in Faith Today, January/February 2008.

 

 
 
 
 

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