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Does the rain have a Father?

Thursday, 15 March 2018  | Mick Pope

A few years ago, when I was studying my PhD in tropical climate, I was lucky enough to play a part in TWP-ICE. TWP-ICE was an international experiment whose role was to study the cloud systems of the northern Australian monsoon. It involved a ship in the Timor Sea, various land-based observing networks, and a fleet of aircraft including a former Soviet spy plane. It was then I met Tom Ackerman. I didn’t know at the time he was a Christian, so I was pleasantly surprised when I read his recent interview in Christianity Today. Reading through it, I have points of agreement and disagreement with him, so what follows are my brief reflections on divine sovereignty and the climate, climate change, and the contentious subject of geoengineering.

Reflecting on climate science and control of the weather and climate, Tom turns to Job, and I think this is a useful place to go. The end of the book of Job is essentially aimed at showing that God is God and Job is not. There are some things beyond human understanding, beyond the simple logic of Proverbs, beyond covenant agreements. Bad things sometimes happen to righteous people. Using Job to reflect on weather, climate and climate change does require a little theological reflection. The description of divine control of the weather reflects the three-tiered cosmology of the ancients, with the Earth having a foundation, its base sunk into the deep below (see Job 38:4, 6) and a firmament above separating the waters above from the waters below (oceans etc.). The dead lived in the ground below, and God’s realm was beyond the firmament in the heavens. Snow and hail are kept in storehouses (v.22) and these are let out through holes in the firmament. The theological point subsumes the scientific one; God is ultimately in control, regardless of the proximate causes. The issue of course is how this control is exercised.

I recently spoke to a youth group about science, climate change and the Bible. One smart young fellow (his dad is a lecturer in philosophy) asked whether or not there was a purpose to all suffering. I had to confess that, while all things work together for good for those who love him (Romans 8:28), yet not all things are good. Not everything is, at least at the scale at which we consider it, for a purpose, or at least for one which we would recognise for our benefit.

What is required is an understanding of the biblical notion of chaos. The biblical creation accounts were not written in a vacuum, but reflect their broader context. This is not to say that the bible writers stole from other written sources, but simply that divine revelation has a human shape. So, in the Babylonian story Enuma Elish, Tiamat is the personification of saltwater who is killed by the storm god Marduk, creating order out Tiamat’s body parts. In Genesis 1:2, the Spirit of God hovers over the deep (tehom in Hebrew); a demythologised and dedivinised dragon. The ordering of chaos in Genesis 1 does not involve a violent battle among the gods, but the exercise of divine will. Echoes of this are found in Psalm 74.

Yet, on day 5 of creation, the sea monsters remain (verse 21). In Job, we see Leviathan as an agent of chaos and destruction, as Job wishes creation were undone in his suffering (Job 3:3-4, 8). In Job 41, God is able to tame Leviathan. So it seems that, while Genesis 1 is the story of moving from a formless void to order, disorder remains in the background, and it too has a role. Chaos theory tells us that order exists as islands in a sea of disorder, and the biblical writers get this.

So pray as we might for rain, there is an order to the way things work which means that God may not always respond as we might like. Rain is for the natural world as well as our needs (Psalm 104), and sometimes even destructive rain is also constructive.

And what of climate change? Tom is correct on two accounts. Firstly, dealing with climate change is a matter of loving your neighbour, and I have written and some length about this in A Climate of Justice: Loving Your Neighbour in a Warming World. This is true on two counts. Firstly, people are suffering now from the impacts of climate change, ranging from more severe tropical cyclones and its impacts to sea level rise, disrupted summer rains, heat waves and so on. We are called to be Good Samaritans by binding up the wounds of those in need. The church has always done this, regardless of whether or not a disaster is human-caused or ‘an act of God’, as insurance companies would claim. But, given that the Jewish man in the parable of the Good Samaritan was beset by bandits, we need to understand that banditry was a form of rebellion against corrupt institutions – namely the temple tax and heavy Roman taxes. We do well to note that climate change is a form of imperialism forced upon us all as victims. Energy companies have lied about climate change, governments have shown inaction on climate change and we all live more comfortable lives than those who suffer the most from climate change, all the while contributing to it. Changing the system by being a prophetic community is also part of being a good neighbour.

Tom is also right to point out that framing the issue in terms of creation care should not hide the fact of climate change. We cannot avoid using the correct scientific description for fear of offending some people. Climate change is real. The debate is over in the scientific community; it is time to make the changes needed to avoid the worst scenarios.

This brings me finally to Tom’s endorsement of geoengineering research, in particular what is known as solar radiation management (SRM). SRM works by reflecting sunlight back into space to cool the planet, counteracting the effect of heat-trapping greenhouse gases. Yet SRM is an admission of failure, an admission that we can’t deal with the key driver of climate change: carbon dioxide emissions. It is a waste of effort that could be put into a wartime-like drive to renewable energy. It panders to the big business-like thinking and ‘we can solve it via engineering’ approach that has gotten us here in the first place. While technology and its right use can be an exercise of the image of God, and what Ian Hore-Lacy would describe as responsible dominion, it can also be Baalistic in nature.

The drought of Elijah was brought on by idolatry, by worship of the Baals. The prophets of Baal turned to the cause of the drought to find its cure. Geoengineering is hubris. We are not omnipotent, and at best we seem to exercise our limited powers in a largely destructive fashion. Neither are we omniscient, and I’d have thought Tom would understand this from Job. Some simulations show that SRM can result in worse impacts that climate change itself, and further disruption than the Indian monsoon. SRM reduces the sunlight we need for solar power. Because it doesn’t deal with carbon emissions, the oceans continue to become more acidic; it can only buy us time. SRM is not democratic because only those nations with the technology can decide to use it. And, if it is stopped suddenly, temperatures soon catch up via rapid warming. Theologically, ethically and scientifically, it is junk.

We know what needs to be done. And it isn’t simply more science, though that helps us understand the scope of the problem and the possible futures. We do know enough to know that climate change is real, it is due to humans and the future in a business-as-usual world is grim. People die now due to climate change, and people have to move now due to climate change, even in a so-called developed nation like the USA. And it is not simply a matter of engineering, although the future lies in biophillic (life-loving) and biomimicking technologies (e.g. biochar that stores carbon in the soil or artificial photosynthesis), not the dominating technologies of geoengineering (like solar radiation management or attempts to fertilise the oceans, creating dead zones and acidic ocean waters). What is needed is a narrative that gives purpose and hope, bringing people to repent of the idols of control, mammon, war etc. This narrative is the gospel, a gospel that understands that all creation groans and that all creation will be set free. And this release begins now under wise, repentant stewards.

Mick Pope is a meteorologist and a Professor of Environmental Mission at Missional University. He has recently written A Climate of Justice: Loving your Neighbour in a Warming World (Morning Star Publishing/Wipf and Stock, 2017). 

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