Last week, Pope Francis released a papal encyclical on the subject of climate change and the Christian moral responsibility to care for “our common home.” The Pope has decided to use his considerable moral authority and public presence to engage the question of what to do about the effects of rising temperatures around the globe (and, to a lesser extent, what or who is responsible for them). An encyclical is the second-most authoritative pronouncement the Pope can make, and coupled with his existing popularity, it’s no surprise that his thoughts on one of today’s most polarizing issues made headlines around the globe. While many BioLogos leaders are from the evangelical Protestant world, our community is broad and includes a number of Catholics. We respect the Pope as an important and influential voice in the church, so when he speaks about a scientific issue, we pay attention both to his message and the response to it—even if it is not our particular issue.
In 2009, BioLogos was founded by Francis Collins and others with a specific purpose: to help people understand the scientific evidence for evolution and how it need not undermine faith in Christ or the authority of the Bible. Thus, environmental issues are outside of our immediate focus and expertise, and BioLogos does not include anything about this in our official belief statements. There are other Christian organizations and their affiliated scientists who provide excellent information and guidance on this topic, and we gladly point people to them (see below).
However, we cannot pretend there is no connection between the two issues. Evangelical Christians are among those with the highest rates of doubting the scientific consensus about both evolution and human-induced climate change. Very few people are working directly with the empirical evidence for either of these, so most of us have to rely on the expertise of others in drawing our conclusions. And it is natural for anyone to doubt conclusions that we perceive to be in conflict with our faith. This is a constant issue in discussion of creation and evolution, when evidence from God’s world prompts us to reconsider how we interpret God’s Word.
The issue with climate change has a different dimension, though. It’s not that the science itself is in dispute. There is no real debate that the overall temperature of the globe is increasing, and there is no debate at all that the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have increased. The question is whether there is more than a correlation between these two data sets. Have human activities caused the increase in greenhouse gases? Almost certainly, the answer to that question is yes. From burning coal and oil to dramatic increases in beef consumption (cow manure is one of the leading sources of methane emissions), our lifestyle has changed the chemical composition of the atmosphere. So we must ask whether this has caused the global warming (and its attendant increase in severe weather and sea levels) we’ve observed? The overwhelming scientific consensus is that it has.
Does believing that we have caused climate change affect our theology? Perhaps for some. There is the infamous remark made by Mark Driscoll at a large conference, “I know who made the environment. He’s coming back, and he’s going to burn it all up. So yes, I drive an SUV.” Some people may think such sentiments are consistent with Christian theology, but that is very difficult to defend from Scripture. Instead, Scripture is clear that we are to be stewards of the earth and its resources (see this blog post or this series)
So, if human-induced climate change does not challenge our theological commitments, why is there such resistance from Christians in accepting it? I’d suggest it is because it challenges something even more dear to many in the West: our lifestyles. This cuts deeply into all of us. The Pope’s message is clear that we in the West bear responsibility for the effects of our consumer lifestyles, and those effects are primarily felt among the world’s poorest people. The way we live could not be extended to the rest of the population without even more drastic effects than are already beginning to show. Most of us, though, are isolated from such effects. Pope Francis writes that the majority of us in the West live comfortable lives,
far removed from the poor, with little direct contact with their problems…This lack of physical contact and encounter, encouraged at times by the disintegration of our cities, can lead to a numbing of conscience and to tendentious analyses which neglect parts of reality…Today, however, we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. (§49)
It is obvious that climate change is not just an academic discussion about the merits of the scientific evidence. Economics, justice, and political allegiances are woven into responses. A couple of weeks ago in anticipation of the release of the encyclical, presidential candidate Rick Santorum (himself a Catholic) urged the Pope to leave “science to the scientists and [focus] on what we’re really good at, which is… theology and morality.” As far as I can tell, that is exactly what the Pope has done: he has accepted the conclusion of the vast majority of scientists and drawn out its moral and theological implications.
The encyclical demonstrates the need for serious integration of religious perspectives into scientific discussions. Science has done wonderfully at providing natural explanations for what we observe, and it shows us the possibilities of what we can do in manipulating the resources around us. But science alone cannot tell us what we ought to do. We confronted this issue in WWII with the use of atomic bombs, and much more recently with the emerging controversy over genetic editing of human embryos. As Fr. Austriaco wrote yesterday, science does not provide the moral compass we need.
There are huge stakes for what we do about climate change, and our future actions (or inactions) will be guided by something more than scientific evidence. So Christians ought to be at the forefront of these conversations and leading by moral example, adopting lifestyles that are sustainable for all people on the planet, and following the teachings of Jesus by caring for the “least of these”.
The Earth is not a “secular” place. We Christians see all of nature as God’s creation, and as such it is imbued with value and loved by God. Scientists who discover the details of how this created order works—whether they are Christians or not—are revealing the inner workings of God’s handiwork. Such work should be valued by all of us and deemed to be a holy vocation. We applaud Pope Francis for rejecting the dichotomy between “secular” and “spiritual” on this topic, because good science and vibrant faith are natural partners—both on this topic and every other.