Many people are feeling a lot of anxiety about climate change. There are even strikes among school children aimed at raising awareness about the issues. These two words–“climate change”– represent a lot more than a surface reading. “Climate” is the broad word used to describe relative geographical temperatures and weather patterns. “Change” is just that. A change. And that change is causing people around the world to become very worried.
I live in Alberta where the proverb states, “If you don’t like the weather, wait 20 minutes”. The actor Leonardo DiCaprio famously witnessed evidence of climate change. He saw how quickly a Chinook can change the temperature, as the west wind descends from the mountains and melts all the snow as it heads east. The climate does change and indigenous people have been watching this “snow eater” for a long time.
So that’s just it. Climates change. Growing up on a farm, everyone who works out in the fields recognizes that within a few miles there can be different microclimates: some are wetter, some drier. Those microclimates can change with passing cycles of wet years and dry years.
Of course when most people refer to “climate change” they are referring to something more like environmental deterioration or pollution-based changes in weather patterns. Climate change has become so familiar to us that we all know that these words are now equated with a whole range of environmental concerns, philosophical presuppositions and even accepted predictions about the future. To disagree in any degree with the concerns, presuppositions and predictions is to be a “climate denier” even though no one disagrees that there is such a thing as climate.
Into this mix, the Christian believer has empathy with the wider concerns for “climate change”, but Christians also have a surprisingly bleak outlook for the earth.
On the one hand, the stewardship of the earth is part of the mandate given to Adam and Eve in the second chapter of Genesis. Their calling required them to “be fruitful and multiply” and to “tend and keep” the extendable borders of Eden. Population control was not in view, but rather population expansion. More people would mean more environmental change. The wildness of the natural world would be brought under cultivation and put into a tamed order. At least that’s how it ought to have been.
With the sin of Adam and the curse upon his lineage, there was the accompanying curse upon the earth itself. Weeds would grow and require removal. Now consider this question. What do you do with weeds? You pull the weeds by hand if you’re a gardener. What do you do with the pulled weeds? You must put them in a pile somewhere. If you don’t dispose of them carefully the seedlings of the dead weeds can be carried by the wind right back into your garden. So we can say that the gardener’s weed pile is the consequence of the third chapter of Genesis.
Burning Weeds East of Eden
For millennia, people have burned their weeds. The reason being that they are not returning the weeds to the soil (to take root) or permitting the dead weeds to re-seed the cleansed field when they’re piled up. Incineration has always been the most effective disposal method. But when you burn things, you are releasing carcinogens, i.e. pollution. Imagine the weed piles burning east of Eden.
The alternative is to make piles, even if we call them organic piles of ‘compost’. Piles of refuse are the consequence of the Fall. These piles require quarantine and management. How a society deals with their piles indicates how well ordered they are. Municipalities everywhere are running out of room for their piles. But pile management is an old question which even the Levitical laws had an answer for.
Sin’s Pollution and World’s End
So the point I’m making is that the curse upon Adam and the earth, combined with a mandate for population expansion results in a crowded polluted world. The sin of fallen mankind also ensures that human beings will care less about how their personal actions injure others. We will pollute because it’s convenient, or because we don’t have the ordered leisure to pollute in less injurious ways. Sin will also blind us to the reality that our plight in this fallen world is the result of inherited sin. It’s not curable by education, politics or any other man-made reform.
Added to this reality of a polluted earth is the prophecy which promises that the end will not be a utopia. As Peter indicated (2 Peter 3:7), “the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire”. The intention of this promise is to summon people to faith in Jesus Christ who offers security of life beyond the grave, and the hope of heaven beyond the sorrows of earth. As the United Nations predicts that there are only 11 years until “climate catastrophe”, isn’t it all the more reason for people to heed the message going out since the days of John the Baptist, ” flee from the wrath to come”?
Between Aspiration and Compassion
If the language of catastrophe is overblown, no one can deny that Christians want to be good stewards of the earth, just as the original dominion mandate indicated. However, this is also where the conflicts between aspirations and compassion come into play. In Mediterranean climates that offer little temperature change throughout the year and few distinguishable seasons, there is a geographical luxury to pursue experiments in addressing “climate change”. But for northern climates (like Canada’s) every apartment building, house and business is heated by hydrocarbons.
What if bread was denied to children in Revolutionary France because it was made in Royalist mills? What if a fire in the fireplace was denied to a single mother in Dickensian England because the fuel was not carbon-neutral? Our compassion requires us to admit that utopian visions don’t always square with practical realities. As James flatly stated, “if one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” (James 2:16). As we seek good stewardship, just laws and practical compassion, we need to be careful that we don’t consign the weak and vulnerable to suffering in order to placate the consciences of the affordably secure.
People and Promises
When I speak with friends from other parts of Canada there is often an assumption that the bitumen-based oil-sands (or tar sands/dirty oil if you prefer) cannot be anything but a massive expression of the polluting curse.
I could make an argument in favour of fossil fuels generally. Or I could note that it is fossil fuel that heats my friends’ homes and powers all of the unnoticed networks that supply their needs. Or I could mention the hyper-sensitive procedures the oil extractors now use that aim to reclaim ground in better condition than it was before.
But there are really two key factors which drive me to support realistic thinking about fossil fuels and their circumspect use: people and promises.
First, the oil business is made up of people, dads and mums who work to provide the means for our needs to be met—from stocking our supermarkets to heating our furnaces. It’s a strange sight to see people driving vans to a rally that want to shut down the jobs of the people that gave them their means of transportation.
Our church prays regularly for people who are unemployed. The callous may say—get a different job. But that is where the utopian aspirations bump up against the realities of local compassion. I pray that the oil companies would start hiring again because many families are struggling.
The second factor that makes me think realistically about climate change is the promises of God. Even if God is going to use the climate catastrophe as part of the means of bringing his final judgement, there is a climate security that he has ensured until then. He made a promise to Noah, after the subsiding of the flood and the covenant ratified by the rainbow in the sky. God said:
While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” Genesis 8:22
So the earth will remain—for a time. During that interim, we must use the earth’s resources responsibly, but use them we must. For if we ignore the resources God has given us, then we run the danger of showing contempt for God as well as our neighbour.
Comfort for Climate Anxiety
The exhortations of Peter remind us that:
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. 2 Peter 3:9
As many people, especially young people, are being gripped by what is described as “eco-anxiety“, Christians need to offer an alternative eschatology. Our hope resides beyond this earth. As Peter concludes:
Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. 2 Peter 3:11-13
Let us be good stewards of the earth, but let us set our deepest hopes on heaven, delighting to see our Lord Jesus face to face for eternity.