Now is the perfect time to talk about climate change
And the church must get political, says ‘ecotheologian’
In defiance of a media stereotype, most Australian Christians believe that climate change is caused by human activity.
“A slim majority of churchgoers (56%) said that they thought climate change is happening and largely human-caused, while approximately three in ten (31%) thought it was a natural fluctuation in Earth’s temperatures,” according to the 2016 National Church Life Survey. Support for the view that human activity leads to climate change is almost certainly strengthened by the current bushfire catastrophe. “This varied by denomination; approximately six in ten Catholics and Mainstream Protestants (Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Uniting Church) thought that climate change was largely human-caused, compared with four in ten Other Protestants.”
A mix of anger, frustration and hope is the response from many climate change activists to the bushfire crisis. Long-term climate change activist and “ecotheologian” Mick Pope expressed despondency rather than any sense of elation that Australia is coming around to his point of view, when asked about the bushfires by Eternity’s Rebecca Abbott (see interview below).
Eternity also includes some comments from a more conservative view (see below). This is not to imply any sort of moral equivalence between these Christian opinions but to report an emerging divergence in conservative opinion. Moore and more conservative Christians are accepting that climate change is a key factor. John Sandeman
The climate activist and the fires: Despondency, frustration and hope
Mick Pope has spent much of his life studying, teaching, writing about and advocating for the church to engage with environmental issues. But when Eternity first asks this forecast meteorologist and theologian his reaction to Australia’s current bushfire crisis, Pope is uncharacteristically despondent.
Rather than rallying a call to action, he admits to feeling “a combination of despair and anguish over the state of things – the more than 20 people who have died and hundreds of homes that have been lost. And we may have put a nail in the coffin of the extinction of some of our native fauna.”
“Ten years ago or more, people were noting that the fire danger index was going up … and just nothing much has been done.” – Mick Pope
Pope also feels “really angry”: “Obviously [there have been] decades of inaction … Ten years ago or more, people were noting that the fire danger index was going up over time in a number of locations, that we knew that fires would be more erratic and catastrophic in their behaviour, the fire seasons lengthened, and just nothing much has been done.”
“The standard response is a pretty weak moral argument – that we [Australia] supposedly don’t contribute much to global emissions. And yet we’re one of the largest coal exporters in the world. We’re letting the side down from a management point of view and a leadership point of view and a moral point of view. So trying to stay hopeful is difficult.”
According to Pope, there is an “incontrovertible” link between climate change and catastrophic events like Australia’s recent bushfires. While he notes a number of contributing factors, all lead back to the root cause of global warming – making events like these hard to avoid.
“There’s been a lot of talk about the role of hazard reduction burns, but the fact is that if the fire’s really catastrophic, then those burns have little impact. It’s also the case that in the warm, dry conditions we’ve had, you reduce the season when you’re physically able to do that …
“Certainly the situation requires a huge rethink, and that’s what the former fire chief [Greg Mullins] said – that we need a summit to discuss managing fire in what’s the new normal, and it’s nothing like what people are used to.”
“If climate change is playing a big role in these fires, as we know it is, then now is the perfect time to talk about it.” – Mick Pope
When asked if the bushfire crisis is an appropriate time to discuss climate action, Pope says, “These are not my words, but people have been making an interesting comparison to what the NRA [National Rifle Association] will say when there’s a mass shooting in the United States – that it’s no time to talk about gun control.
“If climate change is playing a big role in these fires, as we know it is, then now is the perfect time to talk about it. What more evidence do you need that the climate is changing and that it has significant impacts?
“People are neglecting the fact that the coral reef continues to bleach and there’s a major warming event in our oceans, which has an impact on marine life. It’s all consistent with the one story that burning fossil fuels, land clearing and all these things are changing the climate.
“We’re in the middle of the direct impacts of climate change. It’s not a future thing. It’s a present thing. So now is the time to talk about it and now’s the time to respond because this sort of thing is only going to become more frequent.”
If we fail to change our approach to climate change, Pope – along with other experts – expects temperatures to continue to rise around four degrees Celsius by the end of the century.
“Along with this are all the other impacts other than the obvious fires – heat waves and the mortality that’s associated with those, droughts and the decline in yields of cereal crops, so people go hungry.
“Sea level rise will mean that lots of places become uninhabitable. We’ve also got water stress in many areas, so you simply can’t support the people that we have now. So if we continue on the path that we are now, there will be significant impacts and lives will be lost.”
