That a rapidly warming global climate is due to human causation is irrefutable.
It is already causing observable, negative weather impacts, and without immediate and substantive action, “global warming of 1.5°C and 2°C will be exceeded during the 21st century.”
These were key findings and assertions in an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report published this week.
It seems we are at a tipping point, with little room for error and none for further delay in concrete, substantive action.
Sadly, instead of being leaders in efforts to address climate change, many U.S. Christians see this as a “niche” or “tangential” issue, if they address it at all.
In July, when my faith family, the American Baptist Churches USA, carried out its first ever “virtual” biennial meeting, there was no programming addressing climate change and the church’s responsibility to respond to it, and the only references to climate change in worship were in a brief litany of “lament.”
It was as if we could address compelling issues of racial and economic justice, gender parity and congregational renewal in the age of “nones” in complete isolation from the fact that Earth is on fire and the web of life which sustains us is unravelling.
Too many write off devastating hurricanes, “500-year” floods, crippling freezes beyond the memory of anyone living, and desertification and erosion of previously fruitful land as anomalous and inexplicable events. The IPCC report makes it clear that they are not.
I remember my first trip to Central and South America in 1992. Flying over Salvadoran hills on the approach to the airport at San Salvador, it seemed to me that the hills had mange, a combination of bare spots and patchy forest in that “luxuriant” tropical climate.
I learned over time how commercial agriculture – cash crops for export – had forced traditional farmers farther and farther up the slopes, where they carved out tiny plots from the remnants of the forest until erosion made them untenable.
Eventually, these early climate refugees flooded Central American cities, and many of them subsequently made the precarious trek north to escape violence, drugs and poverty in those cities. In the U.S. we have consistently seen this phenomenon as a political crisis, not related to climate change, and, fundamentally, as their problem.
But today feels different.
Climate change is one thing when it’s desertification on the southern fringe of the Sahara, turning subsistence farmers and pastoralists into refugees, or rising sea levels flooding crowded urban slums in far off Jakarta or agricultural villages in Bangladesh.
But how does it feel when it strikes – repeatedly and relentlessly – in the “rich world,” much of which still lives out the tenets of “dominion” theology, even in post-Christian Europe or power house, “never Christian” China?
The Bootleg Fire in Southern Oregon and the Bell and Dixie fires in Northern California have each consumed hundreds of square miles of parched forests and continue to rage. Tree core samples suggest that this is the driest California has been since 1580.
Other fires rage in Greece, Iran, Turkey and Siberia; the Siberian fires release into the atmosphere millions of tons of the powerful greenhouse gas methane that had been trapped in the permafrost for millennia.
Massive atmospheric “heat domes” create triple digit temperatures in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, causing tidal pool mollusks and crustaceans that anchor coastal food chains to literally boil to death.
Historic salmon runs are imperiled by both the unsupportable water temperatures and – in the case of the Sacramento Delta salmon in California – the diversion of water to save crops in California’s Central Valley, which produces $17 billion of produce annually, feeding millions and providing the economic engine for the region.
Food supplies and livelihoods are at dire risk.
Massive rains flood the American Midwest, ravage large swaths of Germany and Belgium causing hundreds of drowning deaths, and trap subway passengers in Zhengzhou, China.
Meanwhile, it appears that another monster hurricane season is revving up in the Caribbean, and inevitably the tropical storms will take aim – yet again – at the U.S. Gulf Coast and Eastern seaboard.
Putting a definitive spin on this string of disasters is the IPCC report – the sixth of a series of assessments begun in 1988 – concluding that changes in sea level, oceanic acidity, ice cap / glacier coverage and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels may be irreversible for centuries to come, with dire effects on human wellbeing.
Will we, the human family, finally take seriously the challenge of climate change? Cynically, it will likely require those who sit atop the world’s pyramid of wealth and privilege to become really scared for substantive action to result.
The human journey over the last few millennia into civilization, including the emergence of biblical faith, has taken place in an “interglacial” period of relatively stable and benign global climate.
And the climate change deniers are not entirely wrong in citing dramatic climate changes over eons of time, involving natural system changes beyond our ken.
But it is ironic that in the same benign climactic period that allowed us to create agriculture, cities, literate culture and modern technology, we accrued power that has allowed us heedlessly to degrade the systems that nurtured us and allowed our development.
Am I suggesting that it is only the newly awakened, thoroughly self-focused environmental self-interest of the rich – and that designation includes most of us – that will motivate massive top-down measures to respond to the climate crisis?
Well, yes, but this also is a kairos moment for followers of Jesus.
Will we again understand ourselves as salt and light?
Will we generate new communities of sharing and simpler living in the tradition of the first Christians?
Will we deconstruct the dominant dominion theology of our Western Christian tradition to reflect the love of our Creator and Redeemer for creation in its totality?
If a critical mass of the Body of Christ can do this, then God will use us to nourish and inform renewal from below, even if the principalities and powers are unaware of who is actually moving them.
Then, thousands of faith communities and resource cooperatives, and millions of households and consumers, can surge through the opening created by the forced fracture of the status quo and spearhead real change.
Adjunct professor of theology at Palmer Seminary in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He served previously as senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon, and as professor of theology and ethics at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Wheeler appeared in the EthicsDaily.com documentary, “Sacred Texts, Social Duty.”