Climate Change and Extinction: Noah’s Ark in Reverse?

Some of us Christians prefer not to openly ask too many questions about the story of Noah’s Ark.

Noah – you know, the pre-Bronze Age 500-year-old guy with his three sons building a boat about half the size of the Titanic, capable of handling a catastrophic torrent for a year; with a cargo consisting of at least one pair of each of the roughly 31,000 non-marine mammal, bird, reptile and amphibian species; plus the roughly one million invertebrate species; plus enough food and habitat to sustain them during their year-long voyage. Not to mention the geological, hydrological and zoological complications….

Of course, such speculation – long the favored realm of one particular slice of the theological pantheon – tends to distract us from some of the more amazing implications of the story. Think about it: When God pronounces judgment on all of mankind for its pervasive violence and corruption, his plan for justice considers first the preservation of animals, insects, and all sorts of living things. The vessel described in sacred scripture was almost completely designed to save non-human creatures. Noah’s labors, as a God-fearing man, were overwhelmingly to preserve the rich biodiversity of God’s creation.

Today, that biodiversity is under assault as never before. Actually, that’s probably not quite right. Paleo-science tells us that five times before, the Earth has suffered “mass extinction events.” The most recent brought down the curtain on the Cretaceous Period – dooming the dinosaurs and virtually all large land animals – some 65 million years ago. That would make our age the Sixth Mass Extinction.

Bengal tiger, one of

Bengal Tiger, one of almost 17,000 species threatened with extinction. Courtesy: IUCN

Already, before our fossil-fuel-emissions began seriously altering the planet’s climate, alarming numbers of species were becoming threatened with extinction. 869 species are known to have vanished entirely in recent times. Another 16,928 species are threatened with extinction and 3,796 more are on the bubble, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).  Together, the threatened or near-threatened species comprise more than 46 percent of all plants and animals assessed by the IUCN.

That’s about half of all species that have been assessed – all under the looming shadow of extinction. On today’s Ark, it looks like we’re preparing to pitch about half of the passengers over the gunwales. And for the most part, that’s before serious climate impacts are counted.

But climate change impacts are now being counted. The IUCN has just completed research, using the work of more than 100 scientists over five years, assessing the further impact of a changing climate on the risk of extinction. Their work looked at almost 17,000 species of birds, amphibians and corals, using a range of possible climate-change outcomes. The results are shocking: depending on the degree of expected global warming, 24-50% of bird species have been classified as highly vulnerable to extinction. Add to that 22-44% of amphibians, and 15-34% of the corals.

Now, if you’re like me, you’re thinking that climate change will probably knock off the already-threatened species first. Seems logical, right? But uninformed intuition doesn’t always get you to the right answer. Consider the birds.

13% of bird species are already classified as “threatened” by the IUCN (and “threatened” is very serious indeed). But the new research finds 24-50% of bird species vulnerable to climate change. And, surprisingly, more than 80% of the climate-vulnerable bird species are not currently threatened.  (That’s also true of 66% of the amphibians, and 70% of the corals.) In actual numbers, before climate impacts, we’re really worried about more than 1,300 species of birds. Add to that roughly 4,100 more species classified as highly vulnerable to climate change. Now, you’ve got well more than half of all known bird species teetering on the brink of oblivion.

To be sure, there are obvious reasons to care about looming extinctions. Animals, plants and insects provide all kinds of services to mankind: food, medicine and ecosystems services, among many others. So we are at great peril taking lightly changes to the Earth that commit large numbers of them to destruction. More serious: we should note that none of the previous five mass extinctions spared the dominant species of the age. Today, that would be one called Homo sapiens.

But suppose you consider human extinction to be theologically impossible. Okay. Now, let’s go back to Noah for just a moment. Think what it took to qualify as a human passenger on that vessel of redemption. Yes, you didn’t get on board if you were among the violent and corrupt. But do you imagine that the ship’s register included you if you stood by while others labored to build God’s floating animal shelter?  The whole odyssey was to save thousands of created species, only one of which was mankind. Maybe we don’t care that much about the other creatures? Then, we’re probably not on board in the first place.

As the story goes, after a little more than a year, Noah opens the door of the Ark, and steps out onto “the mountains of Ararat,” together with all the living creatures he has saved. And God blesses him and makes a new covenant. But this covenant is not just for Noah and his race. “I establish my covenant with you and your offspring after you,” says God, “and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the livestock, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark” Gen. 9:8-10.

God’s covenant: with the birds; and the beasts; and with you and me.

But for the birds and beasts, what good is that covenant now, if the Sons of Noah are so twisting the creation that more than half of them must now disappear forever? And we, who embrace redemption by grace alone, have we no reason to wonder about the judgment that awaits the species which is complicit in the destruction of half of God’s creatures?

Given the historical complexities, it’s tempting to ask: Do we believe in the story of Noah’s Ark? For me, the answer is yes. And it scares me half to death.

Thanks for reading. And may the God who blessed the birds, livestock and every beast also bless you, together with them.

J. Elwood

For more on threatened species, please visit Biodiversity on this site.

2 thoughts on “Climate Change and Extinction: Noah’s Ark in Reverse?

  1. Pingback: American Christianity and the Rape of Creation | BelovedPlanet

  2. Pingback: Climate Peril: Denmark Leads, the US Retreats | BelovedPlanet

Leave a Reply