Our star, the sun, pours forth immense energy. Some 93 million miles away, our 8,000-mile diameter Earth intercepts a small fraction of it. Yet this
energizes nearly everything we know—Earth’s life and ocean
currents, winds and storms, our automobiles, our homes. This energy also tends to heat the Earth, so it must be radiated back to outer space. Earth’s energy balance needs to be maintained year after year, century after century.
Earth’s workings include balances much like those in our checkbooks. They have much to do with controls on making deposits and withdrawals and whether we are putting more in than we are taking out—and vice versa. Enveloping Earth are the gases that control and modulate the energy “deposits and withdrawals” of our planet. Our atmosphere’s “greenhouse gases”—carbon dioxide and water vapor, for example—let most of the sun’s energy in but intercept and delay some of Earth’s energy as it radiates back out. This keeps Earth warm and provides the right temperatures for life. We know this “greenhouse effect” well by the warming of the sunny side of our homes and cars in sunlight on cold winter days.
This moderating atmosphere, coupled with the outflowing of energy from the sun, is one of many great provisions God has given for supporting life on Earth; it makes it habitable by us and every other creature.
What the Experts Say
When we transfer funds from checking to savings and retirement accounts, and convert assets from money to houses and land, things get complicated. So, usually through banks or investment funds, we hire accountants to help us understand our balances and budgets. Similarly, climatologists help us understand the complex energy systems of Earth—our energy gains and losses, energy storage in peat and coal, transfers between “accounts,” and the very important “bottom line”—Earth’s temperature.
On Jan. 7 the National Climate Data Center (NCDC) reported that “the past nine years have all been among the 25 warmest years on record for the contiguous United States.” They said that this “streak” is “unprecedented in the historical record” that began in 1895 and “reflects the long-term warming trend both in the U.S. and globally.” This center, an agency of the U. S. Bureau of Commerce, went on to report that “the rate of warming has accelerated over the past 30 years, increasing globally since the mid-1970s at a rate approximately three times faster than the century-scale trend.”
That should stimulate us to consult our climatologists: Why is this happening? What might human actions have to do with it?
Professor Naomi Oreskes, a historian at the University of California at San Diego, did something like that when she summed up the current consensus among scientists. Checking with professional societies, the National Academy of Sciences, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, she found agreement that “the evidence for human modification of climate is compelling.” But she did not leave it at that. She thought it was important to see if—among the members of the scientific community who were working on climate change—there were scientists whose conclusions diverged from that consensus.
So she searched for the phrase “climate change” from a database of peer-reviewed scientific papers, finding a total of 928 from 1993 to 2003. Using published abstracts of those papers, she assigned each to one of the following six categories: “explicit endorsement of the consensus position, evaluation of impacts, mitigation proposals, methods, paleoclimatic analysis, and rejection of the consensus position.” The results, published in the journal Science, Dec. 3, 2004, showed that 75 percent of the papers fit within the first three categories and 25 percent within the next two. None fell into category six. “Remarkably,” she reported, “none of the papers disagreed with the consensus position.” Her conclusion? “It’s time for the rest of us to listen.”
Evangelicals Concerned Too
In 2000 I was strolling down the Long Walk at Windsor Castle in England with climatologist and atmospheric physicist Sir John T. Houghton. We were conversing about what to do next, following our meeting there on environmental stewardship. After walking three miles through the countryside, we turned back toward the castle. By the time we returned, we’d decided to bring together leading climate scientists and evangelicals on the topic of climate change (see box, p. 20).
Sir John is an evangelical who co-chaired the Scientific Assessment Group for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and since 1988 was in charge of writing three world climate assessments in each of three successive 5-year intervals. The forum we envisioned would be cosponsored by the John Ray Initiative in the U.K., for which Sir John served as chair of the board, and Au Sable Institute in the U.S., for which I served as director.
One important result of this forum of 60 people, held in Oxford, England, in 2002, was the conversion—“not unlike his conversion to Christ”—that Rev. Richard Cizik experienced there. It was this conversion that convicted him to address climate change with vigor in his capacity as vice president for governmental affairs of the (U.S.) National Association of Evangelicals. The forum also resulted in adoption of the Oxford Declaration on Climate Change. The declaration’s conclusion is particularly relevant for our time and sums up the profound moral imperative we have in the church and the wider society:
1. Human-induced climate change is a moral, ethical, and religious issue.
- God created the Earth and continues to sustain it. Made in God’s image, human beings are to care for people and all creation as God cares for them. The call to “love the Lord your God and love your neighbor” (Matt. 22:37-39) takes on new implications in the face of present and projected climate change. God has demonstrated his commitment to creation in the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christ, who “reconciles all things” (Col. 1:20), calls his followers to the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18-19).
- Human-induced climate change poses a great threat to the common good, especially to the poor, the vulnerable, and future generations.
- By reducing the Earth’s biological diversity, human induced climate change diminishes God’s creation.
