Theology of Climate Change 3. Scoping the problem
Human activity has led to significant increases in Green House Gas (GHG) emissions, which have changed the earth’s energy balance. As a result, average global temperatures are rising and this is leading to climate change. Paul Crutzen, a Nobel prizewinning chemist, and the biologist Eugene Stoermer have suggested the term Anthropocene (anthropo – human; cene – new or recent) to describe the current geological era, reflecting the human impact on the earth’s biosphere. Although it has not been adopted by official bodies it is now in widespread use.
Stephen Gardiner, Prof of Philosophy at Washington University, writes about climate change saying that “humanity is in the grip of a profound ethical challenge that our current institutions and theories are ill-equipped to meet.” There are three major challenges that inter-link: It is genuinely global, it is intergenerational and it occurs within a setting in which we lack relevant theories and institutions to guide us. More specifically:
- Although every cause is local, its effect is not restricted to its locality, the causes and effects of climate change are widely dispersed.
- There is no single political structure that can address it
- There are no mechanisms for enforcing sanctions.
- The effects are temporarily deferred, so there is little incentive for present generations to act and there is a weakness in the cost-benefit analysis that tries to address this.
Climate change is described as a “tragedy of the commons” in which each nation will act to protect the interests of its citizens and, in so doing, bring about global catastrophe. The debate largely ignores the fact that those least responsible for past emissions are likely to suffer the most serious impacts in the short- to medium-term since they have lower adaptive capacity and tend to be located in more climate-sensitive regions.
The temporal aspect of climate change is that, once emitted, GHGs tend to persist for hundreds or thousands of years, therefore the current generation may realise short-term benefits but the costs will persist far into the future. Many of the benefits are relatively modest (larger cars) but the costs are potentially catastrophic (severe flooding and famine). Furthermore, the dilemma is iterated for each generation, which faces the same choices of short-term benefits versus longer-term costs, creating cumulative future impacts. We simply lack robust theories in inter-generational ethics, global justice and our relationship to nature that will help us to decide how to act. As a result, public discourse is easily undermined and the victims (the very poor, the not yet born or the non-human) lack a voice.
Initial theological responses – i. An environmental concern
At first, theological writing in response to climate change tended to treat it as an adjunct to the church’s teaching on the environment. One criticism of this approach was that the environment was rarely viewed as something that was central to the Gospel, but a bolt-on to personal salvation in which humans were enjoined to show some responsibility. Such an approach emphasised concepts such as “stewardship”, though this is largely inferred rather than stated in the Bible. Genesis uses words such as “dominion” or “rule” (Gen 1:26) and “tilling and keeping” (Gen 2:15). These passages suggest that it is human responsibility that is important. Philosophers of the Enlightenment tended to emphasise nature’s subservience to human need. Francis Bacon invited humans to treat nature as its “slave” whilst Kant understood humanity’s relationship to nature as that of a “judge” exercising rational and moral judgement over its use.
Theologically, although the land might ultimately belong to God and not to us (Ps 24), conservation has been viewed as a Christian duty that is imposed upon us. The Greek oikonomos (economy), which stands behind the concept of stewardship, implies being given property to manage. This also suggests that the natural environment is believed to be something that is quite distinct from us – an object to be managed. God might speak to us through nature (the rainbow after the flood, the burning bush, the darkness at the crucifixion), but this is incidental to the fundamental understanding that we basically exist in a hierarchical relationship: God – Man – Nature
Climate change can be understood as the result of human disobedience in a collective failure to be faithful stewards, coupled with our “sin” through adopting profligate lifestyles.
One major shortfall to this approach is that environmental concerns are often marginalised within theology and the church. Even when ecological suffering is explored, rarely do Christian environmentalists give as much weight to the human suffering that also results from environmental degradation and the injustice of denying people access to environmental benefits. In more extreme cases the evangelical stress on personal salvation simply relegates the environment to something that is relatively unimportant. One of the most extreme examples was the view that as the world was going to end anyway, why make it a cause of concern? James G Watt, President Reagan’s first Interior Secretary in 1981, remarked to Congress:
“God gave us these things (the environment) to use. After the last tree is felled, Christ will come back!”
The evangelical right wing, massively influential in American politics, tended to view environmentalists with suspicion, as people who flirted with pantheism (where God and Creation are identical) and who were trying to prevent economic growth. Moreover, even mainstream environmental theology tended to view the environment as something which existed in a pre-human state, i.e. something that was pristine (natural) which needed to be maintained as such. The reality is that most of the modern environment, except in virtually inaccessible locations, is already the product of human actions.
Part of the problem therefore lies with theology itself, or at least in the biblical language of “dominion” (Gen 1:26) and “subdue” (Gen 1:28) which has been interpreted as legitimising exploitation without consideration for the welfare of other creatures. Lynn White Jr wrote in very influential paper, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”, published in 1974, that:
“(Christianity) not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends….Man’s effective monopoly…was confirmed and the old inhibitions to the exploitation of nature crumbled…Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.”
However White was not arguing from an atheistic perspective, he applauds the (failed) alternative vision presented by St Francis of Assisi and comments:
“What people do about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to things around them. Human ecology is deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destiny – that is by religion….More science and more technology are not going to get us out of the present ecological crisis until we find a new religion, or rethink our old one.”
