I am no climate scientist. I have no authority to claim that climate change was a significant factor in causing Hurricane Sandy, the “frankenstorm“, although much of what I have been reading sees a strong case for the linkage. Never mind this summer, where a number of people were puzzling over the possibility that one of the ten worst US droughts of the past century was correlated with climate change.
I do, however, grow worried when freak weather gets too closely linked to climate change. Or, rather, when freak weather becomes the only time we feel concern over the slow, gradual damage we are doing to the planet.
Why do I worry?
Because weather is only a day-to-day thing, and even if we got CO2 down to a perfect number of parts-per-million, freak weather would still be a once-every-couple-of-years thing. All the while, we live with our climate every day. Even on the pleasant days of scattered clouds and warm temperatures, our finely-tuned Earth is being knocked out of equilibrium. Icecaps and glaciers are disappearing from the only place they belong, while deserts are popping up where they should not be. With sea levels rising and coral reefs dying, the equivalent of dozens of frankenstorms are happening gradually each year, and (thanks to the hard work of numerous scientists) in plain sight (although we are too self-absorbed to see it).
Because some years ago I spent three weeks in New Orleans and the surrounding area. From that experience, I still flinch at the environmentalist take-over of the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster, best epitomized by the hurricane-out-of-smokestacks poster for Al Gore’s 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth. Yes, there may have been some truth in the hypothesis that global warming supercharged Katrina. But it was not rising sea temperatures so much as poor levee design and incompetent government response – all wrapped up in a tangle of racism and poverty – which took thousands of American lives.
And because the troubling possibility that if the most creative, sustainable way to mobilize the masses around the challenges of climate change is through freak weather phenomena, then climate activists are bound to get caught in a catch-22: to create positive change, they will need to place their hope in tragedies. And not just any tragedy, but tragedies that are well-timed (for example, near the end of presidential elections characterized by climate silence) and well-placed (would we be having this conversation if the same storm struck China?).
Some of you may know that recently I have been pondering the possibility of what it would like if the church were to save the planet from the worst of climate change. Let me outline my head-heart-hands argument that, for Christians (if not everybody), it should not take a frankenstorm to realize that something should be done about climate change.
Christians, especially evangelical Christians, have had a tenuous relationship with science in the midst of the last century’s so-called “culture wars.” But a number of scholars have seen a positive connection between the monotheistic, biblical world view (for example, that God has placed us within a rational, ordered cosmos governed by laws of cause and effect) and the historical rise of modern science.
As Christians, we know that there are simply some big questions about life and significance that science alone cannot answer. But we also know that there are questions which science does have the answer to – ranging from the low-budget high school science experiment to the highly ambitious attempts to model what climate change is and what it looks to be. And those ambitious models are remarkably consistent: even on days the weather is nice outside, our climate is under duress.
Some scientists find cures and are celebrated. Others point out urgent problems in society, but society in turn mocks them for their efforts, not unlike how the prophet Jeremiah was persecuted. Therefore, we can ask ourselves: upon hearing difficult news, would Jesus shoot the messengers?
Christians are called to seek after the welfare of the poor, the orphaned, the vulnerable. So when faith-based international relief organizations like World Vision and Bread for the World make major statements on how climate change is impacting the communities and nations they seek to do work in, Christians need to perk up and listen closely.
The worldwide poor are affected by climate change, not just when frankenstorms hit, but throughout the whole year. Climate change almost always hits the poor the hardest, because they lack the means to adapt to their changing environment (in fact, the super-rich have the obnoxious luxury of thinking how they can benefit from climate change).
Loving the poor through climate action is clearly abstract. We won’t directly see the smiles we might witness in a soup kitchen or through a mission trip. While there is something significant from these ministries of presence, ultimately loving the poor has never truly been about the “warm fuzzy feeling,” but rather part of the radical call of discipleship given to us by our Savior.
Everything I have said so far would be moot if it was not for the fact that Christians are not merely hearers, but doers. We see good work as the expression of our faith’s vitality.
It takes some care to see how a tough, 1st century text like the Sermon on the Mount translates into a call to action for the tough, 21st century reality of global warming. But at the end of Jesus’ speech comes the parable of the wise man who built his house upon a rock – and, in our case, the message works both figuratively and literally.
Unlike his foolish downshore neighbor, who built a house upon sand, the wise man built a house that was able to withstand rains and floods and wind. This is what climate action looks like: instead of picking up pieces after the storm, taking the appropriate action now. Instead of serving quick profits, making the responsible sacrifices to ensure our planet’s sustainability not just for our generation but for our grandchildren’s generation. The decisions that ensure our planet’s integrity, to the glory of the God of all creation.
None of the above will not be easy, but that is not a excuse.
I sincerely hope that Hurricane Sandy was a wake-up call, not just for the American people but also for our politicians and our news media and our risk-adverse investment bankers. But I also realize that to create a world more resilient to freak weather, it is going to take a well-rooted movement to counteract the slow, strong creep of climate change, a movement that exists regardless of how pleasant the weather is.
It is my belief that the church cannot afford to miss out on being a part of that movement, nor can the planet cannot afford the church to stand by idly.
Right now, there is work to be done in Hurricane Sandy’s – and yesterday’s nor’easter‘s – aftermath. Covenant World Relief, an organization I did my college internship with, has set up a fund to help storm victims.
But after the band-aids have been applied, we will need to redirect our energies towards climate change.
First off, there is the lifestyle stuff. Like winterizing your house and driving less and turning off the lights when you aren’t using them. Consider having a green resolution for New Years.
But it is going to require a coordinated effort, stronger than the sum individual willpower of a couple of hippies and hippie-wannabes, to make a dent versus climate.
Where to start?
Your church (or other religious community) may be a good place. Don’t be afraid if you think your church is not all that into climate issues: if 100 people don’t care but 5 people do, you have the foundation for a ministry (trust me, I work in a church. I know how this happens).
Also, now that the the election is over, go find out who your elected officials are. Not just the president, who has enough on his plate, but also (and perhaps more effectively) your representatives and senators. Stay informed. You don’t have to “like” them on Facebook, but you can at least engage them on Twitter. (Remember, our do-nothing Congress had a single-digit approval rating this last go-around, but if you don’t know who represents you how can you expect to keep them accountable?)
And while we are talking about social media, perhaps it would not be a bad idea to add some of these as a regular part of your news feed: Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, Evangelical Environmental Network, Catholic Climate Covenant and Interfaith Power and Light.
And buy tickets to 350.org’s Do the Math event, so you can be informed and network with other like-minded people committing themselves to climate action. You can bet I’ll be at the one later this month in Chicago – regardless of the weather.