Climate change and the Christian

Is global warming the end of the world or media scare-mongering?

Global warming is often seen as either the end of the world as we know it, or as mere media scare-mongering. Which is right?

Could it be that I, a respectable Christian, am partly to blame? Might I need to change the way I live? Before we search for climate changes, we ought first to understand what it is that might be changing.

The climate system is made up of the earth's atmosphere, oceans, ice, vegetation, and streams. It is both beautiful and complex. Humans have a mandate to forecast its behaviour and use it (Genesis 1:28). However, we feel in awe of its destructive potential, seen in such things as hurricanes and floods, which are part of the curse inflicted upon the earth following the Fall (Genesis 3.17). Moreover, control and certainty belong to God alone (Job 38-41). So there is a possibility that our actions may affect the climate system in unexpected ways. It was claimed in the 1970s that the earth might be about to enter an ice age. The evidence for this was minimal, but the decades of painstaking research that have followed the 1970s have unveiled both the natural variability in the climate system, and the dramatic effects of human actions.

To assemble a record of global climate changes over the last 150 years we use instrumental records, such as rain gauges and thermometers. Since it is only recently that such instruments have been widely used, to reconstruct climate changes prior to the 19th century we are compelled to use indirect sources of information, such as tree ring widths and ice core layers.

Using this mixture of data, we have assembled global temperature records for the last millennium. There is much natural variability throughout the records, but there is also a 20th-century rise in global temperature that is unprecedented in its magnitude and rate of change. Is it merely a coincidence that this global warming has come at the same time as the huge expansion in human population and industrialisation that we have seen in the 20th century?

Climate gases

It is conceivable that humans could alter the behaviour of the climate system by polluting it. The more relevant pollutants of the atmosphere may be divided into three groups: greenhouse gases, aerosols, and ozone-destroying chemicals. Although the destruction of ozone and the 'ozone holes' play their part in global warming, it is a comparatively minor part. Ozone holes are more directly important for their potential biological damage to living cells and human skin, which is beyond the scope of this article.

The role of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is to absorb energy (in the form of infra-red radiation) that would otherwise be lost from the earth, and so maintain the warmth of the earth. Greenhouse gases are nothing new, but the amount of carbon dioxide (the principal greenhouse gas) in the atmosphere has increased by 30% since the Industrial Revolution. The increase is mainly due to land use changes, and the combustion of fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, coal, petrol, diesel) in power stations, transport, homes, and industry. The vast majority of the increase has come from the West. It is to be expected that increasing the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will increase the greenhouse effect, and so warm the earth.

Aerosols, the third group, are microscopic airborne particles that result from burning of fossil fuels. They are different from the greenhouse gases in a number of ways: they act to cool the earth; they are short-lived; and they are concentrated in regions. However, the cooling from aerosols is unlikely to offset the warming from greenhouse gases.

Climate models

Exploring the possibility that humans are warming the earth uses climate models run on some of the world's most powerful computers. Findings show that although solar, volcanic, and oceanic forces upon climate have been important, they are not sufficient to explain the warming of the 20th century. It is only when we include human pollution that we can explain the magnitude, rate, and pattern of change. Consequently, the consensus among scientists is that 'the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate'.

Climate futures

At present the effect of human pollution on climate is relatively small. However, humans are polluting the earth at an ever-increasing rate. So unless substantive positive action is taken soon, the effects of human pollution on climate will become very great. Moreover, due to the time lags in the climate system, even our present actions are having consequences that our grandchildren will still be feeling. We are already committed to seeing global sea levels rise by half a metre during the 21st century. This is quite apart from the unknown risk of a catastrophic collapse of the Antarctic ice sheet. Our best estimate of global warming during the 21st century is 2 degrees C, which far exceeds the record increase of 0.4-0.6 degrees C in the 20th century. The exact climatic effects in any one region will depend strongly on how the global changes affect the circulations of the atmosphere and the oceans, and are difficult to predict. It is also uncertain how climatic extremes - such as hurricanes - will change. What is certain is that environments and humans will be affected the world over. There is no evidence to support tabloid headlines anticipating a Costa del Bognor or the end of the world as we know it, but neither will the impacts be small. On BBC Radio 4's 'Costing the Earth' programme in January, the Bangladeshi Environment Minister mentioned the expected global sea level rise. She explained that crowded Bangladesh expects to lose around 20% of its land to sea level rises. She noted that this would make 20 million people homeless, and stated that it would be the responsibility of the rich of the world to find room for them, since it is the rich who have polluted the earth. Bangladesh is an extreme example, but there will be an abundance of difficult consequences of climate change.

