Are Christians so (supposedly) occupied by eternal issues that temporal details have become secondary? Are we comfortably numb?
I've raised this question about climate change in a number of discussion forums, and the Christian response is frequently weak, disengaged, and dismissive. It is tempting to respond with fierce rhetoric, from either side, but that's not very constructive. Moreover, our sound-bite culture doesn't lend itself to a reasoned explication of views.
For my own sake I want to lay out my difficulty with Christians remaining silent.
There are six arguments that I find most often put forward in an attempt to justify this silence:
I want to lay out my reasoning in the context of each of these. In particular, I want to try and show some of the reasons why I think climate change should be right up there with all Christian's daily concerns, and that ignoring this is NOT a Christian option -- WWJD!
Please note: this is not about green advocacy ... despite a clear Biblical basis for the stewardship of the earth, eco-activism is not the issue I address here. The real problem is far more important, personal, theological, and deeply relational.
1. Climate change is unproven and not important
In the context of living as a Christian this is the least troublesome argument. So let's get this one out of the way quickly.
First, this is not the place to present the full wealth of evidence for the reality and importance of climate change. The evidence is strong enough with out needing my advocacy, and like anyone coming to know Jesus, it is each persons individual responsibility to weigh the evidence and come to a conclusion. Many have presented the case for climate change, and such resources are easily found. The case for denial is also vigorously presented (the parallels between the debates on Atheism/Christianity and the climate change issue are eerily similar!).
At the root of the matter is the fact that a near majority of climate scientists (those active in research), backed by more than a century of analysis, say that the human contribution to climate change is real, and that the consequences are massively important. The scientists do not claim total certainty in all the details, but profess that the case for humans causing climate change is far, far stronger than even that of, for example, the clear relationship between smoking and lung cancer. Against this is the vocal minority who are almost all not climate scientists and who say the opposite.
You can draw one of four basic conclusions (with nuanced positions around these):
a) Climate scientists (and all governments of the world) are engaged in a conspiracy.
b) The scientists are simply mistaken, the truth is held by a few individuals (mostly not trained in climate science).
c) Both are wrong and climate change is real but God-ordained.
d) The scientists are correct, and human-caused climate change is real.
To take the position of (c) is to say the physical evidence is wrong. To say (b) is just unrealistic -- theoretically possible but with no evidence to support it. And to assume (a) is, in my view, simply unsupported paranoia. I am left with (d).
If you want to explore the facts for yourself (you should), then I encourage you at the very least to look at the arguments for and against. In my biased perspective I would point to www.skepticalscience.com as one good place to start, where the arguments against climate change are presented with the counter scientific evidence. Wherever you read, please read to see what's factual versus opinion, recognize when its emotive attack or the use of argument from authority, and don't merely find what makes you comfortable (which is also how we should read the Bible).
2. In biblical end-times the world is going to be disrupted anyway.
The argument is that it is prophesied the end times will be characterized by massive disruption on land and in the sea, and some believe this era is imminent. Hence climate change is merely evidence of God's plans in action (the more extreme even say "bring it on, what can I do to hasten it?").
This is a non-argument. If one wants to take this position, one might as well say "I'm definitely going to die one day, so I don't need to exercise or eat healthily, in fact lets do drugs!" The position ignores one's personal Christian responsibility, and thus the argument is often presented alongside (3) below; that God is in control of everything. It's an argument of abdication.
However, Jesus calls us to live in the now - his rule is both for the now and the not yet; Jesus established his Kingdom now but it will only be fulfilled in the future. And so we are to live as God's subjects now, and the suffering of this world is for our attention now. This means that we have a responsibility to do what we can to alleviate suffering, not exacerbate it. We have under our responsibility the poor, the weak, the dis-empowered, the vulnerable and abused, and those enslaved by the policies and activities of our broken societies.
What God chooses to do in the end times in no way negates this responsibility. Our mission of mercy and compassion does not disappear in the midst of God's end-times work. Thus climate change, if you accept its reality, places an enormous multi-generation burden on the Christian, more so than on the secular society, for we profess God's compassion. By our choices the problem exists and persists. The poor and the dis-empowered are on the front-line of consequences, and it is our collective actions that have placed them there. How can I stand before God and say I do not need to take this as part of my responsibility to live for Jesus?
3. We are too puny to have any causative influence.
To think "How could I ever change something at the scale of the globe" is not unnatural. After all, we are seemingly dwarfed by the scale of the planet and the universe. But this thinking is in part because we have such a poor sense of scale. We don't realize what "big" really means (and this is reflected in the way we often treat God as our buddy). But on a planetary scale, there are 7 billion of us. Do you know how big 7 billion is?
