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Understanding the Times (abridged from A Climate of Hope)

Tuesday, 31 March 2015  | Claire Dawson

I remember learning about ‘global warming’ in geography class back in the late 1980s. Even then things seemed so bad to me that I felt quite convinced that I would never choose to have children of my own. The future seemed bleak, and humanity seemed to be failing miserably in its responsibility to care for the planet. I remember flying into Los Angeles as a 16 year-old and being completely heart-broken by the thick layer of brown smog that clouded the horizon. In my young mind the USA was the pinnacle of human achievement, yet what price was being paid for all of this progress and development? At the NASA space centre the message of the day seemed to be that the hunt was on for other habitable planets… because we’d made such a mess of our own!

At the time I was without faith, and most certainly without hope, and it was these big questions about life and my growing pessimism about humanity’s future that actually fuelled my spiritual search. My journey included a pivotal turning point where I embraced an evangelical expression of the Christian faith toward the end of my final year at school. Within the church circles I was introduced to, however, environmental concern was well and truly off the radar. Tree-hugging ‘liberals’ were sometimes publicly belittled by church leaders. ‘Personal holiness’, ‘evangelism’ and ‘mission’, in the most narrow senses of those terms, seemed to be the only things that mattered in discipleship, at the exclusion of all other concerns.  

I learnt a bit more about global warming at university while studying economics. I learnt that air pollution is a classic example of an ‘externality’ and that externalities occur when the price of a product or service doesn’t factor in the full social (or environmental) cost. This was an example of ‘market failure’. While we needed to know this as theory, there was no strong sense that rising levels of carbon dioxide emissions was a particularly serious or urgent planetary problem. Our discussion was an academic exercise: we needed to know and accept that our current economic model (market capitalism) was not quite perfect. Fortunately by the mid-1990s people within the Faculty of Science were beginning to take the threat of global warming much more seriously than those within the Faculty of Business and Economics!  

Over the past two decades, my views regarding environmental concern have certainly been changing and evolving, and my involvement with church has certainly been a significant influence. At worst, I developed such an otherworldly faith that earthly issues were quickly and easily written off as a distraction. At best, the call of Christ to live with love, justice and compassion has compelled me to seriously engage with this issue. And this journey of discovery has been enhanced and enriched by the inspiration of some amazingly gifted and committed Christians as well as some extremely compassionate and dedicated people who reside well outside of the walls of the established Church.  

As my own story demonstrates, our own life stories obviously play a significant part in shaping our values, attitudes, and ethical behaviour. We are in many ways products of our various contexts, including families, friendship circles, churches, schools/universities, workplaces and community groups. And we are all influenced, to at least some extent, by the views of broader society. While dwelling on the past is not always constructive, I think in this case it’s important to understand a little bit about the reasonably complex interplay of issues and powers at work in the ‘climate change debate’ in recent decades - often very much behind the scenes. It is far from straightforward, and ultimately it would seem that in a number of ways climate change is a symptom of far deeper issues relating to our addiction to our materialistic way of life. 

Looking back at how things have unfolded, it quickly becomes clear that time and time again we have consistently failed to act reasonably and effectively in response to the threat of climate change. In the longer-term scheme of things we have not acted in our own best interests, or those of our neighbours or our grandchildren. Why is this? Most of us would not choose to drive over a bridge that 97% of civil engineers had deemed unsafe, and most of us would not take a medication or undergo a medical procedure that 97% of medical professionals deemed to be very hazardous to human health. Yet when it comes to climate change, we have somehow remained cool, calm and collected while ignoring the expert opinions and increasingly urgent warnings of at least 97% of the scientific community!  

There are a range of reasons why climate change has elicited such an irrational response from the general population. We will explore a few of these reasons in more detail, but one could summarise broadly to say that there has been a profound lack of leadership with regard to this crucial issue. Additionally, where people and institutions have taken the lead and managed to influence outcomes, unfortunately their agenda has generally been to hinder effective action for short-term gain (financial or political).  

So now we need all the wisdom and inspiration we can muster in order for us to engage ourselves in efforts to turn this situation around. We need to comprehend what has been happening in recent decades so that we can better understand the times we are in, and discern what we must do in response.  

For many Christians, the issue of climate change can be one that causes unease. It is indeed a massive issue, and everyone should actually feel unease about it: that would in fact be a very healthy place to start! Yet our discipleship journey does often not prepare us well for grappling with such things – especially when the Bible appears - at least superficially – to say very little about it. 

