This is a topic that I’ve given a lot of thought to in recent years, a process which turned me away from climate change denial. A considerable part of my undergraduate capstone final essay dealt with this. Rather than rewrite the same arguments, I’ve copied over the relevant paragraphs (if the format seems odd, the essay was written in the format of a Christian magazine article):
In America, the assumption is often held that free-market, laissez-faire economics produce the greatest benefits by allowing competition to lower costs. Unfortunately, this can lead to some rather ridiculous practices, like catching salmon on the West Coast, shipping them to China to be filleted, then shipping the cleaned fish back to America for marketing. Economically, this makes sense because labor costs are lower in China than in the U.S.; in all other regards, it’s a foolish waste of time and resources. We face the same issue with fossil fuels. In the short term, it makes sense to stick with an energy system that is relatively cheap and well-established; in the long term, it’s evident that the current system is unsustainable and damaging to the world we live in.
But why should we in North America care? First, because we are a disproportionate cause of the problem; the U.S. and Canada house less than 5% of the world’s population, yet they consume 18.9% of the world’s fossil fuel energy (BP plc 9). Secondly, as Christians, we ought to care because the Lord has appointed us as governors over the other creatures of this world (Genesis 1:28), and governors who abuse their subjects for personal gain are governors of the worst type. Thirdly, we ought to be concerned because climate change will affect the world’s poor first. While we in the West will have our wealth and technology to cushion the impacts of climactic shifts, the subsistence farmer in Africa and reef fisherman in Southeast Asia, who both live by threads as it is, will have little to fall back on if droughts lead to crop failures and the reefs are destroyed by rising temperatures and acidifying waters. The world’s poor don’t have the resources to spare to mitigate and combat climate change. That leaves the task in our hands.
Consider the words of James 1:27 ( NIV ): “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” In the ancient world, widows and orphans were the poorest and most vulnerable, the members of society who had no safety net. In our world today, that distinction goes to the world’s poor, and I believe that we as Christians are duty-bound to “look after them in their distress.” This means not only sending what money or resources we can to alleviate their suffering, but also considering how our actions here and now will affect their future livelihoods.
But what of the command to “keep oneself from being polluted by the world”? In our current context, I believe that this means avoiding materialism. While the world obsesses over having the most high-end food, the newest clothing, cars and gadgets, the biggest houses, and the most luxurious vacations, we in the Church ought to heed the words of Paul: “But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction” (I Timothy 6:8-9). People of the world may live for themselves, but we who call Christ “Lord” are called to live for others.
Sadly, the Church that I see in America is preoccupied with possessions. Through such concepts as the Protestant work ethic and the prosperity gospel, we have come to assume that the more we have, the more God has blessed us, giving us a means of rationalizing greed. For people who are supposed to be living for a Kingdom that is not of this world, we are oddly obsessed with measuring success by the standards of this world. We’re given to taking the fastest, easiest path to “success,” just as our society takes the easy but destructive path of staying dependent on fossil fuels. And when we are faced with the realities of climate change, do we accept the science? No, we just dismiss the science because we don’t like the implication that our lifestyles need to change, and we’ve even found a phrase to spiritualize our apathy: “God is in control.” (Because there’s no difference between trusting God in matters we have no control over and being negligent in the tasks He has appointed us to carry out, right?)
So how should we in the Church deal with the issue of climate change? First, we need to stop picking and choosing which scientists and data we take seriously based on whether we like the implications of their conclusions. We also need to reject materialism in favor of contentment and start measuring success by how much we give rather than by how much we have. We ought to treat our world as if we really believe it belongs to the Lord and was put in our trust. To that end, and to alleviate the hardship of the world’s poor, we should make a point of investing in a sustainable future through funding research into renewable energy sources, both through business, government, and personal commitments. Finally, we must be intentional about enjoying the natural beauty of the world around us; just as a ruler disconnected from his people will not know their needs, we will be unable to sense and address the needs of our environment if we are not intimately connected with it.