An Issue of Life and Death
The inconvenient truth that climate change is the life issue the church isn't talking about
Ten years ago, An Inconvenient Truth debuted. The groundbreaking, Oscar-winning documentary showed the world the devastating effects of climate change on the Earth. For many it signified an important moment of awareness, education and action, but in my family it was viewed with ridicule.
In my home and the community I belonged to—and to millions like it around the United States—Al Gore was just trying to capitalize financially off of a ruse while he flew around the world in his private jet that produced more carbon emissions in a year than I could in a lifetime.
Unfortunately, this film that sparked a movement also alienated an entire segment of the population that could have been one of the movement’s strongest allies, decidedly politicizing the way a lot of people view climate change. You know the story: The issue became framed within terms of belief (whether you believe climate change is real or not) rather than focusing on the facts.
But people from this world, which is to say people like me, became disillusioned with the whole global warming-climate change plight.
This summer, more than 10 years later, Gore is at the center of a sequel documentary called An Inconvenient Sequel. It’s a film he’s sad was necessary because he thought the facts were so clearly laid out in the original. In the decade that followed, several of the documentary’s predictions came true, including 2015 being the hottest year on record (which, of course, wasn’t predicted down to the year). But notably, one of the film’s most incredulously received predictions was the most specific. An Inconvenient Truth predicted that a storm surge combined with the rising sea level would flood the 9/11 Memorial site. And in 2012, it happened precisely that way with Hurricane Sandy—a fact that the sequel is not afraid to acknowledge. The new film documents these things, and presents progress being made to reverse climate damage.
This new film is markedly more positive as it shows the ways different places around the world are adapting and taking steps to reduce their footprint.
“This is a hopeful cause now,” Gore said. “We have the solutions.”
This time around, the film’s directors followed Gore for two years to see some of the most vulnerable people and places dealing with climate change.
In a very emotional portion of the film, Gore is in the Philippines comforting a man who survived Typhoon Haiyan in 2013—its severity could be attributed to climate change—and is still recovering.
“I’ve met so many people with burdens on their hearts that are just impossible to imagine,” he has said.
Still, An Inconvenient Sequel retains the original’s aggression—the politicization that made it so controversial and polarizing. If it’s possible, this new movie ramps up the political parts.
It’s clear that Gore and the filmmakers fear many of the forward steps taken over the past decade or so could be reversed in the decidedly different political world of 2017 and beyond.
An Inconvenient Sequel is certainly about science, but less so than before. And, unfortunately, that could mean it will face an uphill battle in reaching people who don’t see the importance of paying attention to climate change—a huge portion of which, in the U.S., are Christians.
And as it turns out, Christians have more reason than anyone to be concerned—and more impetus to take action.
Beyond the politics
For as long as Christians have been a functional part of society, the idea of “love of neighbor” has been a guiding ethic. These days, American Christians express that most recognizably in charity for the poor and pro-life advocacy. And while climate change doesn’t often make the list of major Christian social concerns, one of the country’s leading climate scientists thinks that’s a big mistake.
“The No. 1 reason we care about climate change is because it is exacerbating issues we already face today,” says Katharine Hayhoe, Christian climate scientist and author of A Climate for Change. “It is taking all the risks that used to be natural and it’s weighting the dice on them. Storms are getting stronger, more extreme and more frequent, and we care about it because it affects us. It affects our energy, our water, our agriculture, our food, our health, but it disproportionately affects people who are already on the edge, who are already struggling to get by.”
The crux of the matter is, climate change is affecting people now. Most notably, it’s affecting those living in poverty and those who are already vulnerable. And Hayhoe thinks it’s central to almost all global concerns for life.
Ben Lowe, senior adviser to Young Evangelicals for Climate Action and author of Doing Good Without Giving Up, echoes this sentiment precisely:
“It is the poor and vulnerable who will continue to suffer the most—such as the communities I work with around Lake Tanganyika who are struggling from climate-driven declines in this critical inland fishery. They’re among the smallest contributors to climate change, yet they bear some of the greatest impacts and have the least capacity to adapt.”
When you live day to day for subsistence, there are few to no options for you when that routine is interrupted. As scientists track the impacts of climate change with the changing weather and precipitation patterns, the subsequent droughts and floods permanently harm subsistence farming, forcing people into extreme poverty.
Lowe and Hayhoe are clear: Climate change exacerbates many of the other issues in the world we’re already seeking to address: poverty, war, disease, trafficking and care for refugees.
Take, for example, the Syrian civil war, which has partial roots in the massive drought that hit the country causing people to migrate and quarrel over water access. The World Health Organization and scientists across the globe are seeking to prepare for the increase in infectious diseases expected due to climate change. When people are forced to move because of war, lack of food or water, or any number of other reasons based in survival, they become much more at-risk of being taken advantage of or trafficked. The impacts of climate change already have and will continue to ripple across many justice issues we already care about.
