An Evangelical Scientist’s Notes on Climate Change and Faith

By | July 30, 2013

(AP/Charlie Riedel)

(AP/Charlie Riedel)

Ahaze covers Colorado roads as a fire burns through thousands of acres of dead and dying trees. The fires raging through portions of the Central states reflect not only current dry conditions, but also a perfect storm of conditions that have left a countryside of tinder waiting for a spark. Recently, in order to spark another kind of change, I and more than 200 other evangelical scientists signed a letter to Congress, demanding action on climate change. The letter began, “As evangelical scientists and academics, we understand climate change is real and action is urgently needed.” We pleaded for our nation’s lawmakers “to lead on this issue and enact policies this year that will protect our climate and help us all to be better stewards of Creation.”

While I am not specifically a climate scientist, I am a broadly trained ecologist. Part of that ecological training involves understanding the connections between different living and non-living factors, understanding that events in one part of the ecosystem have trickle-down effects on other parts. What happens to the arctic food web when the loss of sea ice means there is less algae attached to the underside of floes? What happens to young marine fish growing in salt marshes when sea level rise begins to overtake them? What happens to storms when heat is dispersed differently around the globe? What happens to Colorado and the states around it when climate change overlays other conditions? These are some of the questions ecologists ask. 

In grad school I had mentors who were studying the loss of ice in temperate lakes. I remember the year I attended a conference and one scientist said, in reference to trends in lake ice loss, “The signal is coming out of the noise!” I have been to numerous talks of my peers as they shared their climate research. I have read hundreds of papers and reports about climate change, its likelihood, and its effects. Over time, evidence has mounted that climate is warming globally because of human activities, which add on to whatever climate effects we see from natural causes. As the puzzle pieces fall into place, a picture has formed—that the rise of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is causing changes in global temperature and has lowered the pH of the ocean. In fact, this outcome is exactly what you would expect to find from the basic laws of physics. That is, it would take some pretty unusual circumstances for humans to NOT affect climate in the way we think we are. 

The signers of the recent letter all have earned masters degrees or doctorates in the natural sciences and have some type of connection to climate change. Some do mathematical modeling on climate while others look at basic chemistry and, in their teaching, explain climate change from a chemistry perspective. Many, like me, are in environmental science or ecology. In my own field, concern about the effects of a changing climate on ecosystems is paramount. I have studied small isolated wetlands, which afford habitats to a specialized group of rare species. They also help moderate local and regional water cycles. One natural outcome of a warming world is the speeding up of the water cycle. You might think, “Hey, then we’ll get more rain!” and you would be partially correct. In many places, especially already wet ones, there will be more rain. It’s a little more complicated than that though, because evaporation will also increase. In some parts of the world, the amount of water that would evaporate if it could is greater than the water actually on the ground, and the main effect of warming is drought. One consequence of increasing the speed of the water cycle is the loss of stored water in already dry areas and an increase in the number of droughts.

I asked another signer, Brian Aukema, a professor of entomology at the University of Minnesota, how he sees climate change in his work. He replied:

Climate change is stressing forests and ecosystems through warmer temperatures and shifts in precipitation patterns. Insects are among the most rapid responders to ecosystem stress. The magnitude, duration, and frequency of outbreaks of bark beetles that kill trees are now exceeding previous patterns over the past 125 years. For example, the world’s largest forest insect outbreak on record, mountain pine beetle, now extends over 45 million acres of pine forests in western Canada. Its range expansion eastward is directly linked to warmer temperatures facilitating access to new pine hosts. It’s evidence of global change in action.   

 Aukema’s research highlights something the scientific community is convinced of: climate change is having effects now. The mountain pine beetle is also part of the scene in the central U.S., part of the backstory to the Colorado fires. Examples such as this spark the imagination and are necessary for anyone to understand what climate change might cause. However, scientists do not attribute specific events solely to climate change. Rather they mean that some phenomena—glacier loss, higher seas, severe drought, major storms, floods, fires—are increasing in frequency or severity, due at least in part to climate change.

