Evangelicals and Climate Change

Evangelicals believe Psalm 24:1, which says, “The earth
is the Lord's and all that is in it!”

Should evangelicals have anything to say about climate change? Some might suggest that it is not a topic of concern for evangelicals. Others might see it as a matter of science beyond the expertise of non-experts. Still others might be concerned that it is an intrusion into politics.

But here are five reasons why evangelicals should be involved in what is said and done with regard to climate change.

1. Climate change has a significant theological dimension of interest to evangelicals. Evangelicals, along with other Christians, worship the creator God who made all things “good.” They believe that “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” (Psalm 24:1). They know that God not only entered into a special relationship with humanity, but also with the creatures of the world (Genesis 9:8-13).

Consequently, evangelicals have a fundamental theological reason for caring about the effects of climate change. This is reinforced by the fact that God gave humanity a particular responsibility to tend and care for animals and the rest of the world. Evangelicals are also keenly aware that God’s love for the whole world is seen in the fact that he will redeem it through Jesus Christ. The expectation of a renewed creation is an encouragement to Christians to actively care for the present world, its people and the natural environment. Not to care about the world which God loves is an offense to God and his far-reaching purposes. Evangelicals who are especially concerned about redemption should be clearly aware of the value which God attributes to his world.

2. Climate change has a moral dimension which calls for repentance and change. Evangelicals are very aware of the need for faith and are opposed to any sort of nominalism. They preach the biblical notion that “faith without works is dead” and are strong on calling for repentance. Consequently, evangelicals should be aware that as inhabitants of God’s world we all need to seek forgiveness for the occasions when we have treated it as our own and for the times we have inappropriately exploited and polluted the world without thought for others both present and future. Repentance involves turning away from those things that have unnecessarily contributed to global warming.

Loving our neighbour means taking a global focus and recognising that those who are wealthier bear more responsibility for producing greenhouse gases while those who are poorer suffer more from the effects due to their lesser ability to deal with them. Evangelicals in wealthier countries should note that they are creating a pollution which is hurting their brothers and sisters in poorer counties. Can evangelicals in countries such as the United States (the greatest emitter of greenhouse gases) or Australia (the highest per capita emitter of greenhouse gases) or Europe not give a thought to their brethren in Tuvalu (the first climate change refugees) or East Africa (where malaria will increase)?

James 2:15-17 reads, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet does not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” Evangelical faith without practical action is dead.

3. The evangelical witness concerns the whole of life. If evangelicals believe that helping people to follow Jesus is central to life then it is important to follow him in everything, and he was involved in people’s lives as a whole. We do not find him ignoring the fact that a man was blind because he wanted to save his soul. Nor did he neglect the hungry or refuse to speak about money, economics or matters of state. Jesus took a holistic view of life, and climate change is about life on earth.

Evangelicals can make a significant contribution to societies which have become narrow and self-centred in their life focus. Recent debate about climate change in Australia, for instance, has not centred on the validity of the scientific assessment (which is broadly accepted) but on an apparent conflict between the needs of the environment and our global neighbours on the one hand, and the preservation of the strength of the economy on the other. For many, an increasing concern for economic growth means a diminished concern for the good of others. But a narrow, economic view of life which is focussed upon national economic interests, or which views the natural world in a purely utilitarian way, is morally and theologically deficient.

Evangelical witness needs the credibility of a
Church which demonstrates concern for the world
and for people with integrity and passion.

Addressing climate change issues with greater energy and efficiency could actually be economically beneficial. As it has been said, the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment. In addition, operating from a global perspective will certainly be advantageous in terms of security issues (allowing climate change to develop could be one of the most diplomatically de-stablising events in history). Evangelical witness in the world needs the credibility of a Church which demonstrates concern for the world and for people with integrity and passion.

4. Evangelicals are part of the global community. We can argue a case for involvement in action on climate change by evangelicals simply on the basis of our common humanity. Evangelicals are human beings, a part of the global community with commonly accepted rights and responsibilities. It is foolish to leave the problem to someone else. Those in developing countries sometimes say, “Leave it to the developed world—after all, they caused most of the problems.” Those in small nations say, “It’s no use for us to do anything; it must be left to the highly-populated countries.” Others will say it is the responsibility of those that have the highest rate of pollution. Community groups want governments to act. Governments can blame business. And many businesses would rather the focus of attention fall on the responsibility of individuals. All attempts to avoid responsibility for what is a matter of universal concern lack integrity. Evangelicals cannot say, “This does not concern us.” It is an issue which requires a whole-of-society response.

