A Three Point Sermon
The book Faith in a Changing Climate starts with a ‘Three Point Sermon’ — the book’s Introduction. It is reproduced in full below.
Let’s start with a text — in this case taken from Chapter 3 of Genesis.
And the LORD God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” So the LORD God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken.
In our time many of us have been living in our own version of a Garden of Eden or Paradise (see the blog post Paradise Regained?). Our modern Paradise came about through our use of fossil fuels (first coal, then oil and natural gas). This one-time gift of stored energy has funded our contemporary lifestyle of abundant food, air conditioned buildings, anesthetics, international travel, and on and on. Those of us with sufficient money live in a way of which the kings of old could not even have dreamed.
But our time in this Garden of Eden is winding down. We have burned through our gift of fossil fuel energy. While doing so we have created massive amount of the waste product: carbon dioxide (CO2). Currently we are dumping around 40 gigatons (that’s 40 billion metric tons) of CO2 into the atmosphere every year. And, in spite of all the rhetoric about alternative energy, that amount continues to increase.
We have treated the atmosphere as an open sewer, and now we are learning the hard way that there are consequences to this recklessness. We have entered a new and scary world in which we continue to devastate our only planetary home. None of us know what the future looks like in detail, but we can see an outline — and that outline is grim. Moreover, few of our national leaders in government and business have taken the actions needed. This situation, dire as it may be, provides an opportunity to provide badly needed leadership.
So, what are the three points of this three-point “sermon”? They are:
Climate change is an on-going process, the consequences of which will become increasingly severe in years to come.
Emissions of greenhouse gases continue to rise. We are not making progress, there is no simple technological fix, and there has been little effective leadership.
People of faith and the church can help fill the leadership vacuum.
1. Process of Climate Change
Climate change is not an event in the future — already we are seeing its effects. For example,
About half of the Australian Great Barrier Reef is dead, and will not return for many thousands of years.
2020 was the second-warmest year on record in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Droughts in the American west continue to worsen, as do the forest fires.
Hurricanes are increasing in frequency and intensity.
The climate will continue to change as a result of actions taken in the past. Even if we were to stop burning fossil fuels immediately — an entirely implausible supposition — global temperatures will continue to rise for many years to come. In fact, we are burning fossil fuels as intensively as ever, and atmospheric CO2 concentrations continue their steady and inexorable rise.
When it comes to the response, we have programs such as ‘Net Zero by 2050’. Numbers such as ‘Zero’ and ‘2050’ provide nice round figures that humans can relate to. But nature doesn’t care about our feelings, attitudes or opinions — the climate will continue to change in the year 2051 and beyond.
2. No Progress
With regard to ‘Net Zero by 2050’ programs, and their like, the basic idea is that, within less than three decades, we cease to add CO2 and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. (The word ‘Net’ in this context means that we implement technology to remove the CO2 that continues to be emitted.)
Whether such programs are realistic is doubtful. After all, the industrial revolution that led to our current way of living is 300 years old. We are now talking about replacing our entire industrial infrastructure in less than 30 years. This sounds to be implausible.
No Technological Fix
A more fundamental concern is that programs of this type have a built in assumption that if we just adopt < insert the name of your favorite technological fix here > then we can maintain our current, energy-profligate lifestyle; we can maintain Business as Usual (BAU). In other words, there is no need for anyone to make any significant sacrifice. The reason for the ineffectiveness of most of the leadership to do with climate change is that our leaders are trying to develop solutions and responses that do not call for reducing our material standard of living or for making any type of sacrifice.
In general we act as if we can negotiate climate change and resource depletion in the same way as we negotiate with other human beings. So, for example, we discuss the feasibility of ‘Net Zero by 2050’, as if it is our choice as to what happens and when it happens.
When talking about issues such as health care or trade agreements such an attitude is reasonable, we can delay and compromise because we are negotiating with other human beings. Such is not the case with climate change. The laws of thermodynamics, physics and biology could care less about our needs, attitudes, history or opinions. They are going to do what they are going to do. Which means that time is not on our side. Climate change happened in the past, it’s happening now, and it will happen in the future.
Climate change is not a matter of negotiation — there is no one with whom to negotiate.
3. The Church’s Opportunity
The first two points of this “sermon” have painted a rather bleak picture. The climate is changing, the consequences are increasingly dire, we are not slowing down the rate of change, and there are no technological fixes. Above all, our leadership is ineffective because most of our responses are built around the assumption that we can have our planet and eat it, there is no need to cut back or to make a sacrifice. This is an opportunity for people of faith and for the church to offer realistic hope. Leaving today’s Garden of Eden will require a new way of thinking, not only for society as a whole, but also for the church itself.
Here are some parameters to be considered if the church is to reinvent itself for a radically changing world.
Church leaders and will have to become familiar with a wide range of disciplines that would not normally fall into say a typical seminary program. Subjects such as thermodynamics, ecology, systems theory and biology are all topics that will be integrated into church programs. Much of this knowledge and expertise will come from members of the congregation. In turn, they will need to learn about topics such as biblical history, ethics and theology.
Leadership to do with climate change has come mostly from young people, of whom Greta Thunberg is the best known. These young people call upon ethical and moral concepts. For example, Thunberg speaks not in love but in anger. She has said to those older than her, “We will never forgive you”. Ethics and right behavior are central to most faith systems.
The path forward into a climate-changed world is likely to include hardship and a reduction in the material standard of living of most people. The church should be willing to go there. The events of Good Friday tell us that bad things happen, sometimes very bad things. We don’t like these events, and we rightly do what we can to slow them down, but we know that they happen. But then the events of Easter Sunday tell us that there is a hopeful future, but it is not one of material prosperity.
Church leaders, seminarians and ordained clergy will need to work out a theology that is appropriate for the world into which we are heading.