But we will feel the effects eventually, too.
“Many of us who are among the most privileged and insulated people in the world will often get to ignore the impacts of climate change the longest,” Lowe says. “But we can’t hide forever.”
In the West, most have the opportunity to visit grocery stores and enjoy water straight from a faucet, but many will feel the impacts of climate change soon if they haven’t already.
Hurricane Sandy was the largest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded due to abnormally warm ocean temperatures. It completely devastated parts of the East Coast.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has released multiple reports on the subject with information on mitigation, adaptation and cost estimation as climate change is expected to greatly impact both crop and livestock production here in the United States.
Why does climate change matter so much? Because it’s not just apocalyptic predictions: It’s affecting people negatively now, it will aggravate issues we already care about and it’s going to more strongly impact us and those closest to us, soon.
Central Christian concern
One of the most basic reasons we as Christians should care about climate change is because God entrusted the care of His creation to His people (Genesis 2:15). But beyond that simple imperative to care for the Earth as God commanded, according to Brian Webb—who is the director of Climate Caretakers—climate change is increasingly becoming a justice issue.
“I’m an optimist by nature, and I’d like to believe that the American Church will begin to see climate change for what it is: an injustice imposed by the wealthy upon the world’s poor.”
Hayhoe explains it: “We have built our prosperity on the use of fossils fuels, but our prosperity is not free. The bill is coming due, and right now, that bill is being disproportionately paid by those who did nothing to contribute to it.”
If you look at a global map showing countries with the highest carbon emissions next to a map of the areas of the world that are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, it becomes glaringly obvious how much of a justice issue this is.
The wealthiest in the world (which includes us) contribute the most to climate change with our cars, planes, electricity and wasteful habits, while it is the most impoverished areas that are most vulnerable to the negative effects with little to no ability to adapt.
Our choices can be oppressive, whether or not we realize what we’re doing.
Christians, therefore, are once again mandated—not recommended or asked nicely—to care for the poor, the orphan, the widow, the oppressed; it’s the Christian duty.
Humankind is destroying God’s creation, causing irreversible changes in climate and weather patterns, and in doing this, we inadvertently find ourselves further oppressing the poor and vulnerable. You simply can’t escape that climate change must be considered a Christian ethical issue.
What Can We Do Now?
Webb thinks, for Christians concerned about the climate, work needs to be done to grow beyond the divisive legacy An Inconvenient Truth left among Evangelical Christians. Instead, he suggests, the motivator needs to shift from panic and even guilt to acting on the biblical imperative to care for God’s creation and for the impoverished.
“There are a million things that Christians can do to decrease their contribution to global warming, but it all starts by paying attention,” he says.
So what does paying attention look like?
If you google “What can I do about
climate change?” hundreds of lists show up. Drive smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. Eat less meat. Install LED bulbs. Carpool. Buy reusable items instead of single-use. Cut down on your plastic usage. Invest in clean energy.
All of these are relatively easily integrated into your everyday life, and they will make a difference. The more difficult task—and more impactful in the long term—includes political involvement. The consensus of experts is that the government must act, and that means those looking for change must reach out to elected representatives and implore them to take action on climate change.
Webb suggests simply letting your politicians know you care about climate change. Ask them to tighten fuel standards and support a carbon tax. Ask them to join the international community on efforts to tackle climate issues.
It’s easy to get bogged down in political propaganda, but you can instead prepare and aim to mitigate the impacts of climate change. After all, aren’t elected officials supposed to represent your interests (that’s their job!)?
You can also find an organization like Micah Challenge USA, Climate Caretakers or Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, and join their communities as they take political action on these important issues.
Lowe says, “The most important thing we can do to fight climate change is to know and follow Jesus with obedience; to seek, by the power of the Spirit, to live out the gospel across all aspects of our lives. This isn’t just a short list of climate-friendly actions we can check off. It’s a lifelong journey to grow into our calling as God’s people doing God’s work in
But if the task seems too vast, Lowe says there are actually abundant opportunities to take a stand—if only we open our eyes to the needs around us. Yes, there may be a lot of doom and gloom out there regarding climate change—have you listened to S-Town?—but Christians cannot let that stop us from taking action now or in the future.
Mike McHargue (AKA, Science Mike), while visiting his elected officials in Washington along with some of the Micah Challenge team, connected the issue of climate change to his faith in terms beyond the ethical: “My faith tells me it’s never too late, no matter the political climate or how many parts per million of carbon there are in the air, it is never too late to work for a better tomorrow starting now,” he says.
Despite where you have come from ideologically and regardless of the dim view many parrot about our future, Christians can make a difference. We’ve been called to make a difference.