Last spring I wrote a letter to a local newspaper, responding to a column written by a local pastor. This pastor had made the claim, in the context of what he considers climate change alarmism, that the Bible promises that human beings can never destroy the earth. My letter included both support and pushback for various things he wrote—mostly pushback, of course, otherwise why write a letter! (Yes, yes, it’s worth writing for encouragement and all that too!)
I was recently in a group context in which this topic unexpectedly came up again. The question was asked, “Do you believe in climate change?”1 There were negative grunts and firm shaking of heads. I suddenly felt very out of place. I’m not a scientist and I have not studied the data, so I’m not qualified to say a firm yes or no to human-caused climate change, but I do think that it is at the very least a very real possibility and that we should pay attention. I was thinking about how I would answer someone who asks me what I think about this issue and I thought I would write it down here.
+ Most Christians believe in sin in one way or another, that there is something within each human being, whether innately or through conditioning, which pulls us towards things that are selfish, harmful, evil, and while we don’t all struggle with the same sins, we all have some sins that we have a hard time resisting. Often we don’t even recognize that it’s a problem, or we deny it.
+ The Bible tells us that sin has an effect on the world around us. Not just other human beings, but to creation. For example, in the Genesis account, we see when Adam and Eve sin that suddenly they no longer are in harmony with the earth and they have to struggle against the ground in order to eat. And in Romans Paul writes that creation waits eagerly for the return of Jesus to make all things new, so that it will be released from the tyranny of decay, which by implication exists because of human sin.
+ Based on our understanding of sin and its effects, it stands to reason that as human beings work and create and build and consume, they will make choices, whether consciously or unconsciously, that seriously, and possibly irreparably, harm the world around them. And we will build systems and corporations—again, either consciously or unconsciously—which will do such damage on a much larger scale than any individual human or even group of humans could ever do, and do so impersonally, removed from any connection to the created world around it.2
+ I’ve heard Genesis 8:22 used as an argument against catastrophic climate change. That verse says, “As long as the earth endures, / seedtime and harvest, / cold and heat, / summer and winter, / day and night / will never cease” (NIV). I can see how someone might find this verse of great comfort in relation to the possibility of climate change. I note two things, however:
- These words are part of God’s promise to never destroy the earth by flood again, that he will never again destroy all living creatures as he did. This is not a promise about preventing what we might be able to do.3
- A key phrase in this verse is “As long as earth endures,” which actually puts a limit on this promise. Implied here is that there will come a time when the cycle of seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, etc. will end. Who or what will be the cause of that?4
I said this in my letter to the editor as well: none of this is meant to say that alarmism and panic are warranted or a good idea. It’s only to say that climate change denial is not necessarily the Christian or biblical position. In fact, I would say it isn’t. And in principle even climate change-denying Christians know this. It’s not uncommon to hear something like, “The Bible tells us that we need to care for creation, so we should pick up our garbage, recycle, not pollute”—climatologists would agree!—but then follow up with, “But the climate has always been changing so this so-called ‘climate change’ stuff is nonsense.”
The irony is that ultimately recycling and reducing pollution is exactly what climatologists and those in support of their findings are after! But of course, the loudest voice is the one everyone hears and responds to, extremism gets all the attention in the media, and our human inclination is to react to extremism with the opposite extreme. But if we listen to the voices in between, we will realize that we are much closer to each other on this issue than we think!
1 As an aside, I find the question “do you believe in [insert idea or phenomenon]” an odd one. Do I believe in climate change? Do I believe in evolution? Do I believe in ghosts? I know what these questions mean, but perhaps because I understand the word “believe” as a term that refers to faith or trust or allegiance, I find it an odd word to use in connection to things we can’t have a relationship with.
2 This is also the reason why Christians of all people should understand an idea like systemic racism.
3 It’s interesting that those who are most likely to oppose efforts to curb climate change on the grounds of this verse promising that the earth will never be destroyed are also seem to be the most likely to insist that God will burn up the earth at the end of all things. Which brings us back to the question of what this verse actually means.
4 And does it make a difference if we answer that question based on this verse or other passages?