For God So Loved the World

May 2013
By Rose Marie Berger
Sojourners Magazine

What will it take to push back climate change? A Spirit-driven 'power shift' might be a key.


NEW YORK CITY has been bombed at least twice in the past decade. First by al Qaeda and second by Hurricane Sandy.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States launched two ground wars and a worldwide "war on terror." Within two months, Congress federalized the Transportation Security Administration to secure airports. More than 263 government organizations were either created or reorganized. Some 1,931 private companies were put to work on counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence. Rightly or wrongly, America moved heaven and earth to stop terrorism in its tracks. It was seen as both an ongoing threat and a moral affront that had to be dealt with.

What about Climate Change?
In February, a New York State Senate task force on Superstorm Sandy compared the hurricane that affected 24 states to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. "[On 9/11] there were more than 3,000 souls lost, but in terms of the geographic destruction, it was isolated to Lower Manhattan," said Sen. Andrew Lanza (R-Staten Island). "[After Sandy] we have miles and miles and miles of destruction. Hundreds of thousands of homes affected, 60 ... New Yorkers killed, 250,000 to 260,000 businesses affected."

Hurricane Sandy killed 253 people in seven countries. It was the second largest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded—and the most expensive. It smashed into the East Coast with barely three days' warning. Like hurricanes Katrina and Rita before it, Sandy was a disaster of biblical proportions.

After 9/11, Americans knew in our gut that something was seriously wrong. Our moral intuition had been sucker punched.

Climate change—and its deadly implications—has been harder to grasp. There's a lot of complicated science involved. Instead of a single incident, we're inundated with seemingly disconnected events. And, despite the evidence, we often fail to see it as a "crime."

But global warming is a clear and present danger—with perpetrators, victims, and, most important, solutions.

However, before we tackle this conundrum as Americans, we need to wrestle with it as Christians. We need to understand climate change as a religious and moral issue.

Morality is defined as the relation between a human act and the final destiny of the human being. In secular terms morality is measured by whether a human act is normative for the culture or disruptive of the norm.

The Bible, our Christian tradition, and God's active Spirit in the world today form the foundation for what Christians consider "normative" (a wide, yet recognizable, spectrum, to be sure). We determine if something is a moral issue first by examining what is normative and second by how out of sync the question at hand is from the norm.

In the case of global climate change, we can pose this question: If God is at the center of all, and the world and everything in it are created for God's delight, then does the known trajectory of climate change serve to delight and gladden the heart of God?

If we answer that the trajectory of climate change isn't real or won't bother God, then climate change is not a religious concern. But if we answer that the likely effects will not delight God, then climate change is a religious and moral issue.

Allen Johnson, of Christians for the Mountains, says that for too long the environmental debate has been between an anthropocentric position, that the earth is only for human use, and a biocentric position, that all living beings are created equal and should be treated equally.

But Judeo-Christian religious teaching pushes us out of this dichotomy toward the theocentric position. God is at the center of all. Creation, the world, nature, and our environment were made by God for God's delight and pleasure. Our human role is to "bring forth its glory," says Johnson, "for the greater glory and honor of God—not primarily for ourselves."

According to scripture, God takes pleas-ure in creation. Genesis 1 repeats seven times, "And God saw everything that God had made, and behold, it was good" (verses 4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25 and 31). Psalm 104 says, "May the glory of the Lord endure forever, may the Lord rejoice in his works" (verse 31). Human-induced climate change is a sin against the delight of God.

If we know the causes of climate change but are too proud or set in our ways to take action to reverse it, what does that say about our personal relationship with God?

Some Christians counter climate change "hysteria" by saying that "God has no limits," implying that God will take care of human beings no matter what limits we overrun. This theology holds that God will provide another burnable fuel resource ("just like he did with uranium," one Regent University professor told me some years ago) when oil and coal run out.

But this idea of unlimited human action is anti-biblical. God sets limits on human beings. There are commandments to keep. Natural laws are built into the created order. When there is an unlimited growth in the human body, we call it cancerous. While God may be unlimited, humankind is not. Part of the Christian duty, as fitting for those with "stewardship" responsibilities for creation, is to live within our means—whether as a family or as a species.

"There is a serious misconception [in the evangelical community] ... that we do not have the power or omnipotence to affect this planet in a serious way," says Johnson. "That God created this planet, and it's going to continue its course on a good path, and that human hubris is not that powerful. The reality is quite the contrary. Hubris and self-idolatry of humankind is of such a magnitude that it does compete with God. We must not let the idols, especially Mammon—the desire for comfort, wealth, the lust for money—rule us. ... The integrity of our faith is at stake." God's first commandment is clear: You shall have no other gods before me. Human hubris is an idol of the first order.

God loves this world. "The skies are my throne, the earth is my footstool, what sort of temple could you mortals build for me that could house my glory? ... I made all this. I own all this!" (Isaiah 66:1-2, paraphrased) To allow the profaning of the Lord's house is an abomination that cannot stand. God demands sanctity around God's throne and holiness upon God's footstool.