Human induced climate change, therefore, is a matter of urgent and profound concern.
2. The Earth’s climate is changing, with adverse effects on people, communities, and ecosystems.
There is now high confidence in the scientific evidence of human influence on climate, as detailed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and endorsed by 18 of the world’s leading academies of science. Human activities, especially the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas (fossil fuels), are rapidly increasing the concentrations of greenhouse gases (especially carbon dioxide) in the global atmosphere. As a result the global climate is warming, with rising sea levels, changes in rainfall patterns, more floods and droughts, and more intense storms. These have serious social, economic, and ecological consequences.
The harmful effects of climate change far outweigh the beneficial ones. In many arid and semi-arid areas, the quantity and the quality of fresh water will continue to decrease. Although agricultural productivity may increase in temperate northern latitudes, it will decrease throughout the tropics and sub-tropics. A greater incidence of diseases, such as malaria, dengue fever, and cholera, is expected. Sea-level rise and increased flooding is already displacing people and will eventually affect tens of millions, especially in low-income countries. Some island states are likely to disappear altogether. Important ecosystems, such as coral reefs and forests, will be destroyed or drastically altered, undermining the very foundation of a sustainable world.
3. Action is needed now, both to arrest climate change and to adapt to its effects.
- We must take immediate steps to stabilize the climate. This means reducing global emissions of carbon dioxide (the most important greenhouse gas) to below 1990 levels well before the middle of the 21st century.
- While industrialized nations have largely caused the problem, its most severe effects fall upon the peoples of developing countries. Industrialized countries need therefore to make much greater reductions in emissions in order to allow for economic growth in developing countries.
We urge industrialized nations to take the lead in reducing their emissions. They have the technical, financial, and institutional ability to do so now.
We urge industrialized countries to assist developing countries in gaining access to cleaner and renewable forms of energy.
We urge that actions be taken to increase energy efficiency in transportation, buildings, and industry. Many actions can produce savings or be taken at little or no net cost. Examples were presented to the forum of such actions by 38 major multinational companies.
We urge greater use and development of renewable sources of energy.
We urge increased financial investment and banking initiatives to enable the necessary changes.
The cost of inaction will be greater than the cost of appropriate action.
Adapting to the impacts of climate change (for example, droughts and flooding) is not an alternative to mitigation but is essential given that the climate is already changing and further change is inevitable.
4. Christian denominations, churches, and organizations need to take action to
- increase awareness of the facts of global climate change and its moral implications;
- set an example through individual and collective actions that reduce greenhouse gas emissions;
- increase demand for technologies and products that produce less emissions of carbon dioxide;
- urge immediate and responsible action by national governments, in cooperation with other governments under the Framework Convention on Climate Change. This should be, first, to ensure the successful operation of the Kyoto Protocol (which some countries, including the United States andAustralia, have not yet ratified) and, second, to establish an effective program of emissions reductions in the period immediately following that covered by the protocol.
We, the forum participants, recognize the urgency for addressing human-induced
climate change, repent of our inaction, and commit ourselves to work diligently and creatively to adopt solutions in our own lives and in the communities we influence.
We call upon leaders in churches, business, and government to join us in recognizing human-induced climate change as a moral and religious issue and to take necessary action to maintain the climate system as a remarkable provision in creation for sustaining all life on Earth.
A New Partnership Between Faith and Science
On Jan. 17 preeminent scientists and evangelical leaders joined together at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to make an extremely important announcement about our profound moral imperative:
The Earth—an inexpressibly beautiful and mysterious gift that sustains our very lives—is seriously imperiled by human behavior. The harm includes a cascading set of problems such as climate change, habitat destruction, pollution, and species extinctions . . . and the spread of human infectious diseases and other accelerating threats to the health of people and the well-being of societies. . . .
We must now work to hasten the day, and recapture the hour, to take direct enjoyment in God’s Creation, when once again we can take the time to listen to science and the Earth, to take the time “to behold the lilies of the field and the birds of the air.” We then also will see what we are doing to the magnificent life on God’s Earth, its creatures including ourselves, and to the climate system that sustains our physical life. We will respond appropriately to the joint calls of our scientists and evangelical leaders. And Creation will welcome its being reclaimed for Jesus Christ and being re-inherited by the meek. It will welcome the coming of the children of God.
The announcement included news of an unprecedented joint effort between evangelicals and scientists to protect the global environment and advance policies that address some of the most pressing threats to our planet. Spearheaded by the National Association of Evangelicals and scientists at the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School, the newly formed collaboration is 28 members strong and growing.
- Discuss your reaction to this article.
- Do you believe that global warming is a real and present danger?
- What is your understanding of God’s mandate to subdue the earth?
- How does the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ influence our decisions regarding care for the earth?
- Cal De Witt says that climate change poses a great threat to the common good—especially to the poor. Do you see evidence of this in our world today?
What is your hope for the world your children and grandchildren will inherit? What can you do to contribute to this?