Faith in Climate Action — The Church’s Response to Hothouse Earth

As a people deeply concerned about the rising climate crisis, we have often called upon our fellow members of faith communities to fulfill the inherent moral imperative to protect human life, to defend a just civilization, and to guard life-supporting creation. To stand firm by the creation justice imperative laid down in ancient religious and moral teachings the world over.

During recent years, a growing number of faithful have responded — both by listening to the modern prophecy of warning coming from climate science and by embracing the increasingly capable clean energy and sustainability based economies that now provide a needed substitution to creation-destroying fossil fuels. This response is wide-ranging — including Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change (Entitled Laudato Si — which means ‘praise be to you’ and having the subtitle ‘on care for our common home’), to the actions of churches, temples and mosques to install local clean energy systems, to the direct support of various religious and climate activists in fossil fuel divestment and clean energy investment campaigns, to tree-planting and nature revitalization initiatives by those in ministry, to the direct defense of climate science which provides a bridge of understanding for many of the most fundamental imperatives of faith.

For those who have followed this blog through the years, this particular writing may seem a bit of a departure. Although perhaps not too much of one considering both the writings of Climate Scientist and Christian Katharine Hayhoe. Nor, also, because the work of climate justice, as alluded to above, is an action in response to the words of modern day prophecy that makes even some of the most dire warnings of the prophets of the Bible seem paltry by comparison. So fair a bit of warning to you all — this article will editorially drift from direct explorations of science and into something that is more in line with a moral invocation to pursuing safety and survival for what religious scholars call creation, for our global civilization, and for all the innocent life both support.

Active Love of Creation vs Acts of Destruction

During late June, I was asked by an Education for Ministry chapter to provide a set of actions that Church laypeople can undertake to pursue what is perhaps the most basic and vital imperative laid out in the Bible. Before I do, I’d like to address some root issues of faith, morality and scientific prophecy to provide you with the tools needed to ready your hearts for action. This involves scrubbing away cynicism and related typical barriers. In other words. Before we act, we must first resolve our hearts, minds and souls. To see clearly the path before us.

(For further exploration– above is a video blog expanding on this post.)

Resolution is not always easy. It requires seeing things as they are. Not through a comfortable blur that may hide darkness or danger. And we are dealing with an issue of great darkness. Perhaps the greatest of all darkness. As such, it is inherently very difficult to grapple with. The mind wants to recoil, the heart wants to quail. As people we think, ‘why me?’ And we wonder at the unfairness of living in a time of such difficulty and danger. But where there is deep darkness, there is also great light. A hope for both a better world and a better humanity. One that could be still more vital and Eden-like if we care for it, and the other that could embrace more of the loving ideals that we have for so long set aside as divine. In scripture, to me, it seems that God has kindly and patiently asked for us to do this all along. And tragedy has only come when we did not listen and do. Here too, in our world, there is some more good news. For there are now many technical, physical and social avenues for pursuing defense of creation at present. So have hope!

Biblical Imperative for Keeping Safe Creation as a Guard Against Extinction

But first — for laypeople seeking guidance for climate action based in faith — a resolution and a warning. To be crystal clear, the basis for creation protection was first laid out in Genesis and resounds loudly and undeniably throughout the Bible. Indeed, the Bible contains numerous exhortations, and seeming pleadings by God and the prophets to protect and defend and keep safe and nurture and care for and to be kind to creation. It also contains equally numerous and often terrifying warnings of serious consequences if this care is not provided.

Inherent in these exhortations, pleadings, and warnings is a universal choice. And it is also the choice of our hearts. It is the choice between love and connection as action or a selfish turning away and cutting of ties that results terrible tragedy. Faith in this instance is not belief in some magical being that will come down from the sky and give you gifts like mana. Faith, instead, is the active process of living and of supporting other lives in a benevolent fashion. Of belief in connection, sharing, supporting, communicating, growing and pursuing good works.

Like most works of an active conscientious spirit, the imperative to defend and care for creation comes quietly but directly. Like a fair wind. For Genesis 2:15 states —

The Lord God took man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 

A simple phrase. A quiet phrase. God says — “I put you here. Keep my garden of creation.” But given the later context provided, a pretty weighty statement. In short, according to Genesis, God took the progenitors of humankind and placed them into the Garden of Eden, the garden of creation, an idyllic place devoid of violence and predation, for the direct purpose of keeping it safe. Of sustaining it. In the passage, the ancient word used to describe this keeping action is Shamar.

