In our family, Tuesdays are Nanny and Poppy days, where my wife Cathie and I are responsible for caring for our three grandchildren. It can be mentally challenging, answering some of the deeper questions they come up with, like: How do rocks grow? Why do wheelbarrows have only one wheel?
But the question they have yet to ask, but I dread, is “So Poppy, what are you and Nanny doing to address climate change?”
Where to start?
Well first off, I’ve been listening to my fellow scientists who have been warning us all that climate change is real and that it is a human-caused problem that requires urgent united local and global action to reduce emissions.
Currently, there are 42,000 kinds of plants and animals on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species. Roughly 25 per cent (10,967) are threatened with extinction due (at least in part) to climate change.
We also hold the dishonourable distinction of overseeing the world’s first recorded mammal extinction.
And in keeping with Australia’s record of being a world leader in human-caused mammal extinctions, we also hold the dishonourable distinction of overseeing the world’s first recorded mammal extinction as a direct result of climate change: the Bramble Cay Mosaic-tailed Rat, whose habitat in the Great Barrier Reef was lost due to rising sea levels.
How does this happen?
Changes in the frequency and severity of extreme events (e.g. heatwaves, droughts, floods, high tides and bushfires, which have been very evident in the last few months) have particular impacts on ecosystems and individual animals.
These extremes caused by climate change come on top of the impacts of massive changes inflicted by humanity that nature is already struggling to cope with: clearing of native vegetation, fragmented landscapes under stress from invasive weeds, pollution and impacts of introduced animals such as cats, foxes, rabbits, goats, pigs, deer, mice and exotic birds.
Care of the environment is not an optional activity for a Christian, it’s a responsibility.
Scientists can predict how a changing climate will probably affect a species by mapping their ‘climatic envelope’. This includes the temperature, rainfall and other climate-related parameters in which a species currently lives. Scientists then predict how the location of those conditions might move due to climate change.
We already see examples of some mobile species relocating in response to the changing climate. They often move to cooler and wetter environments, usually southwards in the southern hemisphere, or uphill. In many cases, however, these shifts might not be possible because of unfavourable environmental conditions, geographical or human-made barriers and competition from species already in an area.
Why should we care if species become extinct?
Apart from the pragmatic value of species to us here and now, on another level, it comes down to our worldview, our values.
As a follower of Jesus, I feel compelled by four core tenets of our faith to do everything in my power to limit climate change:
1. Earth belongs to God, not us. We are just very fortunate tenants, not owner/occupiers (Psalm 24:1)
We have a God-given responsibility to care for the Earth (Genesis 2:15). Care of the environment is not an optional activity for a Christian, it’s a responsibility, just as caring for the “widows and the orphans and the sojourners in your land” is a responsibility.
2. Thou shalt not steal (Exodus 20:15)
Shirking our responsibility to care for the Earth, ruthlessly exploiting the resources of the planet and depriving others of its bounty, is stealing from our neighbours, or from future generations.
Where our generation overexploits Earth’s resources in a completely unsustainable manner, this amounts to theft from future generations.
3. Love your neighbour as yourself (Matthew 22:39)
Who is my neighbour? We are connected, via processes in the natural world, with many neighbours near and far, e.g. the flow of water along rivers, the flow of gases in the atmosphere. What I do, and how I care for creation where I am, can potentially affect many neighbours for good or for bad, near or far. If I am to “love my neighbour as myself”, then I can’t walk past on the other side of the street, hoping someone else will clean up the mess.
So Poppy and Nanny, what are you doing to address climate change? The key actions on our list include:
• Supporting greater investment globally in the education of girls
• Eating a more locally sourced, sustainably produced diet, that doesn’t involve loss of native vegetation
• Land travel – walk, cycle and take public transport
• Air travel – minimise and pay for carbon offsets
• Home energy – shift to renewables and turn off the lights/appliances when we leave a room
• Invest wisely in institutions (banks, shares, super) whose values align with our own
• Lobby all levels of society (governments, institutions, businesses, NGOs, churches) to care enough to take individual and collective action to reduce emissions and conserve nature
• Inspire hope and rekindle a spirit of optimism – grounded in faith in a gracious Creator.
Our nation’s behaviour reminds me of the prodigal son who squandered his father’s inheritance.
We have a responsibility to be wise stewards of the extraordinary gift the Creator has entrusted to us. Our nation’s behaviour reminds me of the prodigal son who squandered his father’s inheritance.
My hope is that, like the prodigal, we will come to our senses and acknowledge our reckless ingratitude and appalling trashing of our precious inheritance. I hope Christians will seek the Creator’s forgiveness for our callous disregard for the suffering of those with whom we share the planet, and roll up our sleeves to be part of the solution.
Michael Clarke is Emeritus Professor of Zoology and was head of Life Sciences at La Trobe University, and a Fellow of ISCAST–Christianity & Science in Conversation. This article is a short version of his talk at ISCAST’s “The Scientific & Spiritual Human” conference in 2023.