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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Climate Questions
distributed 2/24/06 - ©2006

Climate is always on my mind. It is the "environmental issue" that most troubles my soul, and that motivates my ministry of transformation and hope.

This week, in a series of classes, meetings and emails, I have talked to a variety of people about how we, in churches, can raise the issue of climate change in ways that make a difference. As I look back over those diverse conversations, I see a consistent theme: the questions we ask about climate change make a big difference in how we engage our communities.

Here are three "climate questions" that I have lifted up this week. Each of them brought about a significant shift in the way church groups were able to address this urgent issue.

  1. Why should we believe that climate change is NOT happening?
    At a class that I led last Sunday on climate change, the first question was from a person who asserted that the science is uncertain, and that human influences on climate are negligible. I reversed the burden of proof, and asked why we should not believe. Re-framing the question allowed the other members of the class to continue the discussion without falling into a defensive attitude.

    The basic theory about the greenhouse effect is unquestioned science -- and has been since 1827. The rapidly rising levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses are well-documented and undisputed. Therefore -- unless there is some major flaw in the core science, or some other strong effect is at work -- global warming will occur. It is up to the "skeptics" to offer proof of why the earth is not heating up.

    Reputable scientists in all of the appropriate fields are in strong agreement about the basics of climate change. Most of the industrialized nations of the world have agreed that the threat is real, and have ratified the Kyoto protocols on the basis of accepted science.

    It is time to take the approach of the "Founding Fathers" of the United States, and to assert boldly, "We hold these truths to be self-evident." Once we accept the fact that humans are causing climate change, we can move on to more significant questions about what that means to us, and what we can do about it.

  2. What sorts of evidence will our community find compelling?
    We're at a point where most of the people in our churches know something about global warming. But for many, that basic knowledge is only an intellectual affirmation. We need to make the fact of global warming compelling.

    I was invited to lead last week's class session because some church members had seen news reports about how the melting Arctic ice cap puts polar bears at risk of extinction. Images of bears without ice raised concerns that had never been triggered by graphs of global temperatures.

    The members of our congregations are diverse in their learning styles, as well as in their theology and politics. While scientific fact is compelling to some, stories and images are probably a more powerful means of communicating to most of them.

    Starving and exhausted polar bears -- the way last fall's hurricanes exploded into Category 5 storms over the super-heated water of the Gulf of Mexico, and images of environmental refugees from those storms -- the flooding of South Pacific island nations by rising seas. Those sorts of graphic specifics have an ability to take a fact that is known in the abstract (that climate change is happening) and turn it into an emotionally and spiritually perceived truth.

  3. How can we stimulate conversation instead of debate?
    Partisan debates over public policy (where most of us are poorly informed, anyway) may divide congregations and increase conflict. Raising different kinds of questions -- ones dealing with feelings and beliefs -- can enhance relationships and community, and invite people into deeper engagement with the issue.

    Imagine a class series on climate change that asks participants to discuss these questions:

    • What sort of world do I want to leave for my children and grandchildren?
    • What core principles from my faith lead me to see climate change as important, or unimportant?
    • Who are my neighbors, and what is the most loving way to care for them? To what extent does my ethical concern reach out to other species, and to future generations?
    • In the face of climate change, where am I called to curtail my personal freedom out of concern for others? (Think of the ways that "second-hand smoke" changed the face of the no smoking campaigns.)

+     +     +     +     +

What are you willing to do about it?

That, of course, is the big question. Doing something about it is the reason that we need to ask all of those other questions. But the question of what to do is best asked after dealing with at least some of the others. Once we have moved past the distraction of scientific uncertainty, once we have found the compelling evidence that touches our hearts and souls, once we have claimed the personal and ethical motivations that make action important, then the details of personal action and social policy become urgent.

Churches have a distinctive ability -- and a responsibility -- to raise these sorts of probing questions. Because of our proclamation of a transformative faith and ethics, because of our commitment to community, we can engage our members with perspectives on climate change that they will not encounter anywhere else.

Humanity is distorting and destroying God's good creation as we change the earth's climate. The church, if it has any claim to faithfulness, must address that issue. May we, in our congregations and denominations, raise the faithful questions that can lead us to transformation.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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