Now keeping might seem a simple word. And easily overlooked. But Shamar is rather more expansive. Shamar being the old Hebrew word for guarding, protecting, preserving, keeping safe, and loving. Its first use in the Bible comes from God’s directive to humankind to keep the Garden of Eden. To guard and cherish and keep safe life-sustaining creation. The original word used was Shamar.

We all know the painful tragedy of Eden. Of quiet conscience denied. Humankind did not sustain the garden. We failed in the task of Shamar. We cynically sought knowledge of evil through the fruit of the second tree. The garden of was barred by a flaming sword as a direct result. In the Bible story, the first great consequence is humankind’s ejection from Eden forever. Removal from direct contact with the Tree of Life. A morality tale of the first order that includes a fair warning for all of human civilization — ejection from life-sustaining creation is the upshot of denying its laws, of turning away from the charge of Shamar. It results in harm, desolation, dislocation, and isolation. A warning that clearly resonates with the extinction alarm coming from the science of climate crisis. In the Biblical sense we could well say, care for creation, do not tempt the sword of God.

This is a hard message. It is as unyielding as nature itself. And it is understandable why we may recoil from it. But the message is two sided. Our actions either generate safety, a loving universe, and, later, redemption, or distancing from the benevolent spirit termed sin, suffering, a world of exile from life, extinction. Various versions of this Biblical warning would repeat in many forms again and again. In the flood story of Genesis, in the various calamities of Exodus and Isaiah, and on through Jeremiah and Revelation.

In Jeremiah 12:4, the prophet laments for the destruction of the life-giving earth —

How long will the land mourn, and the grass of every field wither? For the wickedness of those who live in it the animals and the birds are swept away…

In 12:10-13, God reminds Jeremiah of the consequences to those who harm the land —

Many shepherds have destroyed my vineyard, they have trampled down my portion, they have made a pleasant portion a … desolation … it mourns me. The whole land is made desolate, but no one lays it to heart… Upon all the bare heights in the desert the spoilers have come; for the sword of the LORD devours from one end of the land to the other; no one shall be safe.

Jeremiah is well known for providing warnings to a civilization that fell to conquest because it lacked the capacity to absorb and respond to the information he provided. And it should be noted that Jeremiah also provides this warning to us about destruction of creation.

More succinctly, the final book of the Bible, Revelation 11:18 provides reward for the servants of God, for prophets like Jeremiah and present day climate scientists, and for saints, like St Francis, who cherished the creation-preserving imperative of Shamar. But at the end of the verse, according to the Bible, God warns of a time for —

…destroying those who destroy the earth…

So at the Bible’s conclusion we once again return to another version of the morality tale provided at its inception. Care for creation. Protect creation. Love it. Destroy it and risk destruction.

The Prophecy of Science

The frail humankind of the Bible still exists. The same one beholden to the same natural laws. Though our understanding and, indeed, our power has grown to encompass the Earth. The Earth, as we have learned from our expanding understanding of creation known as science, is but one tiny place in a vast universe. An island of abundant life in a sea of hostile natural forces.

The Earth, as seen from the Voyager 1 spacecraft in 1990 from a distance of about 6 billion kilometres. It is the small speck of light, less than a pixel, in the red-brown band in center-right of the above image. See Pale Blue Dot.

The late and great Carl Sagan described our living foothold here within the thin veil of atmosphere of an otherwise unremarkable planet, seen from afar through the Voyager space probe, as a Pale Blue Dot. This is our Eden. Our one place of abundance within our reach. All around us is killing vacuum, radiation, searing heat, and freezing cold. We can survive no-where else, unless we bring along the life-sustaining air and water and soil and life of Earth with us. In the cosmic sense, our hold on life is tenuous and frail. At the mercy of titanic forces that we, as a race, still can only barely comprehend. The Biblical sword of the LORD — a sword of Damocles in fact — hanging over us continuously throughout our existence.

Here on Earth and in that diaphanous veil of atmosphere, the balance of forces that sustain life is also tenuous. Complex life here has existed in abundance only for a short span of the Earth’s existence. For plants, about 850 million years out of 4.5 billion. For animals, about 550 million years out of the same span following Earth’s formation. In that time, human civilizations have only existed for about 11,000 years. It is also worth noting that continuous settlement at places like Jericho, in that time, was only made possible by the kinder climate of the Holocene (the slightly more than 10,000 years of stable climate that has now been ended by burning fossil fuels).