Science helps me understand how human activities affect global conditions, but it is not my primary motivation in trying to call attention to climate change. That motivation comes from my faith commitment. I come from a broadly evangelical Christian faith tradition, and I teach science at a Christian college. I see four big principles in the Bible that relate to environmental degradation generally and climate change in particular: wisdom, compassion, justice, and stewardship of the natural world. Wisdom says you do what is sensible. It is sensible to make hay while the sun shines, or like the ant, to save summer harvest for winter eating. It is not sensible to sleep all the time, eat too much, fail to work, waste your money, build your house on sand, or save things that lose their value. Likewise, it is not wise to pollute ourselves today and harm our children, to waste materials we may want later, to make a giant bet on the climate that we cannot afford to lose, or to believe the world is so big we cannot harm it. There are many wise reasons to care about climate. Ask anyone losing jobs in tourism, logging, and fishing. Ask the Department of Defense, which called climate change a national security issue and has written a plan to lessen its effects.

Principles of compassion, justice, and stewardship also require that we act on large dangers that will require social changes to solve. This summer offers several illustrations. The July heat wave in New England baked my house. The heat shimmered on the road as temperatures climbed into the 90s and above, covering a multi-state area. In New York, people cooled themselves in public fountains. A friend of mine, who has a limited income, swelters in the heat. Her rental agreement does not allow her to have an air conditioner. She cannot afford to move. I call and say, “Come over. We don’t have a pool, but we have some shade and a couple of rooms with air conditioning.” My friend illustrates a point that everyone can understand: climate change makes hard things harder, and harms the poor first. In heat waves, low-income people are less likely to have access to cool areas, are more likely to suffer respiratory distress, and more likely to die. Around the world, the poor suffer disproportionately from many of the other effects of warming such as extreme weather events, sea level rise, increase in diseases, and changes in food availability.

Concern about poverty is important in many faith traditions. In my own, the Bible repeatedly commands us to care for the poor, widows, orphans, aliens in the land, and prisoners. In Matthew 25:36-44, Jesus tells his disciples that at the end of time we answer to God for how well we treated those who were hungry, naked, sick, and imprisoned. To care for these, He says, is to care for Himself. “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (v. 40 NIV).

On my refrigerator is a picture of Brayan, a young boy from Guatemala. We have been supporting Brayan through an aid agency. In Guatemala, the rugged mountains are subject to mudslides in the hurricane season. Smallholder farmers grow maize, beans, and okra on tiny plots. As the landscape warms, droughts intensify in the dry season; food produced by small farms is no longer sufficient for the season. As the water cycle speeds up, the dangers of mudslides increase. Guatemala already has the distinction of being the fourth most vulnerable country to natural disasters and having the fifth highest incidence of childhood malnutrition in the world. It is also considered on of the ten most vulnerable countries to the impacts of climate change. In Guatemala it isn’t that climate change causes a problem that never existed before; it’s that climate exacerbates problems that have already pushed people to the edge of poverty. I care about this because I personally know people there, and also because I believe my faith requires me to do something about it.

Guatemala illustrates not only compassion but also the biblical principle of justice. The book of Isaiah says, “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow” (1:17 NIV). Justice is flouted when individuals who engage in an activity are not the ones bearing the brunt of the cost. We in the developed world produce a disproportionate amount of greenhouse gas emissions, but we are less likely to be harmed by environmental degradation. Brayan’s family is likely to be affected by decisions about energy that my family makes, decisions our country makes, decisions made across the world. An interest in justice requires not only that we give to the poor, but that we also create a world of justice in which people are not pushed further into poverty by the way our institutional systems work. It also demands that we protect the interests of future generations, who cannot control the decisions we make now.

Finally, we have an obligation to care for the natural world, at least in the Christian tradition, because we were given that task by God. Christians view that task as stewardship. We should, the thinking goes, leave the world as good as we found it, caring for the fields and organisms we have, as if we represent God. Climate change is likely to cause shifts in species ranges, food availability, precipitation, and heat stress, making many organisms vulnerable to extinction. We have an obligation to care for species other than just humans; human needs are also met when we care for whole ecosystems. Worldwide, many of the poorest people depend on wildlife, forests, and fisheries for their sustenance.

These faith principles and what I know from science make me speak out. I want a world in which our leaders listen to scientists on climate change and in which we work together to promote wisdom, compassion, justice, and stewardship. 

Dorothy Boorse is an aquatic ecologist and a professor at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts. She was the lead author of a 2011 publication by the National Association of Evangelicals, Loving the Least of These: Addressing a Changing Environment


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