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The Theology of Climate Change, Part One

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Byron Smith recently launched an online petition to call for the Sydney Anglican Diocese to divest fossil fuels from its roughly $120 million endowment. The petition includes words: ‘This is important because profiting from activities that harm our neighbours … is a breach of the Lord’s command, dishonours the Creator and compromises our witness and mission.’

It also follows a recent visit to Australia by Bill McKibben, a Christian and a vocal climate change activist as head of 350.org, who advised all investers to divest from fossil fuel companies, both from a moral and economic standpoint. Divestment from fossil fuels is seen as a strategic political step that raises awareness and brings economic pressure to bear; it was most famously used against the apartheid movement in South Africa in the 1980s. It was a step that taken by the Uniting Church of NSW and ACT in April this year.

Eternity asked Byron, currently studying a PhD in Theology at Edinburgh University, to write a series of three articles outlining his theology of creation, climate change, and how Christians can be involved. This is part one.

<< Read Part 2 here. >> 

<< Read Part 3 here. >>

When I was in Year 5, we had to pick two global issues and write about them. I picked the hole in the ozone layer and global warming. Researching these questions affected me deeply as it was the first time I really got at a gut level just how powerful human actions could be. In each case, we were changing one of the basic features of the atmosphere in ways with profound and disturbing implications for life on earth. I felt scared and uncertain what my future might look like.

As I grew up, these issues were put towards the back of my mind. Like most people I know, I’ve spent much of my life vaguely aware of concerns around sustainability and climate change. I saw the occasional headline, felt powerless and so pushed the idea off into the “too hard” box for attention at another time. As a Christian, I knew that how we were treating God’s creation wasn’t right, but it never seemed like a high priority for me personally or for Christians generally.

During my university years and especially through my time with the Evangelical Union, I started paying closer attention to the shape of scriptural hope. I was struck time and time again by the resurrection of Christ as the model and guarantee of our future hope, the first fruits of what was to be done for all those in Christ. As I pushed further into reflecting on these matters, I found myself startled and delighted by the physicality of the resurrection (the resurrection *of the body*), and the way the scriptures connected this hope to a hope for all of creation, not just humans. My growing grasp of a full bodied Christian hope made me realise the place of creation in God’s redemptive purposes. Creation is not merely the backdrop to a human drama. Instead, it is the precious work of a Creator who will not abandon it; God has a future not just for humanity, but for all of creation. Christian hope is not for redemption from the world, but for the redemption of the world.

In Romans 8, Paul says that we who have the Spirit groan and yearn earnestly for our future resurrection, “the redemption of our bodies” – but in the same breath (and in unison with the same Spirit), he says that the creation itself is also groaning, yearning for liberation from its “bondage to decay”. In the beginning God declared his creation “very good”; in the end, he will renew all things (Matthew 19.28; Revelation 21.5). If the rest of creation is no small player in the drama of salvation, then perhaps, I realised, I ought to pay a bit more attention to our relationship to it and how this fits into our relationship with our Creator.

So it was this theology that made me curious to revisit my latent concerns around climate change and other ecological issues like biodiversity decline and habitat destruction. It was my theology that made me want to look at the science and see what was actually happening – not because the science would tell me whether my theology was correct, but simply because I’d been convinced from the scriptures that creation was more important than I’d previously assumed.

And the more I looked, the more concerned I became. I have spent the last seven years reading widely and paying attention to reputable scientific sources: peer-reviewed journals and the publications of major scientific institutions. And while there are still debates about the details, the big picture has been clear for some time: human actions are causing serious damage in myriad ways to the complex systems on which life depends. This picture is without serious opposition amongst the relevant, actively publishing experts. We are transforming the face of the planet, altering habitats, driving thousands of species into extinction, and profoundly changing some of the basic chemistry of the oceans, atmosphere and soil.

Global climate change is perhaps the most prominent and pervasive example of these troubling trends. The waste emissions of our industrial processes and the changes we have wrought on the planet’s surface have enhanced a natural greenhouse effect and added staggering amounts of energy to the planetary system. A small fraction of this goes into warming the atmosphere, which is what has received the most attention, but most of this extra retained solar energy is stored in the oceans. Over the last few decades, the energy being added to the oceans due to human caused warming is roughly equivalent to the energy released by four Hiroshima bombs every second. Now the earth is vast and the oceans are deep, so the measurable difference is only a fraction of a degree celsius so far. But even this is causing problems: sea levels are rising faster than at any time since civilisation began, more permafrost is thawing, ice is melting all around the globe, coral reefs suffer damaging “bleaching” events every few years, ecosystems are moving up mountains and towards the poles, and other kinds of extreme weather events are becoming more common and more intense with significant costs to humans, agricultural production and ecosystems. We could go on. The rate of change is most cases is accelerating and is in many cases already faster than anything in recorded history.

The implications of these trends for human society are profound and disturbing. Our collective actions are causing grievous harm to the natural systems on which human society depends. Indeed, the situation is dire enough for many experts to talk about the genuine possibility of civilisational collapse. Note that this does not mean the end of the world, just the end of the world as we know it.

This is not certain and much depends on how we respond over the next years and decades to these threats. But it is a genuine possibility. And so when I reflect on what Jesus said was the first and greatest command – to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength – I cannot reconcile this with what we are doing to his handiwork. And when I turn to his second command – to love our neighbours as ourselves – I cannot reconcile that with the damage and the suffering that this is already causing, let alone the projected impacts. Paul says that love does no harm to its neighbour (Romans 13.10), yet our actions particularly hurt three groups that have contributed least to the problems yet face the greatest harms: the global poor; future generations; and other species. Our actions and inactions today and in the next couple of decades will shape the conditions under which human society and all God’s creatures on this planet exist for a long time to come.

Byron Smith is a PhD candidate in Theology at Edinburgh University, and a blogger at nothing-new-under-the-sun.blogspot.com.

Front page image used under a CC license, from itzafineday.

<< Read Part 2 here. >> 

<< Read Part 3 here. >>

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