The time of the Bible touches an oral history that may, perhaps, cover a majority of that span. But only vaguely and in the sparsely figurative, but far easier to preserve over long periods, language of myth. The more directly historic tellings of the Bible, rather than those that link back to older oral traditions, are instead archaeologically tied to the Bronze Age starting around 4,000 years ago. As we have seen, what we can glean from the Biblical arc reveals that human existence, even in this relatively short span within the recently kind climate epoch, was also tenuous. And an entirely reasonable fear of extinction is a contextual feature in these old stories. A rational sense that we must live well and keep creation safe in order to keep ourselves and our children safe.

In the deep history of life on Earth, there have been many extinction events. Times when entire races and species of life were forever expelled from our Eden here. And the worst of these were the Hothouse Extinction Events. The most extreme, the Permian Extinction or Great Dying, was a hothouse extinction that resulted in the loss of about 96 percent of species in the ocean and 70 percent of species on land. It occurred at a time of rapid increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide (as is happening now due to fossil fuel burning) along with a similar and directly related rapid heating of the land and ocean. This heating set off a chain of destructive events such as an anoxic and acidic ocean (an ocean that shifts to a toxic, low oxygen state whose uptake of carbon dioxide also generates an acidic state), extreme weather the would make the Bible’s telling of Noah’s flood catastrophe look tame by comparison, and, likely, an injection of ozone destroying chemicals into the upper atmosphere.

Earth’s stability in a hospitable and non-violent climate zone is a tenuous balance. Emit too much carbon dioxide, and we cross a planetary threshold in which the Earth tips into a hothouse state. Hothouse Earth is a dangerous climate state that has resulted in mass extinction of species. Present human fossil fuel burning is producing approximately ten times the annual heat trapping gas emission that ultimately resulted in the worst extinction — the Permian Extinction event. Image source: Steffen, W., J. Rockström, K. Richardson et al. 2018. “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene.” Proceedings of the National Academy 115 (33): 8252–8259 and Why Positive Climate Feedbacks are so Bad.

The Permian Extinction was the most extreme of all the hothouse events. But it doesn’t have to get as bad as the Permian to be terrible. Of the 5 worst mass extinctions recorded in the deep history of Earth, global heating occurs as potential contributing factors or the main event in 3 (Permian, Triassic-Jurassic, and during the period of multiple extinction events that wiped out the dinosaurs and hit ocean life hard around 66 million years ago). Meanwhile, abrupt and/or dramatic climate change triggered by some major event is implicated in all 5. Moreover, there is a much longer record of ‘milder’ extinctions associated with global heating and its cohort — disruption of the carbon cycle.

To be clear, as rough as some of the climatic events described in the Bible may look, the Holocene of around 8000 BCE to 2000 CE in which these events occurred was among the kindest climate periods to grace the Earth. But through the mechanism of fossil fuel burning we are injecting enough heat-trapping carbon into the atmosphere to cause the Earth’s temperature to increase at a faster rate than at any time in Earth’s deep past. Faster than even during the great Permian Extinction. And if we dig up all the carbon that we are capable of burning — all the coal, the oil, the gas, the hydrates, and the shales — then we will set off an event that may rival or exceed the Permian in its velocity of damaging change and ultimate destruction of life.

With less than 1 degree C of global temperature change, the number of worldwide disasters related to the climate crisis was already on the rise through 2010. At present, we are at around a 1.1 C departure from Holocene base temperatures. Burn all the fossil fuels and you end up with as much as 12 C+ temperature increase over the long term and around 6 C this Century alone. Image source: World Meteorological Organization.

This science is modern Jeremiah on steroids. It coincides with Biblical morality in that the information it provides is a plea to the conscience in each of us. To keep our life-sustaining Earth. To listen to the original commandment of Shamar — to keep the garden. To not be destroyed as the destroyers of the Earth. What would a modern Jeremiah of science say? Something like this — “the great hothouse extinction is coming; stop burning fossil fuels!”

Faith in Climate Action

So what can you do? What can you do as a Christian, as a member of a benevolent faith that has at its heart the sacred principle of preserving and saving life? What can you do as a human being living on the Earth — seeking survival for yourself and for those who will follow in your footsteps? Thankfully, there are many actions you can take if you simply have the will to do so.

