As the U.S. continues to cannibalize itself with culture wars instead of cooperating to save our crops, homes, and forests from climate change, the American clergy has emerged with a unified voice of beauty and moral clarity. The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) has just joined mainline Protestant, Christian, and Catholic denominations in declaring climate change an emergency to which God commands an energetic- and scientific- response.
Representing more than 40 denominations and several million constituents, the NAE is offering to help navigate climate complexity ‘with biblical clarity’ about the need to act. Offering a textual, biblical basis for climate activism, Walter Kim, president of NAE observes in the just-released 2022 update to Loving the Least of These that, “For too many in this world, the beach isn’t about sunscreen and bodysurfing but is a daily reminder of rising tides and failed fishing.” Determined to help, the NAE report delivers a biblical basis for Christian engagement on climate, a review of how global environments have been affected by climate change, a review of how environmental extremes affect people in poverty, and encouragement for Christians to do something about it. The report represents a significant pivot for Evangelicals- especially white Evangelicals- who were formerly considered the demographic “least likely” to believe that climate change is real, and that it is caused by human conduct.
Catholics were already there. Pope Francis previously likened climate inaction to suicide. “Every year the problems are getting worse. We are at the limits… I would say that we are at the limits of suicide.” In July, the Pope called on world leaders to heed the Earth’s ‘chorus of cries of anguish’ caused by climate change, including extreme weather and loss of biodiversity. The Pope urges nations to confront climate change with the same urgency as other global challenges, such as war and COVID. “Mother Earth cries out,” he wrote. “Prey to our consumerist excesses, she weeps and implores us to put an end to our abuses and to her destruction.” The Pope has appealed in the name of God to oil, agribusiness, mining, and forestry industries to make changes that will arrest climbing temperatures.
Earlier this year, Thomas Reese, Senior Analyst at Religion News Service and a Jesuit priest, observed that the US had learned “nothing” in the last 50 years when it comes to the risks of depending on oil, despite the fact that we all know what needs to be done: “Decrease oil and gas consumption. Increase alternative sources of green energy. Fast-track research and development of green technology… Sadly, consumers can only focus on this week’s gasoline prices. Politicians can only focus on this year’s elections…”
For their part, Presbyterians, who long had ties to the oil industry, voted in July to divest from five oil companies for not doing enough to address climate change. Presbyterians’ vote to divest from Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Marathon Petroleum, Phillips 66 and Valero Energy followed years of debate, and years of efforts to get those companies to do more to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Concluding that their efforts weren’t working, Presbyterian Church USA voted 340-41 to add those companies to their divestment list. Bob Fohr, director of faith-based investing and corporate engagement, reported that the church’s “Mission Responsibility Through Investment” committee had hoped they would see more voluntary change. Disappointed that their good-faith efforts at engagement failed to deliver, he noted that divestment is “never the goal.” Corporate change is their goal, as the climate crisis continues to increase in urgency.
The clergy’s newly unified voice is sorely needed. Religious activism on climate comes as Gallup polling says more than 70% of Americans report that they are worried about climatic changes, which have become plainly evident.
As NASA recently reported: Global climate change is not a future problem. Changes to Earth’s climate driven by increased human emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases are already having widespread effects on the environment: glaciers and ice sheets are shrinking, river and lake ice is breaking up earlier, plant and animal geographic ranges are shifting, and plants and trees are blooming sooner. Effects that scientists had long predicted would result from global climate change are now occurring, such as sea ice loss, accelerated sea level rise, and longer, more intense heat waves.
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Many Americans have now personally observed dramatically increased droughts, wildfires, and extreme rainfall. These events are happening far more quickly than scientists had predicted. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the cooperative body established by the United Nations to evaluate climate science, humans have never before experienced these climate phenomena, and many of them will be irreversible for thousands of years.
NASA reports that all regions of Earth will be affected, not just poor nations: sea levels will rise between 1-8 feet by 2100; hurricanes will become stronger and more intense; and extreme droughts, heat waves, wildfires, and dramatic changes in precipitation will continue. The cost of climate inaction has been estimated by Deloitte at $14.5 trillion over the next 50 years in the U.S. alone.
Although the effects of climate change are now visibly apparent to almost everyone other than the Koch brothers, it isn’t as if the science is new. Scientists began sounding the alarm about climate change in the 1950s, and specifically reported that greenhouse gases from fossil fuels were the cause. To offset this nearly complete scientific consensus, the oil industry spent tens of millions of dollars to bury the message. Spreading disinformation, denial and doubt about the harm of fossil fuels, Big Oil lobbied effectively to protect their own profits, delivering legislative defeats to climate action for decades.
In August, finally overcoming big oil’s misinformation campaign, the U.S. passed its first significant climate legislation, writing a decarbonization strategy similar in scale to the New Deal, the interstate highway system, and mass electrification. According to researchers, the needed scale is massive. Landmass sufficient to power the country with wind and solar will exceed the size of many states combined. Farmers and urban planners have begun to incorporate wind turbines and solar panels onto existing land use, while economists predict that the transition will bring immense economic benefits to most sectors of the economy.
Despite the clarity of the changing climate around us, climate denial persists, with many deniers claiming it is either cyclical or an Act of God. Perhaps loving guidance from America’s religious leaders will help. As the Evangelicals just instructed, “Loving God means obeying. This includes caring about what happens to God’s creation, because God cares about it and because God gave us the job of caring for it (Genesis 2:15). We worship God by caring for creation.”
Sabrina Haake, a Gary attorney, is a freelance columnist for the Post-Tribune.
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