American Christians often refer to John 3:16 as a "conversion passage." "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." Here's my challenge: If we want abundant life, then we need to love the world the way God does. Either Christianity is a religion that embraces John 3:16 or it is not.

THERE SIMPLY IS no authentic or satisfactory religion or morality that would be knowingly complicit with such a catastrophic destruction of our social and physical environment as climate change will bring on, says moral psychologist Jonathan Webber.

In 2010, the world evangelical movement came to a similar assessment as Webber when more than 4,000 evangelical Christian leaders in the Lausanne Movement met in Cape Town, South Africa, and added "creation care" to the global evangelical agenda. In 2012, a subgroup met in St. Ann, Jamaica, to embrace as a central tenet that "creation care is indeed a gospel issue within the lordship of Christ." As a global body, the Lausanne Movement takes World Health Organization reports seriously: In developing countries, the major killers—diarrheal diseases, malnutrition, malaria, and dengue—"are highly climate-sensitive and are expected to worsen as the climate changes." Climate change already causes more than 140,000 excess deaths annually.

For evangelist Charlotte Keys, fighting global warming is all about life. "We've got to stop 'raping and scraping' the land for whatever we can get," says the founder of Jesus People Against Pollution in Columbia, Miss. "Whatever the problems that we have created, then the Lord has also given us the wisdom, the knowledge, and the understanding to fix it. We have the solution to the pollution."

The Challenge Before Us
Before we can roll up our sleeves, we need to be clear: The obstacles ahead are daunting.

First, we've got to connect the dots. Sept. 11 was a singular event that uncovered a web of international criminal activity. Climate disruption is the culmination of events we often perceive as random that will result in a planet too hot for human life as we've known it since Genesis.

It's taken scientists a while to come to one mind on all this. "Climatologists are very conservative people when it comes to saying that something is happening or not happening," says researcher and geographer Janel Curry, provost at Gordon College in Wenham, Mass. "Over my working career I've seen them move from a position of not having all the data [on climate change] to saying we are 50 percent certain to saying that [these are] human-induced effects."

Normally, our environment absorbs carbon dioxide (CO 2) and other greenhouse gases through forests, oceans, and natural carbon sequestration. But our industrial carbon dioxide waste and other similar "greenhouse" pollutants have overloaded the earth's natural systems to the point where they can't keep up.

As we increase industrial carbon dioxide in our atmosphere and decrease our earth's ability to dispose of the excess, we are straining God's great gift. "We are reaching the tipping point where major climate changes can proceed mostly under their own momentum," says leading NASA climatologist Dr. James Hansen.

If the rate of CO 2 and black carbon emissions don't radically drop in the next 20 years, then the world we leave our grandchildren will be one of massive violent storms, rampant infectious disease, hazardous continually shifting coastlines, armed conflict over water and arable land, starvation due to loss of agricultural, fish, and livestock production, and family and cultural breakdown. "[It] will continue for as many generations as we care to think about," writes Hansen in his prophetic book Storms of My Grandchildren. "Global chaos will be difficult to avoid."

It has already begun. For example, coral reefs are a critical part of the ocean food chain. Because the oceans are warming and becoming more acidic, coral reefs are dying; more than half of the coral in the Caribbean is already dead. Nearly half of all the ocean fish we eat depend on coral reefs.

The world has to live within its "carbon budget" and bring CO 2 levels back down to 350 parts per million, the level that climate scientists agree is the maximum conducive to preserving the temperature range of the planet that allowed human civilization to develop and thrive. We are currently hovering around 390 parts per million. "Concentrations of CO 2 in the atmosphere are likely to hit 400 parts per million this coming spring or next," reports David Biello in a Scientific American podcast.

This is not the world as God intends.

Some say it will take a miracle to turn this around, which is why it's so important for Christians to lead on reversing climate change. We are people familiar with the mechanics of miracles.

What We Can Do About It
From a scientific perspective, the first thing we must do is slow down the rate of climate change on our way to a low fossil-fuel future.

"From the perspective of climate science," says Texas Tech professor Katharine Hayhoe, "we know that climate change is happening faster now and to a greater degree than science has predicted over the last 20 years. The faster climate changes, the faster the impacts will occur, and the less time we have to prepare and adapt."

"That's why the most important thing we can do right now is to slow the rate of change," Hayhoe says. "We can do this by reducing our emissions of heat-trapping gases such as methane and black carbon particulates. This is not a permanent fix: For that, we have to reduce carbon. But it will buy us some time, and we need that time, very badly, right now."

In the last 40 years, the U.S. has significantly cleaned up its urban air through regulations and new technologies (such as catalytic converters). In December, the EPA set new health standards for airborne fine particulate matter. This provides a regulatory framework for pushing industry to clean up what comes out of smokestacks and tailpipes. In 2012, the Obama administration went further than its predecessors by requiring a doubling of the average fuel economy of new cars and trucks by 2025. But this legislation will only slow, not substantially change, our climate trajectory.

