Climate Change: A Spiritual and Moral Issue

This article was published in the March 2013 issue of Response Magazine.


As Earth Day’s anniversary approaches next month, we are reminded of the environmental challenges we face, especially climate change.  Hurricane Sandy’s ferocity has broken through public denial and has forced the media to address the question:  how much are changing weather patterns related to climate change?  For decades, scientists have been warning that human activity is warming the planet and altering weather patterns in ways that may be catastrophic.

United Methodists are among the many who have responded to the destruction and need caused by Sandy.  UM Volunteers in Mission teams travel to affected areas to give physical aid and emotional support.  Advance Specials channel money for relief efforts.  Church members and local units of United Methodist Women assemble cleaning buckets.  Congregations lift up prayers on behalf of those who continue to suffer in the aftermath of the storm.

We United Methodists are good at responding to disaster, but addressing climate change seems daunting.  We have a hard time bringing up the topic of climate change in our churches.  The topic is controversial, even frightening.  The scope and scale of the climate crisis may make action seem futile.  Nevertheless, we are called to be faithful in this as in all aspects of life.

Climate change is a spiritual issue.  It raises the question of how we experience God’s creation.  Is the natural world simply raw material to be turned into “stuff,” then used and thrown away?  Can we freely disregard and pollute the land, air, and water for the sake of industrial development?  Or is the natural world a holy place, a sacrament through which God is revealed?  How we experience and understand God’s creation will affect our response to the climate crisis.

Climate change is also a moral issue.  It requires us to consider what it means to walk justly in relationship with God, with the human family, with future generations, and with the whole community of life.

Global Warming

What is global warming?  Under natural conditions, Earth’s atmosphere works like a greenhouse.  It contains just enough water vapor, carbon dioxide, and other gases to trap the right amount of heat and solar energy, while allowing the rest to escape back into outer space.  This exquisitely balanced mechanism regulates our climate and makes Earth hospitable to living creatures, including human beings.

However, the atmosphere is relatively thin and vulnerable to being altered by excess emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other gases that enhance this natural “greenhouse effect.”  Since the dawn of the industrial age, the composition of Earth’s atmosphere has changed dramatically.  Before 1800, the atmosphere contained 280 parts per million (ppm) of CO2, but has now risen to over 390 ppm, with no end in sight.  The atmosphere is growing thicker and denser, so it now holds in more of the sun’s heat.  The finely-tuned atmospheric balance, which evolved with earthly life over eons, is being seriously disrupted by human dependence upon fossil fuels.

This rise in CO2 and other greenhouse gases is accompanied by an overall planetary warming trend and the very climate disruptions that computer models predicted years ago:  increasingly severe and frequent heat waves, more violent hurricanes, melting ice caps, global sea level rise, extreme droughts, increased ranges of disease-carrying insects and rodents, crop failures,  heavy rains and flooding, ocean temperature increases, forest fires, migration of bacteria and change in disease patterns, destruction of coral reefs, drying up of wetlands, acceleration of species loss, change in the patterns of seasons, economic disruptions, environmental refugees.  Although highly-industrialized nations have emitted most of the greenhouse gases causing climate change, poor nations are most dramatically affected and have the least resources to respond to these events.

Since 2000, we have experienced nine of  the ten hottest years ever recorded.  The 12-month period from July 2011 through July 2012 was the hottest on record, and featured tens of thousands of record-setting extreme weather events consistent with climate change predictions.  These included brutal heat waves, droughts, wildfires, hurricanes, tornados, and severe storms.  By  August 2012, more than half of U.S. counties had been designated disaster zones because of drought, with widespread crop failures.

Consensus or Controversy?

The reality of human-induced climate change is a matter of scientific consensus, although you might not know that, considering how much controversy the topic generates in the media.  All national and international scientific academies and societies agree with the assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which states:   “An increasing body of observations gives a collective picture of a warming world and other changes in the climate system… There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities.”

The controversy about climate change is not scientific, but political.  Oil, gas, and other companies that profit from fossil fuels deliberately sow doubt about climate change while lobbying public officials against regulation of their industry.  This energy lobby spends millions to dismiss global warming, downplay its significance, and deny that it is caused by human behavior.

