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Christian theology distinguishes between “natural evil,” that is, destruction and suffering that can be caused by natural phenomena like earthquakes or storms, and moral evil, the kind of evils that result from the interlocking effects of human sin.
Is the destructiveness of Typhoon Haiyan a tragedy of “natural evil,” the kind of horrible occurrence that occurs randomly in nature? Or, is it actually moral evil, traceable to human sin?
There is no doubt this storm is a massive evil. Haiyan, with its sustained wind speeds of 150 to 170 mph, is among the strongest storms on record and it has produced mass suffering and death, as well as widespread destruction.
The fact that we are having to invent new language to describe such massively destructive storms, like “Super Typhoon Haiyan” or “Superstorm Sandy” suggests we need to take a different look at such violent storms today and theologically assess the human responsibility for them.
These “superstorms” aren’t an “act of God,” but an act of willful disregard for God’s creation, and the neglect of the human responsibility to care for the planet.
There is moral evil to be seen in these “superstorms, I believe, on two levels. First, there is the moral evil of continuing to pump fossil fuels into the atmosphere, producing global warming. Second, however, is the moral evil of climate change denial, that is, those who would continue to deny, in the face of mounting evidence, that violent climate change is upon us and it is accelerating. A recent Pew poll shows political conservatives deeply divided over the validity of climate science.
But as some argue politically, the evidence continues to mount, and more people continue to suffer and even die from extreme climate events. According to the Philippine government, the area’s typhoons have been getting stronger. “Menacingly, the Filipino typhoons are getting stronger and stronger, especially since the 90s,” said Romulo Virola, head of the government’s national statistics board.
There is a stronger and stronger case to be made that these “superstorms” and “supertyphoon” phenomena are product of abrupt climate changes due to global warming produced by the continued (and increasing) burning fossil fuels. As the Environmental Protection Agency notes, “The primary human activity affecting the amount and rate of climate change is greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels.”
These “superstorms” then are likely the result of human activities that have contributed to the warming of the oceans. According to the scientists from the intergovernmental panel on climate change in their recent special report on extreme events, the steady warming of the oceans is likely to lead to fewer but stronger tropical typhoons.
“Superstorm Sandy” was nicknamed “Frankenstorm” because it grew massive in such a bizarre way. Climate Central, a Web site devoted to the science and effects of climate change, observed that hurricane Sandy became a giant “Frankenstorm” because it was blocked in to land and not pushed out to sea because of “blocking patterns” which have appeared with greater frequency and intensity in recent years due to changes in the jet stream. These new patterns could be linked to 2012’s record Arctic sea ice loss.
As these massively destructive storms capture our attention, our compassion, and hopefully our charity as well, they are also convincing many more Americans that human activity is the cause.
There is a theological prescription, in a classical sense, for what we must do: confession, repentance and change. In the case of what we are up against in terms of planetary destruction, those theological directives look like this:
Admit human caused, violently destructive climate change is happening. The harm to God’s creation is real, it is happening and human beings bear enormous responsibility for it.
Repent for what we have already lost by inaction. Those who talk about “reversing the effects of climate change” are also engaging in a form of denial. There is no reversing, but that does not mean the climate change is unstoppable at current levels. But action to stop what we have already done, and slow down future changes, is urgent.
Change personal practice and public policy. The World Health Organization has a good analysis of climate change policies that are needed. So do many other reputable organizations. Individuals need to take responsibility as well, both to move toward less of a carbon footprint, and to vote for those who will make positive policy changes.
But above all, right this minute, compassion for those affected by Typhoon Haiyan is most urgently needed. Here is a list of places to give.
Image courtesy of DFID – UK Department for International Development.