When I was growing up — I’m now 62 — we often sang the gospel song “I’ve got a Home in Gloryland that Outshines the Sun.” We didn’t think much about the words, but the song was fun to sing. The reference seemed to have been about heaven — a perfect place of pearly gates, streets paved in gold and angels strumming on harps — but it didn’t say much about how to get there.
Too often our conversations about climate change have felt like “Gloryland.” We can envision a solution to the worst of climate change, a sustainable future for the world. And we can envision the alternative, a world ravaged by rising temperatures and tides and environmental destruction. But we're never very clear about how we’ll end up at either end and how we can choose between the two options. Hopefully it’s different this time.
The Paris Climate Change Conference (COP21) was organized to garner worldwide support for measures to slow and even reverse climate change and to address consequences that appear to be inevitable. The conference, which concluded on December 12, produced an agreement ratified by nearly 200 nations, including the US. The agreement sets targets for maximum worldwide temperature change, for amounts of greenhouse gases nations are willing to cut and for creating several funds for poorer countries to draw from when dealing with the economic consequences of climate change. The US must be a major player for the agreement to be successful, considering both our contribution to atmospheric greenhouse gases and the strength and size of our economy. As President Obama said in his final State of the Union address: “When we lead nearly 200 nations to the most ambitious agreement in history to fight climate change — that helps vulnerable countries, but it also protects our children.” Yet, despite the support of President Obama, the American public is deeply divided on the subject. Some simply deny that it’s happening. Others, although less skeptical, aren’t convinced that it’s a serious problem or that there are measures that would make a difference. It is clear that we need a new politics around the environment if we are to achieve a lasting solution to climate change.
I believe that new politics exists between the two communities I call home: the environmentalist and the evangelical Christian. Evangelicals have traditionally skeptical of the environmental movement, too often labels like “tree huggers” or “granolas” or worse are tossed around in our conversations. As a result, many Americans from other faith traditions as well as those who don’t identify with any community of faith, tend to pigeonhole all evangelicals as being anti-environment. But in truth many in evangelical churches and denominations care deeply for the environment — God’s creation. Personally, as a science teacher, I’ve been studying and teaching about such topics for my entire career.
Thus, there exists a need for environmentally minded Evangelicals to address two different audiences on these topics, particularly now, in light of the accelerating pace of climate change. One audience, the American public — and particularly our political leaders — need to hear that many evangelicals are demanding progress in addressing climate change. This is not news, but it too often goes ignored. For example, a delegation from my denomination attended the recent climate talks in Paris and worked to mobilize hundreds of us back in the U.S. to support COP21 in 35 different congregations. And yet too many in politics, the media and the environmental movement, still presume that Evangelicals oppose efforts to address climate change.
But, of course, Evangelicals also have to do more. My fellow evangelicals, need to know more of the facts of climate change and how it will likely affect them, but also of our Christian duty to Creation and all God’s children. Climate change is affecting poor people now. The Bible makes it very clear that God has a special concern for the poor and that the followers of Christ should too. Our faith demands that we not let God’s creation be so irreversibly destroyed.
One of the ironies of climate change is that in the parts of the world that many of those nations that contribute the least to climate change, particularly in Africa and small island countries, people are experiencing the direst consequences. We in industrialized countries have caused the problem, but are protected from its worst effects — at least for now. Therefore, it should make sense to American Christians that wealthier countries would be asked to do more than nations that are poor. As Luke 12:48 indicates: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (NRSV). Evangelicals need to set aside their political loyalties and press candidates from both sides of the aisle to take seriously the facts that scientists have been telling us and what we are now seeing with our own eyes. This is just one example of the new political perspective we can reach by combining our environmental aspirations and our religious sensibilities.
And in fact this has been happening. Three churches from the Christian Reformed Church in the Denver area have dug into the issue of climate change. Perhaps as more people, Christians and non-Christians alike, listen and learn, public opinion will push our leaders to take this issue seriously.