“Didn’t I tell you so?”
Time and time again, the Scriptures introduce us to a righteous and compassionate God who expresses his care for people by issuing warnings via his prophets. At Mount Sinai God established his Covenant with Israel, and promised blessings in response to their continued faithfulness to him and the way of life he called them to (e.g. Deuteronomy 30:11-20a).

From that time on it seems that God has been busy calling his people back to himself, back to covenant relationship with him. Time and time again he appeals for his people to turn from their idolatry and sin, making appeals through his messengers, the prophets (e.g. Isaiah 17:10-12; 24; 32:9-10; Jeremiah 6:16-21).

Imagery such as standing at the crossroads and needing to discern to right path is of course very pertinent. In his love God gives us freedom: freedom to choose. Will we choose the right path, the path that leads to life? Or will we choose the wrong path, the path that leads to death?

Loving good and maintaining justice are part of keeping covenant. God calls us to love him through loving others. This involves sacrifice and effort, the antithesis of which is selfish indulgence and laziness (see Amos 6:4-7). For their sins and failure to keep covenant, God’s people did indeed spend time in exile, far off in Babylon. They lost their land: their very precious inheritance (Zechariah 7:8-13).

As Christians, we revere the Old Testament as being God’s very words to us. We allow God to speak to us through it, and we learn from its richness. However we take care to interpret it through the lens of the New Testament and the New Covenant established in Jesus Christ. Yet, not surprisingly, the call is still to extend love:

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another (John 13:34-35).

And while we so often continue to miss the mark, we take great hope in the promise of forgiveness and grace through Jesus Christ, which is at the heart of this new covenant (Matthew 26:27-28). Accordingly we do not live in fear of judgement, wrath or the punishment of death. Instead we are to use our freedom to pursue lives characterised by love and obedience. We do not to respond to God out of legalism and fear. Rather, we respond out of faith in Christ, out of thankfulness for all that he has done, being energised by the hope held out to us in the resurrection of Jesus. While the New Covenant changes so much, the way of life God has established for us—that we live in accordance with his ways, seeking justice and extending mercy—is still at the heart of loving relationship with him. It is love that should characterise us as people and as communities.

Interestingly, the prophecy of Agabus as recorded in the New Testament predicts a famine that would impact the entire Roman world. In this particular case we do not read about the disciples responding with prayer for God to halt the famine. Neither do we read that they repented of any specific sins which were the apparent ‘cause’. Rather, those who were able dug deep financially in order to provide for those in need. Their response was purely practical, one of service and love. In fact, this is credited as being the earliest recorded example of a Christian ‘relief project’, and an international one at that! This is a particularly relevant text for us, as a globally just response to climate change has implications for our commitment to support—and indeed increase—our levels of compassionate giving and overseas aid.

When it comes to climate change, if we believe that God cares about his good creation and longs for it to flourish and remain habitable, and if it is the poor who will suffer first, and if he has expressed a particular concern for those who are most vulnerable, then surely it would be reasonable to expect some warnings if we were heading down the wrong path? And surely God’s passion for justice would be ignited if it is the selfish, indulgent and excessive lifestyles of the few that will cause misery and oppression for the many? 

Contemporary Prophets?
Looking no further than my own bookshelf it would seem that there has been no shortage of warnings issued about our lifestyles of material excess and the consequential environmental threats appearing on the horizon. In 1970 futurist Alvin Toffler’s book Future Shock was doing the rounds on its way to becoming a best-seller. Many of his observations were quite astute, and his sense of urgency is clear: 

Our technological powers increase, but the side effects and potential hazards also escalate. We risk thermo-pollution of the oceans themselves, overheating them, destroying immeasurable quantities of marine life, perhaps even melting the polar icecaps. …. Through such disruptions of the natural ecology, we may literally, in the words of biologist Barry Commoner, be ‘destroying this planet as a suitable place for human habitation.’


… Here, then, is a pressing intellectual agenda for the social and physical sciences. We have taught ourselves to create and combine the most powerful of technologies. We have not taken pains to learn about their consequences. Today these consequences threaten to destroy us. We must learn, and learn fast.


Toffler writes of the time being “late” – as if we were already running out of time – and that was more than forty years ago! He warned that “we simply can no longer afford to hurtle blindfolded towards super-industrialism” and yet it would seem that we have done exactly that. A few years later in 1975 Bishop and theologian John V. Taylor conveyed similar sentiments with a matching urgency in his book Enough is Enough:

The air, like the water which, as I have said before, man has always expected, like a nursemaid, to clear up his mess, has a strictly limited power of absorption. It cannot cope with the accumulation of toxic gases and particles in the quantities in which we now release them.

