01 November 2009
A challenge for the Church
In the run-up to the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, noted atmospheric physicist Sir John Houghton examines the biblical imperative...
There is compelling evidence that the world is warming and the climate changing, largely because of human activities in burning coal, oil and gas. Through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world scientific community has been able to give detailed information about what is likely to happen.
Increased global temperatures make climate extremes more likely. For instance, a heatwave of unprecedented intensity in central Europe in 2003 led to the premature deaths of over 20,000 people. Higher temperatures also lead to more energy entering the atmosphere's circulation that in turn brings more frequent and intense floods, droughts and storms. Further, because ocean water expands as it warms and because of increased melting of polar ice, the sea level is rising by about one metre per century.
The impact of these changes is already evident. Within a few decades they will severely affect billions of people around the world. The damage will be greatest for poor countries in the developing world; it is there that climate extremes will be
most severe and where there is little capability to adapt to them. Within 40 years, there could be 150 million or more environmental refugees whose homes are no longer habitable because of rising sea levels, flooding or persistent drought.
In early Bible history, Egypt's Pharoah had a worrying dream. The interpretation of that dream, which God gave to Joseph, was a forecast of a climate crisis: seven years of plenty to be followed by seven years of severe famine. Joseph was put in charge of storing the grain during the years of plenty and of distributing it when the famine came.
Joseph's brothers, who had sold him into slavery, had to travel 300 miles from Canaan to buy grain from Egypt. Joseph told them, "Do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you" (Genesis 45.5). Clearly, God truly cared about the peoples of Egypt and nearby countries threatened by starvation because of the climate crisis.
Today we face a climate crisis of enormous magnitude and proportions - not local but global, not of seven years duration but lasting indefinitely. Information about it has not come through dreams but through science. To many, science and God are not connected. But if we believe in a creator God, the science we do is God's science. Climate change science is bringing two important messages of the severe impact on billions of the world's poorest people and the threat to millions of
the world's species.
Those of us in rich countries need to be reminded that, over 200 years since the industrial revolution, we have grown rich through cheap energy from the burning of fossil fuels. We have not realised its effect on the world's climate nor that the damage falls disproportionately on the world's poorest. There is therefore an inescapable moral imperative for rich countries to avoid further damage by rapidly reducing their carbon emissions and to share their wealth and skills with developing countries to enable them to adapt to climate change and build their economies sustainably.
For Christians this imperative comes over with particular potency. We live in times when we are raping the Earth and exploiting the poor. The flow of wealth in the world is overwhelmingly from the poor to the rich - a statistic that should make us all blush with shame. The Bible, from its first chapters through the prophets, the ministry of Jesus and to its last book, puts high priorities on caring for the Earth and caring for the poor.
What can we do?
Much detailed advice is available from environmental organisations and aid agencies such as Tearfund. We need to work hard to reduce our personal carbon footprint through such actions as buying green electricity and ensuring that our homes, shopping and transport are as energy efficient as possible. Through our churches and communities, we need to support aid to poorer countries and press our government, through national and international action, to move rapidly towards zero carbon emissions.
In December, the world's nations meet in Copenhagen to set targets and a timetable for action. Christians are calling for worldwide prayer and many are saying it is the most important meeting the world has ever seen.
Four thousand years ago Joseph had seven years to prepare for his climate crisis. Today, action is required just as urgently. Global carbon emissions are still rising rapidly. Within about seven years, well before 2020, global emissions need to peak and begin rapidly to reduce - an extremely challenging goal. The means to achieve it are available and affordable. But is the will there to do it?
A tremendous challenge and unmistakeable opportunity are presented to the worldwide Church to shoulder these God-given responsibilities. God is there to help us do it.
Christians in the rich world and the developing world must get together in partnership and take the lead to demonstrate love for God, the world's creator and redeemer, and love for our neighbours, remembering the words of Jesus: "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded" (Luke 12.48).
- Sir John Houghton is the former head of the IPCC and a founding member of the International Society for Science and Religion. His book Global Warming: The Complete Briefing is now in its fourth edition (Cambridge, 2009).