Religious leaders: Action on climate change is a spiritual responsibility
By Georgia Logothetis, Managing Director, HALC
Climate change deniers love snow. Whether it’s the President tweeting it’s “really cold and snowing” on Memorial Day or Rupert Murdoch asking “what happened to global warming” after a cold day in London, it’s a tactic so prevalent it even has its own name: MSNBC host Chris Hayes has labeled “snow trolling.”
Perhaps the most absurd example of this occurred when Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), author of a book about global warming called “The Greatest Hoax,” brought a snowball to the floor of the U.S. Senate to proclaim that global warming wasn’t real because it was snowing outside.
Intentionally conflating weather (which changes daily) with climate (which are the large-scale weather patterns over time which show a trend) is a common tactic among climate change deniers. They cherry pick individual data points — an unseasonably cold day here or a record low temp there — to argue against the volumes of data which paint a grim picture of a warming planet. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “2016 was the hottest year ever recorded, with global average temperatures reaching 1.69°F above the 20th-century average.”
Most people associate the term “global warming” with some nebulous belief that the weather report will just keep listing a higher temperature. That’s not the full story. Global changes in temperature don’t just mean warmer weather — it means more extreme and unpredictable weather as well. Bigger hurricanes, more stubborn wildfires, longer droughts. As Tim Dickinson explained in Rolling Stone, “climate change takes these naturally occurring phenomena and turns them up to 11 — or sometimes to 20.”
The reality of this became all too clear these last weeks as record-setting hurricanes wreaked devastation across the Caribbean and Gulf Coast.
Hurricanes aren’t caused by climate change, but rising sea temperatures do make hurricanes worse. As Dickinson explained:
This has been a summer of nasty climate surprises. Hurricane Harvey, the most extreme rain event in U.S. history, sucked up enough vapor from the overheated Gulf of Mexico to dump 33 trillion gallons on land. The deluge made a mockery of our metrics — with many communities recording what the models anticipate as 1-in-25,000 year flooding, and isolated areas experiencing unfathomable 1-in-500,000 year flood.
Then Irma, a Texas-sized mega hurricane, became the most extreme storm ever measured in the Atlantic. With sustained winds of 185 mph, Irma pushed to the edge of the theoretical maximum for hurricane intensity, generating, by itself, as much cyclone energy as an entire average hurricane season. The storm leveled Barbuda, crashed into Cuba as a category-five storm, and still had enough power to ravage Key West and then inundate Jacksonville, 500 miles to the Northeast. Irma’s death rattle has spun off tornadoes in Alabama and flooded creeks in Tennessee. […] In another nasty surprise, worst-in-a-decade monsoon rains in South Asia have inundated millions and killed more than 1,200 across Nepal, Bangladesh and India.
We are learning through deadly experience.
Climate change means more than melting glaciers and creeping centimeters of sea-level rise. Climate change also means unpredictable bursts — nasty life-threatening and economy-shaking surprises. It is delivering threats against which we are powerless to harden our defenses. Even the most advanced countries in the world don’t build for a 500-year flood — much less a 500,000-year flood.
While the administration has chastised those wanting to discuss climate change in light of recent events (Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt claimed it is “insensitive” to discuss climate change in the wake of Hurricane Irma), others realize that now is precisely the time to address the issue. As Republican mayor of Miami Tomás Regalado has said:
“This is the time to talk about climate change. This is the time that the president and the E.P.A. and whoever makes decisions needs to talk about climate change,” Regalado said. “If this isn’t climate change, I don’t know what is. This is a truly, truly poster child for what is to come.”
In the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, Pope Francis called out climate change deniers:
“If we don’t go back we will go down,” he warned reporters on Monday. “That is true. You can see the effects of climate change with your own eyes and scientists tell us clearly the way forward.
“All of us have a responsibility. All of us. Some small, some big. A moral responsibility, to accept opinions, or make decisions. I think it is not something to joke about.”
He then quoted a phrase from the Old Testament: “Man is stupid, a stubborn, blind man.”