Evangelicals can work with other Christians and those of other religions in promoting understanding about climate change. Common Belief: Australia's Faith Communities on Climate Change (available in pdf form from www.climateinstitute.org.au) is an example of this. Although theological differences can make common statements difficult, in this document we find nine Christian statements and seven statements from other religions which indicate a high degree of unanimity concerning the moral aspects of dealing with climate change.

5. Human-induced climate change is real, urgent and reversible. It has not been possible to deny the overwhelming scientific consensus concerning human-induced global warming since the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2001. Thousands of the world’s best scientists from a wide range of disciplines contributed to the finding. Since the report, other independent bodies around the world have examined the findings and more recent evidence has only accentuated the urgency of the issue. There is now no reasonable doubt either that climate change is happening or that a large part of global warming is human-induced.

This claim is controversial to some, but to others it is the scepticism which is startling! Some countries have been subject to overly-politicised and commercially-influenced public debates which have cast doubt over what is a large-scale scientific consensus. Indeed, this data does not fit the consensus paradigm and the persistence of alternative views by some individuals or groups. Inevitably, given the scope of the research, there will be some contrary evidence and scientists are entitled to debate the way it should be interpreted. And those who dissent from the consensus (perhaps one to two percent; some suggesting the situation has been understated, and other that it has been overstated) fulfil an important role in helping ensure that decisions are made with integrity. In the end, however, the overall consensus is striking and it extends to agreement concerning the goals that need to be achieved.

The question of how much of a temperature increase is “too much” is subjective (the people of Tuvalu have a good argument to say it has already been too much!), but the worst scenarios (involving ocean levels rising, increases in tropical diseases, loss of drinking water, alteration to local climates, etc.) which affect large numbers of people need to be avoided. And the scientific evidence which connects greenhouse gas emissions with climate change is the same evidence which indicates that the goal for developed nations should be in the order of a sixty percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from year 2000 levels by 2050. It makes no sense to accept the conclusions about the present reality of climate change and not accept the conclusions about the necessary goals for rectifying it as they are based on the same evidence.

Debate about the methods for achieving this goal is essential and there are a variety of proposals. However, the urgency of the matter must be recognised. Early action is imperative. In environmental matters, the “Precautionary Principle” is well understood. It was developed in Europe where it has been necessary to deal with serious environmental issues across national borders since the 1960s. This principle says that where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing remedial measures. The evidence in regard to the effects of human-induced climate change, while not one hundred percent certain, is extremely strong. Waiting for definitive, unambiguous certainty means not operating according to the best evidence but according to some far less likely, unreasonably optimistic scenario. It means we would have to wait until after decisive and dangerous events have already occurred. It is a process which risks much and possibly achieves little.

This urgency can be matched with optimism based on the observation that the worst scenarios can be avoided at relatively little or no cost. Changes will have to occur, but some will have other benefits. Waiting to address these issues will simply mean more cost in the long run. The United Kingdom’s Stern report argues that globally the cost is a manageable one percent of global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) each year. The Australian Business Roundtable on Climate Change (a consortium of major oil, insurance and banking companies) indicates that the necessary cuts in emissions could be achieved in Australia (one of the world’s worst per capita polluters) with policies that would only reduce economic growth from 2.2% to 2.1%. In other words, living standards and income can continue to rise strongly while responding positively to climate change.

Moving Forward
These theological, moral and practical arguments all indicate the appropriateness of evangelical action on climate change. Indeed, for evangelicals such action is:

  • a function of responsible stewardship
  • an expression of respect for God
  • a demonstration of care for the natural world
  • an act of love for our global neighbours
  • an illustration of an authentic Christian lifestyle
  • a reflection of our own spiritual life

If we have no care for God’s world or God’s people we become estranged from our innermost purpose. The destruction of the environment is connected with our own alienation from God. A failure to care for the world is a lack of care for our own souls. As it has been said, the new deserts of our world are a reflection of our own souls.

Dr. Brian Edgar is director of public theology for the Australian Evangelical Alliance. He is also a member of the World Evangelical Alliance Theological Commission and one of the authors of the Lausanne Occasional Paper on Bioethics.