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Pulse
19 December 2022

From 6 to 18 November 2022, Heads of State, ministers, climate activists, mayors, civil society representatives and CEOs met at the Egyptian Coast city of Sharm el-Sheikh to discuss climate change and climate action.

This gathering known as the Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – COP27 – sought to build on the decisions and outcomes of COP26 held at Glasgow (U.K.) last year.

In his rousing speech at the opening of the Conference, António Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, did not mince his words when he described the current ecological crisis and the urgent actions that must be taken to save the planet and its inhabitants.

He warned the delegates at the Conference and the watching world that ‘the clock is ticking. We are in the fight of our lives. And we are losing … our planet is fast approaching tipping points that will make climate chaos irreversible. We are on the highway to climate hell with our foot still on the accelerator.’

To those who were still not convinced that climate change is anthropogenic, the Secretary-General baldly stated that ‘Human activity is the cause of the climate problem.’ However, this must also mean that ‘human action must be the solution.’

These words – both sombre and sobering – were based on the Global Carbon Project report which was prepared by more than 70 scientists and which was launched at COP27. The report states that emissions of CO2 are now rising so quickly – exacerbated by increase in post-Covid air travel and the use of coal – that there is now a 50 percent chance that the world will soon breach the key 1.5C temperature rise, causing it to cross a crucial climate threshold.

According to the United Nations climate body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), temperature rises must be kept below 1.5C. IPCC believes that by doing so 10 million people will be protected from losing their homes to rising sea levels, the number of people facing water insecurity will be halved, and coral reef erosion will be reduced from 99 percent to 77 percent.

Guterres urged countries to work together to address the climate crisis, stressing that it ‘is a moral imperative’ to do so. He proposed what he called a ‘Climate Solidarity Pact’ at the beginning of COP27 – a historic collaboration between developed and emerging economies. It is a Pact that:

  • encourages all countries to make an extra effort to reduce emissions so as to meet the 1.5C goal;
  • encourages wealthier countries to provide financial assistance to developing economies so that they may
  • speed up their transition to renewable energies;
  • seeks to end the dependence on fossil fuels, phasing out coal in OECD countries by 2030 and the rest of the world by 2040;
  • seeks to unite developed and emerging economies around a common strategy and share resources for the common good

These are bold proposals which require much political will – especially on the part of wealthier countries and larger economies such as the United States and China – to achieve.

But the urgency in Guterres’ message at the Conference is palpable. He told the leaders that ‘We are getting dangerously close to the point of no return.’ ‘Humanity has a choice: cooperate or perish,’ he stressed.

SCEPTICISM AMONG EVANGELICALS

Christians, with their profound doctrine of creation and responsible stewardship, should be concerned about the health and future of the world they inhabit. However, studies have shown that many evangelical Christians in the United States are ‘climate change sceptics’ in that they either do not believe in global warming or that human beings are responsible for the changes in the climate.

For example, according to a Pew Research Centre poll conducted in May 2020, while 62 percent of religiously affiliated adults in the United States believe that the planet is warming due to human behaviour and actions, only 35 percent of Protestants, and 24 percent of white evangelicals do.

In addition, influential individuals and organisations associated with the evangelical segment of the Church have publicly challenged the consensus of scientists concerning global warming and its cause.

In fact, a coalition of major evangelical groups in America, which includes powerful organisations such as Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council, has initiated a movement which not only openly denounces the climate science consensus as ‘the false worldview’ but which has also accused environmentalists of ‘striving to put America, and the world, under its destructive control.’

During his presidency, Donald Trump famously rejected climate change, calling it ‘a hoax’. Thus, he could make statements such as ‘It’s freezing in New York – where the hell is global warming’ and ‘We must reject the perennial prophets of doom and their predictions of the apocalypse’.

Trump has also spun conspiracy theories about climate change. For example, in one Tweet he said: ‘The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.’

Unfortunately, many evangelicals have been influenced by the former President’s scepticism concerning the current ecological crisis. But there are also other factors which led evangelicals to question the prevailing climate science.

Some scholars opine that climate change scepticism among evangelicals can be attributed to their ‘anti-science attitudes,’ which refer to the rejection of mainstream science as the basis of broad universal knowledge about the world.

Katherine Wilkinson, for example, has argued in her book Between God and Green: How Evangelicals are Cultivating a Middle Ground on Climate Change (2012) that science scepticism among evangelicals can possibly be traced all the way back to the evolution-creation debate.

It must, however, be pointed out that while there is no doubt that some evangelicals reject climate change or global warming because of their ‘anti-science attitudes’ – spiced up by unfounded conspiracy theories – this is not the case for all evangelicals, as we shall see.

In addition, the ‘anti-science’ label may be inadequate and even misleading. Not all evangelicals who reject the view that climate change is man-made are Luddites – opposed to science and scientific research.

Another reason why some evangelicals reject the current scientific consensus on climate change is the theology they espouse, especially their eschatology. In 2010, a Pew Research Centre study found that 62 percent of white evangelical Americans believe that Jesus would return by 2050.

In her book The Gospel of Climate Scepticism: Why Evangelical Christians Oppose Action on Climate Change (2019), Robin Globus Veldman explains that because Christians believe that the world will come to an end, there is little or no reason to worry about climate change.

This view is especially common among evangelicals who hold pre-millennial views. As Mike Hulme put it in his book Why We Disagree About Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity (2009):

Those who hold pre-millennial views [are] more likely to interpret predictions of climate change – especially catastrophic climate change – as a sign that the millennium approaches. Such presaging of the era of direct divine rule is less likely to stimulate desire and behaviour to avoid such an outcome.

CHRISTIANS FOR CLIMATE ACTION

As I mentioned earlier, not all evangelicals are climate change sceptics. In fact, some evangelical organisations not only accept the dominant scientific view regarding the human contribution to the current ecological crisis, they are also working actively to promote climate actions.

For example, the National Association of Evangelicals (NEA), which represents 45,000 evangelical churches in the United States, clearly emphasises the need for climate action in its report Loving the Least of These which was published in 2011, and republished in 2022.

‘The earth brings glory to God, and God continues to care for and sustain the natural processes of the world,’ it states. It adds:

The psalmist says: “Praise the LORD, all his works everywhere in his dominion. Praise the LORD, my soul” (Psalm 103:22). Because God’s glory is revealed in creation, we should be intentional about caring for his artistry.

Although the majority of climate scientists agree that the current ecological crisis is caused by human action, there are some prominent members of the scientific community who still dispute this theory. The Report, however, cuts through the debates and controversies by adopting a clear and sensible approach that is inspired by the Bible itself.

Evangelicals look to the Bible for guidance in all areas of life. What can the Bible say to us in this world where pollution, heat waves, floods and droughts are frequent? The Bible does not tell us anything directly about how to evaluate scientific reports or how to respond to a changing environment, but it does give several helpful principles: Care for creation, love our neighbours and witness to the world.

Citing the command found in Matthew 22 to ‘love your neighbour as yourself,’ the report applies it to our shared responsibility to reach out to those who are suffering, especially climate refugees – poignantly described as ‘the world’s forgotten victims’ by an article published on the World Economic Forum’s website.

The NEA report and the approach it has taken is important and instructive because it returns us to the fundamentals. It brings us back to the fact that God has called us to be stewards of his creation and commanded us to be invested in the welfare of our neighbours.

This is the basic responsibility of all Christians, regardless of their political commitments, scientific opinions or eschatology.


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.