We declare clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency and that the world’s people face untold suffering due to the climate crisis unless there are major transformations to global society. (Article in Bioscience endorsed by 11,000 scientists from 153 nations, 5 November 2019)
This report is code red for humanity. The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable: emissions from fossil fuel burning … are putting billions of people at immediate risk. (Antonio Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations, 9 August 2021)
Mr Guterres was responding to the sixth report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published on that very day. It was based on more than 14,000 scientific papers and its summary was agreed to line-by-line by 195 governments, who thus agreed that its main thrust is ‘unequivocal’ (i.e. undeniable).
Some believers seek to distance themselves from the ‘alarmism’ which they think statements such as that above involve. For example, James Mildred, of CARE, did just that in his article ‘Christians and green politics’ (en December 2021), despite the fact that alarm almost invariably characterises the assessments of most leading scientists and reputable commentators in relation to the climate and wildlife ‘crises’. Although Greta Thunberg’s ‘I want you to panic’ is not consistent with Christian faith, it is worth noting that the Bible provides us with several examples when it is appropriate and necessary to ‘sound an alarm’ (e.g. Joel 2.1; Jer. 4.5). That said, some of James Mildred’s other comments are to be commended: ‘We should not allow such concerns to … crowd out other important aspects of life and faith’ and that, in the New Creation, ‘we will be at peace with the environment and with all around us’.
In my experience, the objection to the stark warnings about the climate crisis most frequently cited by believers involves God’s promise to Noah: As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, etc., will never cease (Gen.8:22). And the argument goes: ‘To a real evangelical, God’s Word should trump everything!’ Well, no, not if a single verse has been ‘cherry picked’ to buttress complacency, ignoring the many other passages which qualify its application! We delude ourselves if we think we can take the promise of God’s faithfulness to infer that He will invariably shield us from harm if we flout His directives. Indeed, the Bible clearly teaches otherwise: ‘Her rich men are violent, her people are liars … Therefore you will plant but not harvest’ (Mic. 6, 12-15 – see also Isa. 24, 4-6; Mic.7,13; 1 Kings 17.1, 18.1). We must combine the promises of God’s Word with its warnings.
So is the promise to Noah ‘unconditional’, as is often claimed? No, of course it isn’t – there can be no harvest unless human beings sow and reap, for example! This implied condition reminds us that we’re required to play our part in the fulfilment of the promise, and – this is crucial – it’s a consequence of the commission to humanity through Adam, to ‘work the earth and take care of it.’ (Gen. 2,15) So, no work, no harvest!
But there’s also the requirement to ‘care’ for creation, and a dramatic illustration of a failure to do so is provided by the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, which covers about 1,000 square miles in Ukraine and whose radioactive contamination makes it off-limits to ‘seedtime and harvest’. Similarly, according to Tearfund, farmland in Bangladesh is being damaged by its contamination with salt linked to rising sea levels, in turn resulting from global heating caused by our pollution of the atmosphere by CO2.
The examples cited above show how failure to care for creation can limit the area available for cultivation. In the future, global heating may reduce it by 20% or (God forbid!) much more, depending, humanly speaking, on the extent we allow emissions to continue unchecked. Whatever the case, the fault will lie not in any lack of faithfulness on the Lord’s part, but in the way humanity has wantonly pillaged His creation.
Anyone tempted to criticise what they consider to be the ‘alarmism’ of warnings about climate change should read the ‘Special Report’ of the IPCC in 2018. Truly shocking, it warned that, at that time, we had only 12 years to limit climate catastrophe. Professor Debra Roberts, Co-Chair of the Report’s Impact Group, stated: ‘It’s a line in the sand … we must act now … I hope it dents the mood of complacency.’
Even better, they should ponder the words of Surangel Whipps, the President of Palau, a nation of 340 islands in the Pacific, who, addressing a plenary session at COP26 (2 November 2021), stated that ‘Large emitters [of CO2, etc.] are threatening our very survival … there is no dignity to a slow and painful death: you might as well bomb our islands … leaders of the G20, we are drowning!’
David W. Golding CBE PhD DSc DCL Formerly, Associate, Faculty of Science, Agriculture & Engineering, and Honorary Chaplain, Newcastle University