A leading climate scientist shows us how we can all respond
s a climate scientist and a Christian I am often asked, "Hasn’t science caused you to doubt what you believe?"
My answer is, surprisingly, no. If we believe God created everything we see and study, how could what we learn through science be incompatible with our faith? And from that perspective, what is science other than the pursuit of understanding God’s mind? What was God thinking when He designed this universe, from the complexity of our human bodies to this incredible planet?
Not only that, but as Christians we know physical matter has inherent value both to God and us. The Bible is full of reminders of God’s love and care for the most minute aspects of His creation. And we as humans were not intended to float around in empty space. We were designed to live on a planet that teems with the richness of life.
God created the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat and the materials we use. His creation does not only give us the necessities of life, but its beauty also fills us with awe and feeds our souls. Creation is a gift from God. Science is a gift that helps us better understand its wonder and perfection.
Why it matters
What is creation and why does it matter to us? We often characterize creation as nonhuman life – plants and animals. But consider this definition of nature from the Cambridge Essential Dictionary: "all the plants, creatures, and things that exist in the world that are not made by people." In turn, those who care about creation are often labelled environmentalists and stereotyped as being more concerned with nonhuman than human life.
But aren’t humans also part of the living things on this planet? And how could we survive without the rest of the living things on our planet?
According to the Bible we humans are part of but not the same as every other aspect of creation. We have a special role to play. Radah is the Hebrew word used in Genesis 1 that characterizes our responsibility toward every living thing. This word has traditionally been translated as "have dominion over," and that concept has been perverted to imply God has given us the right to harm other living things – through pollution, degradation, destruction and now climate change – if we temporarily profit from such harm.
However, radah is the same word expanded on in the Psalms in a way that makes clear how flawed the dominion interpretation is. Psalm 72 says, referring to God’s reign, "May He radah from sea to sea in order to deliver the needy and the afflicted – to have compassion on the poor and those in need." Extending this to Genesis 1, it implies we are called to care or have compassion, listen to and respond to the needs of others and, in fact, every living thing.
Then in Genesis 2 we learn the Lord God took man and put him in the Garden of Eden to abad and shamar. These words mean to serve, protect, guard and keep. They imply the concept of stewardship, of taking care of something on behalf of another who values it.
If you were given a piece of land to steward on behalf of a generous benefactor, and you let it fall into decay or become polluted and contaminated, what does that say about you and your relationship to them? But if you cared for the land – if you ensured it provided food, shelter, jobs, clean water, healthy soil and habitat for wildlife – then you would be honouring their request to protect and keep it.
Being given something and being faithful to what we have been given is the second important aspect of our unique relationship to creation.
A disproportionate damage
It is difficult today to find evidence of humans practising the compassion, care and stewardship we read about as God’s design. Instead, we live in a world where those without a voice are often pushed to the side. Plant and animal habitat are decimated and degraded, plastics fill our oceans and waters, and species are driven entirely to extinction. Pollution damages coral reefs, contaminates water supplies and chokes the air in many of the world’s most populous cities.
It’s estimated one in six premature deaths worldwide is the result of the pollution of air, water or soil. And much of this disproportionately affects the many poor for the gain of the few rich.
Then there’s the fact that today the earth’s climate is changing faster than any time in human history. This change is the direct result of relying on fossil fuels. The more coal, oil and gas we burn, the more heat-trapping gases build up in the atmosphere, wrapping an extra blanket around the planet. The buildup of heat in the atmosphere and oceans powers stronger and more intense heatwaves, droughts, floods, hurricanes and wildfire, putting us all at risk.
AVERAGE VALUE OF CROPS WORLDWIDE THAT ARE LOST DUE TO CLIMATE CHANGE EACH YEAR
And climate change is also profoundly unfair. It disproportionately affects the poorest and most vulnerable in the world – those who have done the least to contribute to this problem. Each year, on average, an estimated $5 billion of crops are lost due to climate change – much of that in countries where many live in poverty already.
People are already being displaced from their homes in low-lying coastal areas, from islands in the South Pacific to the deltas of Bangladesh to the shorelines of North America. It’s estimated the number of climate refugees this century could be in the millions. Where will they go?
And even if they stay, they are at risk. The impacts of climate change have already increased the economic gap between the richest and poorest countries in the world by as much as 25 per cent since the 1960s.