Free-market think tanks also sow doubt about climate change.  The Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank based in Chicago, worked with Philip Morris in the 1990s to question the science linking secondhand smoke to health risks, and now focuses on questioning the science of climate change.  The New York Times described the Heartland Institute as “the primary American organization pushing climate change skepticism.”

Fortunately, in the United Methodist Church we are encouraged to link faith with scientific inquiry and common sense, rather than allow ourselves to be deceived through a well-funded climate-denial industry.   Our denomination has long acknowledged the reality of climate change.

Limiting Climate Disruption

It’s hard to face the magnitude of the problem of ongoing climate disruption and its potential to devastate communities and ecosystems around the world.  Global warming threatens to dwarf all other environmental problems, cause great human suffering, and make it much harder for future generations to thrive.  But denial will only postpone humanity’s reckoning with this crisis.  The fact is:  human-induced climate change is real, it’s here, and it’s causing severe disruptions in weather patterns all over the world.  The time to act is now.

What will it take to limit climate disruption?  We must, for integrity’s sake, make lifestyle changes that reduce our carbon footprint.  We can turn off lights, switch to energy-efficient appliances, ride a bike or use public transportation, plant trees.  In this way we model responsible stewardship and demonstrate our Christian concern for God’s creation.

Individual actions, however, will not begin to address the underlying, systemic causes of the climate crisis.  It will be impossible to limit the earth’s rising temperature through personal lifestyle choices alone.

As a society, we must make it costly for industries to pollute the atmosphere with greenhouse gases, but market-mechanisms alone will not solve the problem of rising tides and melting glaciers. Individual choices and market-based solutions are necessary but not sufficient.

The magnitude of the climate crisis makes clear that major systemic change is essential if we are to avert catastrophe.

The current global economic system, dominated as it is by huge corporations, multiplies wealth for the few at the expense of the many and despoils the earth.  Market-based capitalism knows nothing of the sacramental value of life or the intrinsic value of God’s creation. Its view is purely utilitarian, based on turning plants, animals, land, and even water into commodities so that they can be bought and sold, reducing their value to the economic bottom line. This ideology has allowed the creation to be exploited.  The result is severe environmental degradation, including climate change.  This is sacrilege.  The system itself will need to be transformed.

The problem of climate change is a global problem.  It will require global solutions based on cooperation among nations to transform the global system that is causing such human and ecological harm.  Such global cooperation will only come about through grassroots pressure on public officials to enact policies that limit greenhouse gas emissions.  We can join in such advocacy efforts through our own congregations.

Hurricane Sandy and other record-breaking weather events are awakening people to the extent of the climate crisis.  People in communities around the world are taking coordinated action, pressuring governments to enact policies limiting climate-disrupting emissions.  Climate change will not be reversed through such efforts, but  public policies can mitigate harm, especially to vulnerable populations, and can reduce future heat-trapping emissions.

Living Sacramentally, Walking Justly

According to Romans 1:20, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made…”    This is a sacramental view of creation:  the outward and physical manifestations of the natural world reveal the inward and spiritual grace at the heart of creation. God’s “eternal power and divine nature” are revealed through the natural world.

We are part of the natural world:  children of God but also children of the earth.  We are part of the interconnected web of life. This may not always be obvious in the midst of shopping malls, parking lots, and gated communities. We may be under the illusion that our human-constructed “world” sits on top of nature, somehow insulated and separated from the forces of nature that we have tamed through technology.  But the increasing frequency of record-breaking extreme weather events makes it clear that this view is as artificial as our constructions. The dramatic effects of climate change show us how vulnerable we are.  In spite of our incredible cultural and technological accomplishments, we are still created beings, dependent on the God who created us and interdependent with the rest of creation.

As people of faith, we can educate ourselves about climate change and raise it as an issue in our congregations, even if it generates controversy.  We can join with like-minded people of all perspectives and beliefs to advocate for public policies that will support a healthy and livable planet.  By so doing, we  live sacramentally and walk justly in our relationships with God, with our human family, with future generations, and with all creation.

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