For ease of reference, I’m going to break these actions down into 3 categories. The first is social and political action. The second is economic action. The third is individual action.

To be crystal clear, to primary cause of the present climate emergency and ramp up to Hothouse Earth, is fossil fuel burning. Fossil fuel burning and industrial use of fossil fuel is directly (through combustion) and indirectly (through leaks, mining, contrails, black carbon, secondary synthetic heat-trapping chemicals, leeching from fossil fuel based materials like plastics etc.) the cause of more than 80 percent of the heat trapping gasses and substances that enter the Earth’s atmosphere. CO2, whose great recent accumulation is entirely driven by fossil fuel combustion, is the biggest heat trapper of all and is historically implicated by science in all past hothouse events. The economic, social and political links to this burning are systemic. So the best solutions are also systemic and aimed at the political, social and economic systems and institutions that perpetuate fossil fuel burning. Thus the categories listed are arranged in order of greatest effect to least effect. Political, societal and policy action having the greatest impact, economic action also having far reaching effect, and individual action, while still important, having the least overall reach.

Societal and political action is perhaps the best way to enact far-reaching change. It may also be the most difficult path because it directly targets systems of power. However, this avenue must be pursued because without it all other efforts are hobbled. Ceding the political field to bad actor fossil fuel companies, petro-states, and dictators will have disastrous consequences as these actors have historically hobbled efforts to respond to the climate crisis and we can expect such behavior to continue for as long as there is no effective counter to it. So participate in efforts that increase the political power of climate action. Such participation can be undertaken in the following manner:

  1. Vote for political candidates that support climate action.
  2. Voice your support for climate action policies like the Green New Deal, Clean Power Plan, Fuel Efficiency Standards, Paris Climate Agreement, etc. Individual policies alone may not be sufficient by themselves, but the accumulation and escalation of policy after policy generates an additive effect that accelerates climate action.
  3. Join a climate action group like Creation Justice Ministries, the Sierra Club,, or Extinction Rebellion. Become part of organizing for such action groups by inviting new members and consistently working with the members of such groups on various campaigns like Beyond Coal, Beyond Carbon, and Divest/Invest.
  4. Canvass for clean energy and climate action candidates.
  5. Work to shut down pipelines, coal plants, and fossil fuel extraction activities through the climate action group networks.
  6. Support legal action against fossil fuel bad actors who generate mass harm to groups and individuals.
  7. Work to encourage the construction of clean energy and sustainability industry in your region — solar production, electric vehicle production, wind production, reforestation, meat substitution production, sustainable farms, and carbon draw down activities.
  8. Support climate science and scientists. Voice your support for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other major climate action and research bodies.
  9. Oppose climate change denial from individuals, groups, and institutions. Publicly point out its inherent immorality.
  10. Support climate leaders like Dr. Michael E Mann, Bill McKibben, Greta Thunberg, Katharine Hayhoe.
  11. Speak out in your local political and religious communities about the need for climate action.

Economic Action is also crucial. Often, we see monetary spending as some kind of dark arena that is only dominated by self interest. However, what should be clear is that how and where we spend our money or encourage others to spend is an expression of our values. In the case of faith, spending money on clean energy and sustainability, encouraging others to do the same, and working to remove funding from harmful fossil fuels is a moral action.

  1. Divest from fossil fuels. Shift your investment funds away from oil, gas, coal, companies that manufacture internal combustion engines, and financial entities that support the same.
  2. Invest in clean energy and sustainability. Invest in wind, solar, electrical vehicles, companies that provide efficiency technology, sustainable farming, re-greening and reforestation funds, carbon drawdown, and other sustainability based economic efforts.
  3. Campaign to have churches, businesses, schools and universities, city and state governments, and other institutions divest from fossil fuels and invest in clean energy. Send letters to leaders. Establish an ongoing chain of communication. Organize for continued and sustained action directed at institutional transformation.
  4. Purchase clean energy systems for yourself. Buy solar panels, purchase an electric vehicle, purchase wind and solar energy from your power provider. Participate in the clean energy economy. This broadens the base of clean energy and becomes an expression of values to those around you.
  5. Support efforts for institutions and government to purchase clean energy systems, increase energy efficiency, invest in sustainable food and land use, and invest in carbon draw down.
  6. Join a clean energy collective or cooperative action (micro-grid etc) that leverages lower cost clean energy for your community.