"The U.S. and Canada are both moving ahead in their plans to greatly expand the export to China of coal from Western states and bitumen, a very dirty, high-carbon fossil fuel extracted from the oil sands of Alberta, Canada," says biologist Joseph Sheldon. "In the next two years, both Canada and the United States have an opportunity to lead as responsible global citizens and alter our direction. As a first step, the export of coal and bitumen to China, India, and other countries that lack clean burning technologies should be immediately stopped."

The grassroots movement to stop the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, necessary to transport the high-carbon tar sands fuel from Alberta, is one populist attempt to slow the rate of climate change by stopping the production of black soot and carbon-intensive emissions.

But that's just a precursor to what's needed for the long term: "As a world leader, the U.S. should launch a strategic program for a fossil-fuel-free economy," says Sheldon; "... it's certainly possible to be largely free of fossil fuels by 2030."

Every Choice Matters
Starting now, every decision we make has to advance us toward a society "largely free of fossil fuels by 2030."

For instance, the U.S. must invest heavily in building our capacity for a renewables-based energy system, says Hayhoe. "Electricity generation, transportation, industry: All of these sectors work on lead times of decades, not years. We need to put the framework in place this year, to ensure that they are moving toward carbon-neutral energy sources over the next few decades," Hayhoe says.

The current industry strategy is to power up on wind and nuclear power to meet the energy needs in the U.S. However, long-term reliance on nuclear power has major problems (even with recent safety and efficiency improvements), including the massive use of water and the issue of high-level radioactive waste, which is hazardous to most life forms and the environment. The waste problem is nowhere near solved, and the specter of another Fukushima looms large.

However, new low-carbon electricity generation technology is available—and it is already in widespread use in other countries. The barrier for commercial use in the U.S. has been lack of economic incentive. We need to remove that barrier.

"In my view, the most significant actions that could be taken to reduce global warming would be to cut our personal net carbon footprint by 30 percent in two years," says Peter Vander Meulen of the Christian Reformed Church.

But wise electricity use at home needs to move beyond reducing consumption or increasing efficiency, though both are needed. Now energy users can become energy producers as well, nodes in a distributed-generation energy grid.

This is especially critical in low-income communities, where energy generation is also about job creation and pathways to a stable economic future. In Richmond, Calif., for example, more than a third of the city's households earn less than $35,000 a year. But the local startup Solar Richmond helped that community become first among Bay Area cities in generating watts per capita and second in total watts generated, in addition to providing jobs, training, and a worker-owned clean energy cooperative.

From an economic perspective, the U.S. needs to make dirty energy expensive and clean energy cheap. Right now there are two competing approaches to regulation: "Cap and fee" and removing government subsidies for oil companies will make dirty fuel more expensive. Multiyear extensions of the clean energy Production Tax Credit and Manufacturing Tax Credit, other incentive programs, and significant direct public financing for clean renewable energy technology will make clean energy cheaper. Despite the urgency of our predicament, we spend a lot of political capital fighting over these two approaches. It's time to break the deadlock and do both.

Government policy, regulations, and investments won't be enough to reverse climate change, but climate change won't be reversed without them.

A Christian 'Power Shift'
A century and a half ago, revivalist Charles Finney wrote, "The Christian church has it in her power to reform this nation. ... No [nation] has had strength to resist any reform which God's people have unitedly demanded."

If Christians and other people of faith, here and abroad, decided to "unitedly" rise up and demand that our nation and world turn away from the planet-threatening actions that have fed global warming, it would launch an irresistible force for change.

But such a faith-based uprising will take a "revival" movement every bit as significant as the Great Awakenings led by Finney and others. Some of the actions along the way will be life-giving, even fun. But the movement will also require hard choices, change, compromise, and opting for the common good over individual ease.

Many times in the last two millennia, Christians have risen to similar challenges, and acted to change societies in unpredictable and unexpected ways. When the church has done so, an outpouring of spiritual revival has often accompanied the movement for social change—that is, it wasn't just the world that was changed: Members of the church experienced profound conversion as well.

This is happening already at Austin Heights Baptist Church in Nacogdoches, Texas, where pastor Kyle Childress and his congregation had been praying for a vital young adult ministry. When his church reached out to the young protesters fighting the Keystone XL pipeline under construction just 20 miles away, four showed up in church. The next Sunday there were 30. Isn't this the new life that we owe to ourselves, to our communities, and to God?

Will we meet the Lord in water teeming with living creatures, birds in the vault of the sky, livestock and wild animals moving on the land, each according to their kind? Will we defend climate refugees, the "widows and orphans" of our time? Will we be stewards who practice kindness in the earth, so that God will look and see that it is good, so that God will take delight?

The Christian tradition is raising its voice, naming the undeniable need for just such a movement in our time. We need a faith revival on behalf of the world as God intends, a planet where life not simply survives but thrives, a creation where God is at the center and delights in it.

Can I get an amen? It's going to take all of us, in a massive Spirit-driven power shift. Are you ready?

Rose Marie Berger is an associate editor of Sojourners.