Nothing kills a conversation like talking about climate change. Climate change seems to be pretty much a gloom and doom conversation. The earth is coming apart, humans are responsible, and the consequences are dire. It’s no wonder that so many people fall into denial and despair.
Instead, what if we started by looking for signs of God's grace in the climate narrative? What if we asked ourselves what He seems to be doing in the story? Could the Christian story help reframe the gloom and doom conversation into one that offers real hope?
We think so.
As we consider how our awareness of climate change has grown, we realize that the signs of God’s grace are undeniable.
Nature bears witness
As Christians, we believe that the Bible is God’s special revelation to humankind, telling us about our relationship with God, with ourselves, and with other people. But it is clear from Scripture that we have a relationship with the rest of creation too, just as God does. And God also uses creation--the natural world--to reveal himself to us.
The ancient writer of Psalms understood that “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.” Psalm 19:1-4
In the New Testament, Paul asserted that, “…what may be known about God is plain… because God has made it plain… For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” Romans 1:20
An intelligible world for intelligent creatures
Many theologians have described the two sources of knowledge about God (Scripture and Creation) as two great books of God’s revelation. Faithful scientists describe the study of nature as seeing into the mind of God: Johann Kepler, founder of physical astronomy certainly thought so; in his words, studying the world and its processes is really “thinking God’s thoughts after Him.”
The world is intelligible because God made it so. He could have made a world of randomness and chaos, but he made an ordered world. And he gave us the gifts of observation and reason. We can reason, we can understand our world--it is intelligible and we are intelligent.
This is a gift of God that we dare not despise. If dinosaurs were in charge of the planet, their tiny brains could not have comprehended global climate change.
Timing is everything
Scientists, because of God’s gift of observation and intelligence, have worked out quite a lot about geology, atmospheric science, the heat balance of the planet, and how we’re affecting it through our pollution. It’s because of God’s grace to everyone that humans can understand how global warming works. We can give thanks for that.
But even more thanks are due, because we made these discoveries in time to do something about climate change. It didn’t have to be that way.
We could have charged headlong into planetary crisis and remained completely oblivious about the causes. We could have continued pumping carbon dioxide from fossil fuel pollution into the atmosphere in ignorance of the damage it was doing. But it didn’t happen that way, which is also a sign of grace.
Throughout the 1800s, the basic science of earth’s heat balance became well-established. Without the blanketing effects of the atmosphere, we’d be a lot like Mars--uninhabitable and very cold. By the 1890s, it was known that carbon dioxide was a powerful greenhouse gas, and scientists began to wonder what the climate impacts of adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere would be (one, Svante Arrhenius, did some back-of-the-envelope calculations that came very close to the best estimates today!).
World War II brought global conflict but a side effect was the establishment of a worldwide system of weather monitoring. The peace dividend, even in the midst of the Cold War, was reams and reams of raw data that helped scientists begin to test the science of global warming in the real world, something that was not possible for the early researchers in the 1800s.
By the 1970s most of the basic science was understood, and in the two decades that followed, it became very clear that global average temperatures were rising because of pollution from fossil fuel burning. Scientists raised the alarm in earnest in the 1980s and began to get some public attention after the hot summer of 1988. That was when the nations of the world formed the IPCC (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) to assess the science, the impacts, and the possibility of changing our course.
I don’t think the timely discovery of global warming was just luck. I think we’re meant to solve this problem.
Responding to grace
God’s grace has been apparent in all of this. He gave us a good, habitable world and charged us with caring for it. He made the world understandable and gifted the human race with the intelligence to learn its working. He allowed us to discover a huge management mistake we were making and gave us time to do something about it. The result of these gracious gifts should have been that his people would flourish.
What has been our response to God’s grace?
Sadly, many in our world have despised this science and rejected its conclusions. We failed to see the significance of the gift. We’ve attacked each other rather than the problem. We haven’t taken prudent steps to manage our impact on the planet we were charged with cultivating. We have wasted a great deal of the head start that we were given.
How did that even happen?
In the coming weeks, we’ll explore the theological and practical resources that Christians can bring to the climate issue. Though, to do this, we must consider global warming as part of the great narrative of Scripture. In the meantime, God is still offering us his grace. He’s on our side, and he wants us to solve this. He still has good plans for this world, and for its people. Our job is to follow him.
If you want to read more about the amazing discovery of global warming, you could start with this short history by historian Spencer Weart.