Individual Action is often what we see calls for. However, it is important to note that individual action is just one leg of the stool of climate action. And putting all the onus on the individual and not on the community in the form of faith communities, institutions, and governing bodies is an exercise in futility. Think of action in terms of what has the highest multiplier effect. That said, there are a number of individual actions that are helpful when considered as part of a whole.

  1. Whenever possible, do not burn fossil fuels. The less fossil fuel burning, the better. This means propane, gasoline, fossil coal, lighter fluid, natural gas etc. The ultimate goal should be zero direct fossil fuel burning and zero indirect fossil fuel burning (you’ll need more systemic help to reach the second goal). It can help to make a plan to reach zero direct and indirect individual fossil fuel burning.
  2. Purchase clean energy systems for yourself (also an economic action as seen above). Purchase solar, wind, electric vehicle based energy systems.
  3. Increase home energy efficiency. Purchase energy star appliances, increase insulation, reduce water use if possible. Note that energy efficiency alone does not solve the climate crisis. However, it can substantially reduce your annual individual carbon footprint while serving as a clean energy force multiplier when linked to clean energy systems.
  4. Reduce meat consumption. Industrial meat farming, clear cutting, and deforestation related to meat consumption is a major driver of harm to the terrestrial carbon sink. Industrial farming, particularly meat farming, is also a significant source of heat trapping gas emissions. By itself, eliminating meat consumption does not solve the climate crisis. But reducing imputs to an industry that has such a harmful land use footprint and emits a significant volume of greenhouse gasses can be a helpful individual action.
  5. Purchase food from sustainable sources, green agriculture. Reduce purchases from farming systems that include slash and burn agriculture and heavy industrial use of fossil fuels/petro-chemicals. This may be difficult. But simple methods such as purchasing local can help.
  6. Reduce the number of flights taken if possible. Air travel is a major source of carbon emission. It is worth noting that political and economic climate action can help provide clean energy alternatives to present high carbon pollution air travel. So it is immoral to dump this responsibility entirely on the individual. Greta Thunberg recently sailed across the ocean in order to make a point of how difficult it is to access clean, zero carbon long distance travel. (During COVID-19, air travel is an unwise option as the closed environment of an aircraft maximizes transmission risk).
  7. Walk, use bike transport, and public transport when possible. This is not always possible — so see purchase electric vehicles and clean energy above. (During COVID-19, mass public transport increases viral transmission risk).
  8. If you use rideshare, use Lyft or Uber green to access an electric vehicle instead. Outside of rideshare, carpooling is a good option for reducing individual carbon footprints and carpooling in an EV is even more efficient and has a much greater carbon emission reduction impact (during COVID-19 pandemic, rideshare travel may not be a wise option as it risks increased viral exposure).
  9. Compost, recycle, reduce use of harmful fossil fuel based plastic. Use and reuse metal and glass containers if possible. These actions have minor impacts on net individual carbon emissions. However, they reduce material energy intensity, help to remove toxic materials from the Earth system, generate a minor individual source of carbon drawdown (compost), and support the sustainable systems that help preserve a living planet capable of drawing down carbon.
  10. Grow a garden if you have time and inclination.
  11. Become a part of a reforestation/tree planting effort. Planting trees helps to stabilize and sustain local environments and to revitalize carbon sinks. However, preserving old growth forests is even more efficient. It is also worth noting that risks to plants and forests increase with Earth’s temperature. So reforestation, sustaining of old growth forests and other re-greening efforts must occur in an Earth system where fossil fuel use rapidly drops in order to ultimately be successful.
  12. Use water more efficiently. This has a minor but worthwhile impact on direct individual carbon emission. Water is energy intensive and water insecurity is a major issue in the face of rising climate crisis.

As a final statement, I’d like to re-emphasize that fossil fuel burning is the primary driver of the present threat to life on the Earth in the form of climate emergency. The growing threat to the wonderful and precious living Eden we all inhabit. This is due directly to the actions of some human beings and some human industries, governments, and institutions. Halting that burning is the very action of Shamar. And it is directly required by the morality of our faith. It is also required by our inborn imperative to survive, to save life. The warnings sent to us from the Bible should be heeded — as a call from a loving parent for the safety of her children. The warnings of science should also be taken in — for they are the works of modern-day prophets.


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