The issue of physical scale is easily resolved. For example, open up googleearth and zoom to an altitude of, say, 50km. Now pan across western Europe, or the eastern seaboard of the USA, or south-east Asia, or most of the world land mass. How much undisturbed landscape can you see? Then perhaps watch this short video on how we measurably changed the planet, or this one which gives some history, or this one which shows global air traffic. One can go on and on: deforestation, global pollution, ocean impacts, etc., etc. It is simply untenable to say we humans cannot, and are not, changing the face of our planet. We are doing so with significant localized consequence.
4. God is in control, his sovereignty is what counts.
Now, as to God's sovereignty, yes, God is sovereign and in control. God has also given us free will. To say as a Christian that the state of affairs is all part of Gods sovereignty is an argument to say I have no personal responsibility. But our free will has consequences, ranging from our personal lives to the genocides of Rwanda to ecosystem destruction, and with all the related human livelihood consequences in, for example the Nigerian delta or Pennsylvania ground water contamination. We cannot use the argument of God's sovereignty to negate consequences of our choices. If we could, then I might just as well say that everyone must go to heaven because we cannot be held responsible for our choices.
If one really digs into the basis of this position against climate change, it simply does not hold water. Both evidentially and theologically this is not defensible.
5. There are more important issues to deal with (especially evangelism)
The two biblical commandments that rise above all others are "“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). This is closely followed by a third, the great commission "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 29:19).
The argument goes that these are paramount, and the church (remember, that's you and I) is already massively negligent in these three objectives. Therefore we really need to invest our energies in these. How can anyone argue with that?
a) Can you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind while you contribute to the ravage and rape of what he created and called good?
b) Can you love your neighbor as yourself if you exploit an economic system of consumption for your comfort, while doing so disadvantages others (especially those of poor nations and of future generations) and leaves behind a legacy of pollution and environmental degradation?
c) Can I make disciples of all nations when we disciple by saying "do as I say, not as I do"?
I suggest it should be self evident that you cannot love God, your neighbor, or make disciples when our very own lifestyles stand in contradiction to our treatment of what God called good. Of course, climate change is only one aspect of this, and we can readily include economics, war, sliding morality, etc., etc. in the same context. Basically, when seen globally the Christian church (remember, the collective of you and I) fail at these top three desires of God because, as a global church, our voice is belied by our actions.
So yes, these three remain: love the Lord God, your neighbor, and make disciples. But to do these we need to examine whether our lives bear witness to our professing.
6. Eco-activism is a religion, and anyway I recycle.
There is a propensity to label. When it comes to climate change the terms "greeny" or "eco-nut" or worse are often bandied about, and yes, there are many in this world who do perhaps warrant such labels. Their motivations are mixed, and in many cases it may well reflect a type of personal "religion", especially among the new-age and mysticism movements. However, good can be done for the wrong reasons.
Then, at other times a climate change discussion may reduce to seeing who can outdo another to be the "greenest". Again, motivations can be highly varied, ranging from egotism through to genuine concern for the environment.
For the Christian it is easy to forget that in practice we are not called to make our faith comfortable for ourselves or others, we are not called to pigeon-hole and label others, and we are not called to be boastful of our accomplishments. Rather, our actions should give truth to our words, and our actions reflect our faith.
A Christian is called to holy (Lev 19:2; 1Pe 1:13-16). It is hard to conceive how a Christian can be holy and at the same time contribute to non-sustainable lifestyles of relative comfort at the expense of others. If we are to be holy, we live by truth not by desire ... in this way our desires conform to the truth. Sadly the church of today (remember, that is you and I) has a propensity to make the truth to be what pleases us - we like to take God and make God on our terms.
When all is said and done
My thinking will still mature, as I hope does yours. However, I've tried to lay out a case that does not start with eco-activism and is not mired in secondary interpretations of scientific evidence. How might I sum this up?
"Being a Christian is all about a personal relationship with Jesus. If my professed desire is to be like Jesus (be holy), then does the pattern of my life reflect this desire? For Jesus, being holy was manifest in compassion, service, simplicity, and doing the Father's will. Do my actions contribute to inequality and poverty? Is my comfort ahead of my service? Will I contribute to an age where future generations suffer?"
To be silent in voice or action on climate change is, I uncomfortably argue (because I know I fail too), giving lie to our / my professed faith.