“Those who deny it (climate change) should go to the scientists and ask them,” the Pope said. “They are very clear, very precise.”
Pope Francis’s words echo those by the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, a leader who has been so focused on protecting and preserving the environment he has earned the moniker “the Green Patriarch.”
In 2012, The New York Times profiled His All Holiness and his campaign to define environmentalism as a spiritual responsibility:
In September, he published a strongly worded encyclical calling on all Orthodox Christians to repent “for our sinfulness” in not doing enough to protect the planet. Biodiversity, “the work of divine wisdom,” was not granted to humanity to abuse it, he wrote; human dominion over the earth does not mean the right to greedily acquire and destroy its resources. He singled out “the powerful of this world,” saying they need a new mind-set to stop destroying the planet for profit or short-term interest.
Other religious leaders, including Pope Benedict XVI, the Dalai Lama and the archbishop of Canterbury, have also called for responsible stewardship of the environment. But Bartholomew has gone further than most; some theologians call his stance revolutionary.
“Traditionally in Christianity, sin was what you did to other humans,” said Kallistos Ware, a prominent Orthodox theologian based in Britain, “but Bartholomew insisted that what you do to the animals, the air, the water, the land can be sinful, not just folly, and that was quite a change.”
“As Orthodox Christians, we use the Greek word kairos to describe a moment in time, often a brief moment in time, which has eternal significance. For the human race as a whole, there is now a kairos, a decisive time in our relationship with God’s creation. We will either act in time to protect life on earth from the worst consequences of human folly, or we will fail to act. May God grant us the wisdom to act in time. Amen.” — His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew
Two weeks ago, Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew issued this joint message:
The impact of climate change affects, first and foremost, those who live in poverty in every corner of the globe. Our obligation to use the earth’s goods responsibly implies the recognition of and respect for all people and all living creatures. The urgent call and challenge to care for creation are an invitation for all of humanity to work towards sustainable and integral development. […]
We urgently appeal to those in positions of social and economic, as well as political and cultural, responsibility to hear the cry of the earth and to attend to the needs of the marginalized, but above all to respond to the plea of millions and support the consensus of the world for the healing of our wounded creation. We are convinced that there can be no sincere and enduring resolution to the challenge of the ecological crisis and climate change unless the response is concerted and collective, unless the responsibility is shared and accountable, unless we give priority to solidarity and service.
The two spiritual leaders’ emphasis on the need for collective action is key. No nation on earth is spared from the effects of climate change. In Greece, the effects of climate change will be catastrophic. Although Greece is 97th in the world in terms of overall area, it has the 11th largest coastline. According to a report by the Climate Change Impacts Study Committee in Greece, Greece’ coastline is vast, “equivalent to roughly one-third of the Earth’s circumference.” (read the whole report here). But it’s not just rising sea levels that will be a problem. Even under favorable models, “the Greek mainland in 2071–2100 would, compared to now, have some 35–40 more days with a maximum daily temperature of 35 C or more, while even greater would be the increase (by around 50 at the national level) in the number of tropical nights (when minimum temperatures do not fall below 20C).” Climate change means more devastating “precipitation extremes” in Eastern Greece, with a possible increase of 30%, while Western Greece would see a 20% decrease. Drought would ravage part of the mainland and areas like Northern Crete, where the model predicts “20 more drought days are expected per year in 2021–2050 and up to 40 more drought days in 2071–2100.” In short, “the impact of climate change on all sectors of the economy that were examined was found to be negative, and, in several cases, extremely so.”
Nations will have to portend not only with the effects of climate change within their own borders, but climate change refugees will upend large-scale migration patterns and pose new challenges.
“Alarmist” is a derogatory and dismissive term climate change skeptics use in response to data such as the above. Yet Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholow haven’t merely sounded the alarm — they have also issued a call to action. As His All Holiness has said in the past:
It is not too late. God’s world has incredible healing powers. Within a single generation, we could steer the earth toward our children’s future. Let that generation start now, with God’s help and blessing.