I’ve just gotten back from a beautiful spring day in Boston, where I took in a brilliant theatre performance of “The Whale,” Samuel Hunter’s moving story of the perpetual struggle between the sanctity and beauty of people, and the standards and rules by which we make sense of the world. The characters in the play were all deeply flawed. But notable among them was an archetypical religious person – a Mormon teenager on “mission.”
Of course, the teen is the perfect religious foil for people wrestling with profound human concerns: He exudes blind certainty with respect to irrelevant and implausible doctrines, and relentless sincerity in “saving” others from being different from himself. For me, as a public adherent to the Christian faith, I sat in the audience torn between relief that the playwright had plucked the low-hanging fruit of a Mormon door-knocker, and the discomfort of knowing that the role could have been filled almost as easily by many of my co-religionists – or perhaps even by me.
At home again this morning, the news served up a fresh reminder of why our culture sees religion the way it so often does. As we all know, the world’s climate scientists meeting in Yokohama had just released their most dire warnings ever about the impact of manmade climate change. Last September, their science report had finally put to rest any serious scientific debate over the basic facts of global climate change and its principal causes. Today, they’re telling us that the crisis is not one we’re leaving for the grandkids: it’s landed already, and it’s threatening to starve the poorest and most vulnerable humans right now, with worse to come. And while some Christians leapt to the defense of the world’s climate victims, others again dusted off their nearly incomprehensible claims that they know more than the scientists, and that it’s all an alarmist conspiracy.
September’s IPCC science report was the fifth in a three-decade series of global assessments of the state of climate science – each one more certain than its predecessor. The science is now 95% sure that the planet is dangerously warming due to human greenhouse gas emissions and human changes in land use. We’re using way too much coal (for electricity), oil and gas; and we’re destroying way too many forests and wetlands. We’re as sure of this as we are that smoking causes cancer. Never 100% sure, of course. That would be doctrine, not science. But 95%. Denying this is like betting the kids’ college fund on a 20-to-1 hunch.
This week’s impact report tells us more about what the climate science conclusions actually mean to people, other creatures and their habitats. And it’s not pretty. With high or very-high confidence, the world’s climate researchers now agree that during the current century, our disruption of the climate will mean:
- Lower crop yields, increasing hunger, and higher food costs, all of which will land hardest on the poor and on poor countries.
- Failure of rural communities due the drying up of fresh water systems on farms.
- Collapse of fishing communities due to the failure of marine ecosystems in warmer and more acidic oceans.
- Flooding or inundation of coastal communities as melting ice sheets and thermal expansion accelerate sea-level rise.
- Increase in human migration as climate-change refugees look for new places to support themselves and their families.
- Acceleration in the extinction of species of plants and animals, which is already at historic highs.
Among Christians, the Evangelical Environmental Network was first out of the blocks. More hunger? More thirst? More destroyed communities? Harm to the poor? This isn’t all that hard for Christians, as you would assume. EEN released the following statement:
“The current Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report provides even more evidence for what we have known for some time: climate impacts have and will continue to hit the poor the hardest, those least able to cope with the consequences, especially children and the elderly.”
And then came Young Evangelicals for Climate Action: “We can now see the impacts of climate disruption growing in our country and all over the world,” said Ben Lowe, the group’s spokesperson. “This is a moral issue that requires our church and political leaders to wake up and step up. The decisions they make today affect not just the present, but also the rest of my generation’s future.”
Of course. This is what you would expect from people whose Bible sets forth explicit commands for feeding the hungry and thirsty, and caring for the poor and the sojourner. Indeed, the consensus of evangelical Christians declarations calling for urgent moral action on climate change is consistent and overwhelming.
But it wouldn’t be long before a much more sinister voice would speak up. The Cornwall Alliance, a group that claims to be both scientific and evangelical, managed to convince The Christian Post that it had produced a “scientific report” that found key evidence that the world’s scientists had ignored.
“The human impact on global climate is small,” they claimed, “and any warming that may occur as a result of human carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas emissions is likely to have little effect on global temperatures, the cryosphere (ice-covered areas), hydrosphere (oceans, lakes, and rivers), or weather.”
In effect, they say, you can believe the world’s climate scientists, and the broad consensus of research that they have conducted, or you can believe us – us Christians (maybe?) who know better. Never mind that we don’t conduct any of the climate research ourselves. Never mind that we don’t represent a single Christian denomination. Never mind that the world’s actual climate researchers warn of profound injustices perpetrated upon the poor of the earth – starvation, inundation, displacement and the wars and atrocities that generally accompany such traumas – even though they’ve contributed little to the problem.
In 2012, the Christian Reformed Church and its 1,300 congregations in North America specifically analyzed the Cornwall group’s claims and publications. “Considering the limited number of authors and their lack of religious credentials,” they wrote in a 130-page report, “it is somewhat disingenuous to label these as evangelical documents.” They continued: “Because of the absence of biblical references, presence of other ideologies commingled in its theological background, and outright denial of science on the issue of climate change, we do not discuss further the Cornwall Declaration on Environmental Stewardship or recommend it for study.”
And finally, said the Christian Reformed Church, “The positions expressed in the Cornwall Declaration are in general inconsistent with our perception of biblical stewardship and with our observations of what is occurring in our world today.”
But … somehow, they persuaded The Christian Post to give them equal time, and to buy their flimsy claims to legitimacy – long since debunked by both scientists and churchmen.
And so the secular culture has yet another reason to dismiss and to revile those who cling to faith in the Creator of Heaven and Earth. The global community is struggling with existential threats, among them the collapse of ecosystems under the weight of climate change. Do Christians have something real to offer? Or are we no more relevant than that Mormon teenager on Mission?