While Richard Foster is known for his teaching and influence on matters such as prayer and meditation, he made some radical statements back in 1981 in his book Freedom of Simplicity.  His alarm at the ecological crisis humanity was facing is almost palpable:

In spite of all the shortcomings of The Limits to Growth report of the Club of Rome, they did shout out to us one devastatingly undeniable truth: our ‘growth mania’ must stop or it will destroy us. We simply must understand that the wonderful resources of the earth are limited. We are now entering the age of scarcity. …. The message from all quarters is the same: our undisciplined consumption must end. If we continue to gobble up our resources without any regard to stewardship and to spew out our deadly wastes over land, sea and air, we may well be drawing down the final curtain upon ourselves. I need to add a reason for curbing our gluttonous consumption that Christians should consider very seriously. Overconsumption is a ‘cancer eating away at our spiritual vitals.’ It cuts the heart out of our compassion. It distances us from the great masses of broken bleeding humanity. It converts us into materialists. We become less able to ask the moral questions.

Yet Foster, despite his alarm, was not without hope. Indeed he saw a crucial role for the Church as the world begins to comprehend and respond to the turmoil it has generated:

Christians can make, I think, a unique contribution to this issue, because biblically and theologically we have a vital interest in both stewardship of the earth and economic justice for the poor. And because our allegiance to God is higher than to any nation-state, we have a commitment to global citizenship that can help us transcend the provincial claims of national interest.


Interestingly, his suggestions for effective ways forward include a call for “international monitoring of the activities of global corporations” and that “strict international environmental standards must be set to govern the activities of multinational corporations.” I doubt many Christians would have expected such words from one of last century’s spiritual giants! Such surprise demonstrates just how privatised and other-worldly much of our Christian thought and practice has become, and how politically polarised our thinking is between the ‘right’ and the ‘left’. But are we not called to be salt and light in this world, and to stand up to injustice wherever we encounter it? 

A little over a decade later Tom Sine beckoned the church to respond proactively to the specific threat of climate change in his book Wild Hope. He proposed that we adopt a principal of caution, whereby we “take the threat seriously” - presuming there is truth in scientific claims and responding accordingly. While he acknowledged there was a chance that scientific theories about the global warming effect and its consequences might later be disproved, in his own mind the risks were so great that it was still worth taking precautions. This approach is surely prudent, particularly given his assessment that “Such a warming trend could increase the risk of forest fires, cause major droughts in farming regions, and even cause the oceans to rise.” 

Interestingly, Tom Sine also wrote of a season of awakening about environmental issues during “Earth Decade”, but it seems that this growing awareness in the late 1980’s was unfortunately short-lived: 

We were all abruptly awakened from our environmental neglect by a series of events in the late eighties. In fact, in 1989 Time magazine devoted an entire issue to “Planet of the Year”. The lead article read: “This year the earth spoke, like God, warning Noah of the deluge. Its message was loud and clear, and suddenly people began to listen, to ponder what portents the message held.” …. Suddenly thoughtful Americans were rudely awakened to discover that our worst nightmares had come true. Our earth home is facing unprecedented catastrophes unless we act intelligently and decisively to change how we live on the earth. Never has there been such widespread and growing recognition by both leaders and those at the grassroots that we must clean up our act. The magic of the marketplace won’t fix the environmental havoc we have wrought.

In Wild Hope Tom Sine goes on to list a range of environmental challenges, including the exploitation and degradation of forests, acid rain, global warming, ozone layer depletion, desertification, species extinction, chemical and toxic wastes, soil depletion, water pollution, burgeoning landfill waste, and the consumption of unnecessary consumer items. While the science of climate change may not have had the strength of certainty and consensus that it does now, there was enough other evidence that we faced significant and urgent environmental threats that demanded our attention and response, and that climate change was worthy of inclusion among these. He concludes:    

As inhabitants of this good earth, we have, I believe, ten to fifteen years at the outside to address these mounting environmental challenges. After that, I believe, we will be in danger of losing control of the processes of environmental degradation. The church in all its traditions must provide spiritual and moral leadership for this new environment movement. If we shirk in this responsibility, you can be sure that others with very different values will step into the breach. Therefore, those of us in the church, who believe we are called by our God to be earthkeepers, need to be in the forefront of this new movement for the protection and restoration of the created order.