As a Christian, Pope is both heartened and frustrated by the church’s response. He says he’s been encouraged to see “the image of God manifest in people through acts of kindness and generosity that come out in these sorts of times” (meaning the bushfire crisis). And he endorses the need for Christians to be continue to support those affected by the fires and to continue to pray for rain.
“Another thing we can do is give up climate denial. There are large sections of the church that need to do that.” – Mick Pope
But, in addition, Pope says the church needs to do a lot more about the larger, looming issue.
“We need to be praying for action on climate. Australia on its own won’t achieve the cuts [to carbon emissions] that we need to avoid the worst impacts [of climate change]. We have a strong leadership in the region, so we need to be pushing for that …”
“Another thing we can do is give up climate denial. There are large sections of the church that need to do that.
“We need to be speaking up publicly that climate change is an important issue. It is a Christian issue. It is something that the Bible addresses in terms of our mandate to care for creation.
“And that means being, unavoidably, political. I’m not talking about necessarily picking sides or giving preference to one political party over another, but the only way in which this problem will be solved is as a collective, and therefore it makes it political.
“So the church needs to be speaking up and not shying away from it or just adhering to some of the traditional issues that certain sections of the church think is our main area of focus. The church needs to be focusing on climate change and creation care.”
You can listen to Mick Pope’s conversation about Christians and climate action with Megan Powell Du Toit and Michael Jensen on episode 31 of Eternity‘s podcast With All Due Respect. If you like what you hear, subscribe to With All Due Respect for even more conversation, less aggro.
Conservatives on climate change: skeptical of greenies but less are in denial
(Compiled by John Sandeman) David Robertson, formerly of Scotland, and now working in Australia for City Bible Forum’s Third Space, is an emerging conservative evangelical voice in this country. He’s also an example of a sceptical group that’s accepting the reality of human causes for climate change. Eternity has noticed that there are fewer and fewer Christian leaders in Australia willing to speak against climate change.
“I accept that there is such a thing as man-made climate change – in that what we do can and does affect the climate, “ Robertson tells Eternity. “However I don’t buy into what I would call the ‘Climate Change cult’.
“I don’t believe it is responsible for all the weather changes we are seeing … and more importantly I don’t believe that humans can control the planet.
“It’s arrogant and hubristic for us to think that we can. However we can and should do all we can to care for God’s creation.”
“When great catastrophes happen, we look for simple explanations,” Robertson told his blog readers.
“Simple messages are of course more effective if they contain some truth, and the general scientific consensus is that the increased temperatures, which are a great contributing factor, are at least partially caused by global warming from human activity. But that is by no means the whole story.”
“God is graciously ruling out the possibility of an utterly destructive Noah-like event that wipes out all life.” – Lionel Windsor
Picking up a common conservative meme, Robertson points to the history of fires such as the 1851 Black Friday that burned a quarter of Victoria, as well as the Indian Ocean Dipole (divergence between eastern and western temperatures), and the debate over fuel loads and Indigenous Nation’s management of the bush.
The Australian Christian Lobby’s Martyn Iles response in his “Truth of it” series has been that Christians should not take part in climate change demonstrations, because of the worldview of some leaders, which he describes as “cultural Marxist”. But in Iles’ case what he does not say is significant: he strongly attacks the climate change demonstrators without denying AGW – in the material this writer has seen. So with both Robertson (who affirms AGW) and Iles a focus is on climate change activism’s lefty bedfellows rather than global warming itself.
The strict denialist view is still represented by blogger Bill Muehlenberg but it has become clear that in Australia, conservative Christianity is not rusted on to the denialist camp.
A conservative evangelical mainstream view is represented by Lionel Windsor, a New Testament lecturer at Moore College. He told Eternity in late 2019: “ In Genesis 9:15, God promises Noah that ‘the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh’. This text is speaking about God’s sustaining grace and kindness in the face of human sin.”
“God is graciously ruling out the possibility of an utterly destructive Noah-like event that wipes out all life. However, the text is not ruling out the possibility that we humans, through sin and ignorance, can cause serious damage to our world and its inhabitants (see Hosea 4:3, for example).
“Furthermore, the text does not provide an excuse to abdicate our responsibility to act rightly towards God’s good creation.”
The tension between prioritising the Gospel and responding to a climate emergency is explored in a discussion by Megan Powell Du Toit and Michael Jensen (following their Mick Pope interview) on episode 31 of Eternity’s podcast With All Due Respect. (WADR)
In this WADR discussion, Pope’s presentation of climate change as a discipleship issue, places activism for change within the evangelical paradigm. So within Australian evangelicalism there are two poles – Pope’s approach that invites Christian to get involved in combating climate change versus Iles’ warnings about campaigning alongside the left.