Climate politics

The issues involved are serious, and of global concern. Consequently, in 1988 the IPCC (the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change) was set up to advise all countries of the latest scientific findings. The IPCC produces consensus reports that represent agreement between thousands of scientists worldwide, and have an authority that individual scientists cannot hold. Guided by these reports, 180 countries have ratified the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change), which aims at the 'stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system'. The convention has no power except persuasion. However, in 1997 the Kyoto protocol was signed in which it was agreed that, relative to 1990 levels, there should be a 5% cut in annual emissions of greenhouse gases by the period 2008-2012. This does not mean that all is now well.

Firstly, thus far the Kyoto protocol has only been signed, not ratified, and there is substantial doubt as to whether the key player (the USA) will ratify it. Secondly, a 5% cut is a minor cut, not the major cut that is required. Thirdly, the cut is in emissions, not in atmospheric concentrations, and so only slows down the rate at which concentrations are increasing. Fourthly, it is one matter to agree to a cut, it is another matter to implement it. The UK Environment Minister, Michael Meacher, has described the Kyoto protocol as 'a first, modest, faltering step' .

There is no perfect level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and there is no perfect global temperature. Both vary naturally. However, the changes we are introducing through our pollution are morally questionable because of their consequences. Put simply, in the rich part of the world we have polluted in order to get rich. Yet the most severe consequences are likely to fall upon the poor, because they usually cannot afford to adapt. This introduces two parallel ethical issues.

Firstly, now that we know the consequences, should we continue to pollute? Secondly, given that we may be responsible for hurting our fellow humans, should we help them? To my mind, the Scriptures are clear. Humans are stewards, not masters, of God's creation (Genesis 2.15), and one day we will have to account for our stewardship (Luke 19.11-27). While it is not wrong to change the atmosphere, it is wrong to change it more than we need, certainly if it is at the expense of poor people. Making money at the expense of the weak is condemned (Luke 20.47), and to assist the weak is praised (James 1.27). Yet continuing as we are will make us richer at the expense of the poor. Given that we have stolen from the poor of the world by our pollution, we might learn from Zacchaeus (Luke 19.8). In our selfish world, each state pursues its own interests.

Oil-producing states lobby for unrestricted combustion of fossil fuels. Rich states only accept reductions in greenhouse gases that will not hurt their economic interests. Poor countries demand free help from the rich. Christians in politics ought not to think in this way.

Climate action

What can individual Christians do? Some, but not many, are called to be scientists and politicians. However, we all have the vote, and environmental issues ought to be among those that we weigh up carefully before casting our vote. We are also each responsible for a small part of the daily emissions of greenhouse gases. Do we use our energy-intensive cars wisely? Are we guilty of worldly attitudes to public transport? With domestic heating and insulation, do we spend more and pollute more than is necessary? The government urges us to reduce our energy usage so that we may indulge ourselves in other ways, but we have a higher motive for reducing waste (1 Timothy 6.17-19). Although I have yet to see any evidence that climate change is a sign of Christ's imminent return, human pollution is clearly another of the birth pangs of creation, as it eagerly awaits being delivered from the bondage of corruption (Romans. 19-22).

Tim Mitchell works at the Climactic Research Unit, UEA, Norwich, and is a member of South Park Evangelical Church.

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