Michael Northcott, in “A Political Theology of Climate Change”, talks about the “separations” or “pulling apart” that started with Francis Bacon’s seventeenth century mechanistic view of nature. God was separated from the world; matter was separated from mind and spirit; nature from culture; science from ethics; facts from values. Others put the origins of this separation much earlier, at the end of the Medieval period, but what is at issue is a fracturing of the triangle of relationships between God, humanity and the earth and therefore a fracturing of the Christian understanding of humanity serving under God and caring for the world. This separation also led to what has been described as “extractionism”, a dominance-based relationship in which we place ourselves above ecosystems and treat the earth as inanimate. Climate Change occurs because of this separation and therefore posits a fundamental question concerning the relationships between humanity, the rest of the created order, and God.
Initial theological responses – ii. An issue of justice
Another approach was to see climate change as predominantly an issue related to development and social justice, on the understanding that the most suffering from climate change impacts would be felt by those who had done least to cause it and who had fewest resources with which to respond. This was not just about poor people in poor countries, but also true of poor people in rich countries. This theological response was constructed on the Gospel’s bias to the poor (e.g. Isa 61, Luke 4:18-19) and a duty to care for the weaker members of society (Deut 24:21, Matt 25:31-46).
In this approach, climate change demanded two responses:
- Recognising the link between human induced global warming and poverty
- Formulating a just response
In general, however, climate change was viewed as something that was bad largely because it inhibited economic growth, and the goal was to overcome the inhibition. Thus the Stern Review stated:
“Tackling climate change is the pro-growth strategy for the longer term, and it can be done in a way that does not cap the aspirations for growth of rich or poor countries.”
This is not an approach that challenges the underlying paradigms of the global economy: global growth, competitiveness etc. However, this challenge is increasingly being seen as necessary since it is recognised that to achieve stable emissions requires more than simply tweaking the existing model. It requires a fundamental re-assessment of our economy and an emphasis on prophetic alternatives. As Nazmul Chowdury writes (quoted in Christian Aid, 2014):
“Forget about making poverty history. Climate change will make poverty permanent.”
The need to change the Paradigm
To tackle climate change Sallie McFague and other theologians argue that we must both critique the economic models that underpin the global economy and our self-understanding:
“This crisis demands that we live differently, but the problem is ourselves, the view we have of ourselves and how we live in the world.”
Climate change is telling us that the “anthropology” we currently hold (our view of ourselves) is dangerous to us and the planet. Our dominant religious view is that we are individuals in relation to God – and this view is shared with the prevailing economic model that the “economic person” of market capitalism fuels the economy, together with a political imperative that stresses the individual voter. This creates a powerful agreement for a basic anthropology of individualism, but this is perceived to be causing the problem. In McFague’s view, we need to move from anthropocentrism (a focus on ourselves as masters) to cosmopocentrism (a focus on the planet as our place of abode) and therefore religion needs to provide a major transformation of what it means to be human on a finite planet.
John Zizioulis, the Metropolitan of Pergammon, suggests that rather than thinking of ourselves as stewards of creation we should consider ourselves as priests of creation. We are organically and inseparably linked with the natural world and we are also capable of creating something new as we alone are created in the image of God (Imago Dei, Gen 1:26). Many theologians understood Gen 1:26 to mean that man alone possessed rationality (logos) but, as Zizioulis points out, Logos or rationality was mainly to do “with the capacity of the human being to collect what is diversified and even fragmented in the world and make a beautiful and harmonious world (cosmos) out of that. Rationality was not, as it came to be understood later, simply a capacity to reason with one’s mind.”
Addressing the ethics of will – how serious are we?
One of the features of the Church’s response (which mirrors that of society generally) is that there has been considerable discussion but little real change. In the Christian Aid publication “Song of the Prophets” (2014) Prof Jesse Mugambi wrote of the plethora of meetings, conferences, statements etc that the ecumenical church had engaged in since the 1970s. He concluded:
“The refusal to change………..is NOT because of ignorance about what ought to be done, but rather, because of the power relations that remain unchanged, resulting from the dominant political, economic and missionary history.”
We know what to do, but we singularly fail to do it. The problem is an “ethics of will”. Where does the failure come from and how do we overcome it?
Tim Gorringe (Professor of Theology at Exeter) posits whether climate change should be a confessional issue for the church. In the post-Reformation Protestant churches the Formula of Concord (1577) drew a distinction between adiaphora – things which were not essential to faith – and things that were essential to being a Christian. These were formulated in a series of “confessions”. But confessions also rose in response to external events, for example:
- In 1930 the Lutheran Hans Asmussen responded to Nazi-ism in what became the Barmen Confession (1934) as the basis for the confessing church which opposed Hitler
- The 1977 Lutheran World Federation agreed that apartheid was a confessional issue and called on white churches in South Africa to reject it.
- In 1986 Ulrich Ducrow published a manifesto that argued that the global economy was a confessional issue.
This approach has certain characteristics:
- Confession is a response to an emergency that touches at the heart of what it means to be the church. It is not peripheral, but central to our understanding of what discipleship means.
- It is specific, as Bonhoeffer wrote of the Confession at Barmen that it was:
“the decision of the church, based upon its entire doctrine, to take up the struggle at a particular place.”
- Whilst it begins with an acknowledgement of guilt of complicity and a call to repentance, it is not essentially judgemental but a creative response.
However, as the Lutheran World Federation stated:
“Confessional subscription is more than a formal acknowledgement of doctrine. Churches which have signed the confessions of the church thereby commit themselves to show through their daily witness and service that the gospel has empowered them to live as people of God.”
If we are serious about our commitment to social justice, and the future health and wellbeing of the planet, we must be prepared to champion and live the alternative.