The first to suffer
I grew up as a missionary kid in South America. From a young age I witnessed what life looks like for those who live in houses made of cardboard boxes, bamboo or mud bricks, who depend on the food they grow for sustenance and are the first to suffer when disaster strikes. Many of us recognize this suffering. We pour our effort, prayers, money and time into helping fix poverty, disease, water shortages and hunger.
Climate change is a threat multiplier, disproportionately targeting the poorest and most vulnerable among us.
Climate change is a threat multiplier, disproportionately targeting the poorest and most vulnerable among us. Name an issue we’re trying to fix and climate change is making it worse. The United Nations estimates that, unchecked, climate change threatens to undo the last 50 years of development, global health and poverty reduction. Even worse, climate change consistently drives resource scarcity; lack of resources leads to conflict; conflict to war and refugee crises; and these all lead to endless suffering. Climate change matters to us because it disproportionately affects those we are most called to radah.Putting it all together – as climate change reduces available food and resources; as we continue to pollute our planet, our shared home; as we encroach further into wild areas, cutting down trees and destroying animals and their habitat; as we neglect our charge to radah every living thing – the risk of disaster including global pandemics increases. Not as a judgment from God, but simply a natural consequence of our choices. Somehow, we’ve forgotten the health and well-being of all creation includes our own, and that our own in turn depends on it.
How to respond?
How do we as Christians respond when confronted with the disastrous results of our collective poor choices? Here too our faith guides us. While our impulse may be to give in to guilt and fear, the Bible is clear that is not our motivation to act. Christ’s death freed us from guilt, and God’s Word says simply this: He has not given us a spirit of fear. If we respond out of fear, that fear is not coming from God.
Instead God has given us three additional gifts to guide our response. The first is a spirit of power. It enables us to act, even in the face of fear, rather than being frozen or paralyzed. The second is a spirit of love. This enables us to think of others, to have compassion for them, to radah them. And finally, God has given us the gift of a sound mind we can use to make good decisions based on information He has made evident in His creation.
What does it look like to respond without fear or guilt, but with power, love and a sound mind? One example might be to respond lovingly, caring for the physical needs of those most affected by the impacts of a changing climate – whether next door or abroad. We can support comprehensive action, recognizing there are large-scale solutions that address poverty, hunger, lack of access to resources – and pollution, climate change and more – and that we who have the ability to do so can advocate for these solutions within our church, organization or place of work, our city and our country.
Then as Christ followers we’re also called to act in community as part of a body. Does your church have a creation care ministry? Can you start one? Do the missions you support account for climate change and pollution as threat multipliers to the very people you are trying to help? Can you complete an energy audit in your home and church, and then invest the funds saved in helping others? Perhaps you could join an online community like ClimateCaretakers.org that sends a suggestion of a tangible action to take every month, including something to pray about, that we can do in community?
We can also act individually. Small lifestyle choices like the type of lightbulbs we use, our recycling habits and providing butterfly habitats in our backyards do matter. There are organizations where people get "ugly food" that can’t be otherwise sold which reduces food waste. We can eat less meat, reducing our carbon footprint and improving our diet at the same time.
We can find out more about, follow on social media, and donate our time and resources to organizations that work with those marginalized by poverty, hunger and inequality, as well as those who strive to protect God’s creation – World Vision, Tearfund, A Rocha, the Canadian Foodgrains Bank and more.
But the single most important thing any of us can do is simply this – talk about it. Use our voices to raise awareness, share hopeful solutions and advocate for change.
Caring about creation and all the issues that affect it is not in opposition to who we are. Caring is deeply consistent with who we are as God’s people and why God made us. We care because God made us responsible for the welfare of every living thing, from the tiniest plant to our sister and brother, whether right beside us or on the other side of the world.
Starting with shared values, then connecting the dots between what we already care about and why it matters, is the very best way to begin a constructive conversation.
The most important thing any of us can do is simply this – TALK ABOUT IT … raise awareness, share hopeful solutions and advocate for change.
As Christians, we all agree this world belongs to God, and He has asked us to care for it and care for each other. We can share authentically, from our heart, why we as Christ followers care about this issue.
And finally, we can talk about actions – things we can do individually, together, and what others are doing as well that we can support.
Caring about God’s creation, caring for people and other living things already affected by climate change today, is a genuine expression of our faith. It is also a faithful acceptance of our responsibility. And, perhaps most importantly of all, it is a true expression of God’s love.
It’s who we are and who He has made us to be.
Katharine Hayhoe (www.KatharineHayhoe.com) is a Canadian atmospheric scientist and director of the Climate Center at Texas Tech University. She is also an author, popular speaker and thinker.