It is deeply saddening to read such clear and urgent pleadings from past decades and realise that we may well have failed to hear God speaking through his people. While some have demonstrated a general wariness about pagans,
greenies and environmentalists, as the quotations above indicate, there were respected voices from within the church who were proclaiming a similar message and yet it seems we largely ignored them too. And, as was predicted, others have since stepped in to fill the gap. We can blame our fear, our pride, our hard and stubborn hearts, but in the end the important thing is to confess our sin: that we have failed to listen, to care and to act. We have been self-serving and greedy to the point that it has become idolatry. And the reality is that in doing so we have jeopardised so much, for so many. This seems to be the pattern with Gods people indeed there is nothing new under the sun! “The wisdom of the prudent is to give thought to their ways, but the folly of fools is deception. .... There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.” (Proverbs 14:8, 12).

Avoidable tragedy and untimely death does not please God, and the statistics and projections of what lies ahead are genuinely alarming. And prominent economists such as Nicholas Stern have made it very clear that the costs of action on climate change are far, far less than the anticipated costs of inaction (indeed in 2009 Lord Stern revised his earlier estimates upward by 50%, suggesting that the cost of inaction on climate change could equate to something in the vicinity of one third of global wealth)! In light of comments such as these, we are forced again to ask the question, “Why have we taken so very long to do so very little?”

Claire Dawson is co-author of A Climate of Hope with Mick Pope. She is wife to Jonathan and mother to Sarah (age 5) and Micah (age 2). She currently works locally as the Careers Coordinator and HR Officer at Bayside Christian College. Claire is involved with the Langwarrin Vineyard Church and is co-convenor of the Frankston Climate Action Group.



John Yates
April 3, 2015, 12:14PM
Hi Claire, thanks for your passionate and probing article concerning a very significant matter for our time. There are some dimensions around this subject not easy to understand. There are a number of related issues here; in my opinion, the less significant one, in relation to this article about the role of prophetic warnings , is the validity of climate change predictions. Lets assume that the 97% of scientists are correct. I would like to question the claim that any of the authors named in the article are actually prophets. A valid prediction based on available empirical data and supported by a biblically based ethic does not constitute a prophecy. It may be exhortatory teaching etc. but prophecy is something immediately inspired by the Spirit of God; Agabus is a case in point. "Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world" (Acts 11:28). only God could have revealed this knowledge to the prophet. One would need to demonstrate or discern that the words of Taylor, Foster and Sine were directly Spirit-inspired and revelatory, and not just true and godly, for them to be prophetic. I am not persuaded that they bear this character. There is another way to look at this issue; albeit more alarming. May it not be that because of the gross worldliness and idolatry of the Western Church the Lord has not raised up prophets so that we continue in a state of blindness (Isa 29:9-13; Rev 3:17-18)? Thanks John
Chris Dalton
April 7, 2015, 9:18AM
Thanks, Claire. Nice thought provoking writing.
I wonder whether we limit our thinking by focusing on the "threat" of climate change. It gives the issue an anthropocentric orientation as I assume "threat" implies the threat to humanity, and responses address the impact of climate change on humanity. But is climate change a threat to the rest of God's creation?
Further, whilst the recent NCLS report showed 82% of church goers thought climate change was occurring, only 44% thought climate change was largely human induced.
Do we subconsciously rely on the "blame game" to motivate us into action (i.e. human sin is the cause of climate change, so we need to repent and take corrective action)?
I think there is an urgent need for attitudinal change here, We need to learn to love the earth, our neighbour, as ourselves, and the sacrificial giving that this implies. But even here there is a trap: Do I love/hug the tree for its own intrinsic value as a wonderful part of God's creation, or do I love/hug the tree because it provides me with timber, gives me shade, contributes to air quality and the sustainability of ecosystems (on which our survival depends)?
In Moltmann's view, the crisis we are facing is not just an ecological crisis. In the words of Celia Deane-Drummond "one of Moltmann's brilliant achievements is that he has looked behind the immediate ecological crisis as such, to the anxiety that pervades human attitudes to the environment. He roots the cause of much of this anxiety to our failure to have an adequate of God as the loving creator, and as one who promises a future of fellowship with both humankind and creation."
Ian Hore-Lacy
April 14, 2015, 6:14PM
Some valuable thoughts! Certainly externalities must always be considered or they will get up and bite us somehow.
However, one of the reasons that the 'contemporary prophets' of the 1970s and 1980s - mostly academics and clerics - were ignored is that they mixed commonsense with some egregious nonsense. This was epitomised in Paul Ehrlich's bet with Julian Simon re depletion of the Earth's resources - Ehrlich expensively lost.
Passionate Christian concern about God's creation is admirable, but it needs to have some facts injected for it to translate into policies which will do more good than harm. We do need to be concerned about sustainable stewardship of that wonderful and bountiful creation, and we do need to meet the challenges of making its huge resources available to all 7+ billion of our neighbours.
I see it as an ongoing challenge rather than a crisis.

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