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By Katharine Hayhoe
“Love God, love others” (Matthew 22:37-40). Almost anyone of faith agrees on these fundamental precepts. When it comes to putting those simple words into action, however, how quickly we separate and disagree! Today, climate change is a prominent example of these disagreements. Who to believe? Often, our opinions fall along lines scoured deep by past experiences. We may find ourselves repeating with a favorite talk show host, “It’s just a natural cycle.” He shares our faith and politics, doesn’t he? Or, “It’s a serious problem we need to address,” as scientists say. They’re objective, aren’t they?
When pushed, our deeper fears begin to rise. If I take this issue seriously, does it mean my freedom, my rights, my most deeply-held values will be taken away in the name of the greater good? If we don’t address this issue, am I failing to be a good steward of God’s creation? Will we forever alter the trajectory of the planet and the human race?
How do we confront these fears?
We can argue opinions forever. We can imitate the proverbial ostrich. Or, we can take an honest look at the facts.
The reality is that climate change is about thermometers and trendlines, not Republicans or Democrats. It’s about what has been happening on our planet since the Industrial Revolution, not whether the earth is 6,000 or 4 billion years old. It’s about fundamental science that’s been around for hundreds of years, not specious theories that haven’t a prayer of being proven.
Here are the facts.
We rely on coal, gas and oil for most of our energy. These fuels contain carbon. When we burn them, the carbon gets released into the atmosphere. We can measure it coming out of the tailpipe of our cars, or the smokestack of our factories. And we’ve kept careful records of how much we’ve used since the dawn of the Industrial Era.
Carbon dioxide and similar gases trap heat. These heat-trapping properties can be measured in a simple lab. Just as a thicker blanket on a cold night traps our body heat, so a thicker blanket of heat- trapping gases in the atmosphere traps more of the earth’s heat. And the temperature of our planet is going up in response.
A warming planet is just the tip of the iceberg, the warning light on the dashboard. This relatively small warming– hidden as it is from most of us by the daily swings from highs to lows– is driving a much greater change. Our seasons are shifting, with highs and lows, as well as rains and snows, becoming more unpredictable. Our storms are getting stronger, and sea levels are rising.
Climate change is already altering the character of the places we know and love. It will continue to change in the future from what we have already done. And we certainly cannot stop using coal, gas, and oil overnight. But the choices we make over the next few decades will determine the path we travel in the future.
So what can we do about it?
As the Apostle Paul said, “‘Everything is permissible’–but not everything is beneficial” (Corinthians 10:23). There is risk to any major change. But there is also serious risk if we continue on our current path.
We are called to love our God and love our neighbors as ourselves. Today, many of our global neighbors are already facing the reality of climate change. Alaskan villagers’ homes built on once-frozen ground are now crumbling into the ocean. Inhabitants of South Sea islands are being overwhelmed by rising seas. The poor and disadvantaged in our own nation are already among the first to suffer the effects of heat waves, floods, and other disasters.
Climate change threatens our notions of stability and security. Things we did in the past, we can no longer do; but we are uncertain how to proceed into the future. To many of us, this makes us afraid. God is not the author of fear, however. As my husband Andrew Farley discusses in his book, “The Naked Gospel”, we are not called to cower in guilt, paralyzed by the magnitude of our problems.
Opportunity lies in every crisis. And in this case, we have an unparalleled opportunity to re-think the way we live: to transition from the constraints of coal and oil to the freedom of endlessly renewable, homegrown solar and wind energy that are God’s gifts to us; to replace outdated, wasteful technologies with the most efficient, state-of-the-art alternatives; and to once more express God’s love to our neighbors in crisis by recognizing our common spiritual and physical heritage.
This planet we live on, a small blue-and-green ball suspended in the vastness of space, is God’s second-greatest gift; to all of us.
Katharine Hayhoe is a climate scientist, a geoscience professor at Texas Tech University, and a pastor’s wife. Together with her husband Andrew Farley, she is the author of “A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts.”