Back in October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a special report (known now as SR15) on the importance of keeping climate change below 1.5 degree Celsius in order to prevent catastrophic changes to the global ecosystem. It sent shockwaves through much of the interested news media, particularly its recommendation for radical and immediate reductions of carbon emissions if the goal is going to be met.
Observing a high school government class earlier this week, some students were discussing these latest apocalyptic predictions and what could or should be done about them. With that great convinction and imprecision that characterizes impromptu high school debates, students broke down into two broad categories. Either they believed “we have to do something because like I think it said we’re all going to die by 2040 or there will be no more oceans or whatever” or else they argued that “climate change is just part of the way the world is; it’s normal; so if what we’re doing works for us then, I mean, why bothre changing?” I was appalled, mostly by the gross misunderstanding of the scope and nature of the problem by both camps.
Let me start by pointing out (if it needed to be said) that I am not a climate change skeptic. The world is warming and humans are a significant cause of that. My acceptance of these facts is rooted less in a clear understanding of the scientific evidence than in a clear understanding of history. When the climate changes, whatever the cause, there are dramatic and global effects for humans. Global warming at the end of the Last Glacial Maximum eventually provoked a radical alteration of the way humans had organized their socieites for hundreds of thousands of years. Global cooling in the 13th and 14th centuries fueled disease outbreaks that devestated the global population. The climate is changing, and that means radical changes for human society. (For evidence that we caused the change this time, we need only look to the coincidence of global warming and rapid global industrialization.)
The changes that are happening to the global climate right now are of a magnitude that the world has not seen since the outset of human civilization. I typically use the Ice Age to talk to my students about this, pointing out that for the last 10,000 or so years the world has been in a pattern of roughly half a degree of temperature fluctuation. The existence of human society as we know it is requires that consistency to flourish. Ryan Glaubke addressed the same point exceptionally well in a recent Quillette article:
We should remember that it isn’t so much the survival of our species that is at stake, so much as the survival of our society. Civilization, as we know it, got its foothold during a particularly placid time in our planet’s climate history. Little ice ages and medieval climate anomalies notwithstanding, the Holocene epoch—spanning the last 10,000 years, give or take—has featured a prolonged and relatively stable warm period that proved a suitable backdrop for the development of agriculture, cities and all the flurry of human activity that these permit. The downside is that the societies we have built are predicated on the stability of that same climate system….This era of stability ended roughly 150 years ago, at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution….Global mean temperature already has risen approximately 1°C since 1850. To find a comparably abrupt climate shift, we’d have to venture back 130,000 years, to a time just before the Earth plunged into its most recent Ice Age. To find carbon dioxide concentrations comparable to those we observe today, we’d have to go back much further—three million years, in fact.
Glaubke says there is good reason to be pessimistic about the fate of the earth (or rather the fate of human civilization as we know it). The purpose of his article, however, is to inspire just the opposite: climate optimism. He notes that the apocalyptic cynicism of many is actually hampering the ability of climate activists to get anything done. When we stress the nigh-insurmountable scale of the problem in the hopes of scaring people to action what we actually scare them into is cynical resignation. In short, people turn into that aforementioned high schooler whose response is, “It’s gonna happen anyway, so I’ll just keep doing me. You do you, boo boo.” Glaubke says that only confidence in the solvability of climate problems will inspire action.
Okay. But I still don’t care about whether we hit the 1.5 degree mark. Or if human society as we know it crumbles. Or if we technology is the vehicle that will carry us to our climate salvation or the rope with which we’ll hang ourselves. I just don’t care.
Glaubke, the woke high schoolers, and the climate skeptics alike all share a common conviction that the problem resolves into a question of whether and how we should act to acheive a certain (perhaps impossible) climate goal. That, to me, is precisely the problem. We ought to steward the environment well not because we may all be dead if we don’t but because having a right relationship with the non-human world is a moral good in itself. From a spiritual perspective, it doesn’t matter if humans fix the problems we created. It only matters that we repent of having created them.
A Christian approach to the problem is neither to make an idol out of the environment and worship at the alter of its preservation nor to take the all-too-common evangelical approach of use and abuse in the name of “God will destroy the world anyway.” A Christian approach recognizes that virtues like justice, modesty, self-control, and respect for all God created extends to our behavior toward the non-human world. The best way to convince Christians to become environmentaly responsible and to live in ways that are sustainable ought to be to appeal to those core Christian virtues that govern our interactions with each other and with God. It shouldn’t rely on parsing scientific reports about arbitrary markers of climate catastrophe. It should be intrinsic to our moral lives. What is right is right regardless of what the UN says. And protecting and healing the environment is right, whether or not it saves civilization as we know it.