Why the 2023 UN Climate Report Matters to Christians
What is the recent IPCC Report, and how should Christians respond? For Nate Rauh-Bieri, so much remains possible, and Christians have an opportunity to step up.
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Let me start with a confession. If you saw a headline last month about the latest UN climate report and didn’t read the article, I get it. Perhaps, like me, you saw the word ‘climate’—most likely accompanied with a foreboding headline and a fiery stock image—and ignored it, not wanting to be overwhelmed or demoralized in the moment, even perhaps intending to come back to it later.
We are not alone. And there are reasons why. For one, much of the media has struggled to convey the nuanced gravity and opportunity of climate reports; doom and fire is easier, and the coverage doesn’t last much beyond the current news cycle. Second, a scientific report can be intimidating terrain for the lay reader (even those of us who regularly engage in scientific learning, like BioLogos readers!). Furthermore, climate change is highly politicized in the United States, casting a vague murkiness over the topic. Last but not least, climate change is a lot for any human being to face: emotionally, existentially, and practically.
The goal of this post is to move past these barriers together. I’m going to summarize the report and offer some suggestions on what I think it means for us as Christians and the larger Church. But here’s the lede: so much remains possible, and we as Christians have an opportunity to step up.
…so much remains possible, and we as Christians have an opportunity to step up.
What is the IPCC summary report?
The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a panel of the globe’s leading scientists, who are tasked with summarizing climate science for the world every few years. The latest report dropped on March 20. It is the summary of three sub-reports (which were publicized in 2021 and 2022) in this round; the sixth time since 1990 scientists have summarized climate science in a series of reports. This report summarizes everything known to date. It will be the last such climate report for the next 6-7 years.
This report offers the best available answers to three big questions:
- What is happening to the climate?
- What do we need to do in response?
- What impacts will we face if we don’t act now?
The summary checks the work of the world’s scientists and packages it up for governments and leaders of the world to understand and act on. As a consensus document, every government of the UN had to approve the final draft.
What does it say?
Though some politicians and media personalities continue to obscure this fact, climate science—as summarized in this report—is unequivocal about what’s happening and why it’s happening.
The climate is changing, faster than we are adapting to it. The cause is principally emissions of greenhouse gasses, mostly through burning fossil fuels, but also due to industrial agriculture, deforestation and other causes. We’re in a rapidly closing window to cut emissions and keep our only habitable home safe and liveable for all. What’s needed is no less than the transfiguration of human society: “Rapid and far-reaching transitions across all sectors and systems are necessary to achieve deep and sustained emissions reductions and secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.”
In scientist-speak, this is as serious as it gets. The world has to make fundamental pivots in how societies are powered and fed, how economies function, how the most vulnerable are protected while big emitting countries take responsibility, how conservation efforts proceed, and how humanity relates to the living world—and we have to do so within a brief window. We are in the decisive decade for action, if we are to prevent worst-case scenarios. Emission cuts need to be rapid (indeed, nearly immediate) and deep: almost half by 2030, if warming is to be kept to the key target of 1.5°C (2.7°F); we are currently at 1.1°C (2.0°F).
The IPCC AR6 report is bracing, but not bleak. The message is clear: we know what to do. We have solutions, available now, that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help us adapt to human-caused climate change. There are many social benefits to these solutions that go beyond preventing runaway damage to our life support system. We can still prevent untold additional damage and adapt so as to minimize suffering. But we need massive changes, immediately.
What could it mean for the Church?
This report is primarily a humanity-wide call to action, though experts note differentiated responsibilities, based on what nations, groups, and individuals have polluted most and have the power and resources to contribute. Here are several ways I feel compelled to respond to the report as a Christian, and that I believe the North American Church is called to respond as well.
1. Face the crisis.
The scientific realities of the climate crisis, and the discomfort they provoke, lead many to either downplay the threat or give in to despair. But denial and doomism are two sides of the same coin: both lead to paralysis and inaction. The Church does well to resist the ease of both options, instead seeking to engage in faith, hope, and love, and to transform this difficult situation through the gifts God provides.
This first action—face the crisis—leads to all others. Christians ought to face the troubles we’re in without illusion, pretending, or spiritual bypassing, even if it challenges aspects of how we’ve understood our faith or identities. At root, Christians should be able to look squarely at the pain and uncertainty of this difficult planetary era and not turn away or hide. After all, our faith involves beholding a cross-mangled God who calls us to respond to our neighbors’ suffering. In this way, our faith does not easily let us look away from the world’s pain.
…Christians should be able to look squarely at the pain and uncertainty of this difficult planetary era and not turn away or hide. After all, our faith involves beholding a cross-mangled God who calls us to respond to our neighbors’ suffering. In this way, our faith does not easily let us look away from the world’s pain.
Moreover, communities of spiritual transformation have a key role to play. Environmental advocate Gus Speth’s famous quote remains true:
I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address these [environmental] problems, but I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed, and apathy, and to deal with these we need a spiritual and cultural transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.
So what does it look like to face the crisis? For one, holding space for grief and lament—something the Church is uniquely poised to offer the world. In prayer, confession, and worship, churches regularly create a space for this. This can cut through layers of denial and give us courage to take action. Private fear and grief do us little good; sharing the load can catalyze much good. There have never been better liturgical and study resources for this. The Porter’s Gate’s Climate Vigil Songs is one example, and so is the Language of God podcast series on hope, “Creation Groans.”
2. Preach and teach.
An important way of facing the crisis—of not looking away—is talking about it at church. Every church and its congregants have immediate and near-term concerns, but increasingly, ecological concerns overlap with and interplay with these, particularly for the most vulnerable and the young, who bear more of the psychic toll of the world they are inheriting.
There is a huge opportunity for congregations to become more engaged. A recent Pew Research study on religious Americans’ views on the environment found that among religious service attendees, 70% seldom or never hear a sermon addressing climate change and 78% seldom or never talk about climate change with their co-congregants. Climate silence is not special to U.S. Christians, but it does inhibit being able to think well about the crisis and take action.
Here, clergy and laity alike can lead change. There is no shortage of excellent books for group study. A few include “Saving Us,” by Katherine Hayhoe, “Refugia Faith” by Debra Rienstra, and “Following Jesus in a Warming World” by Kyle Meyaard-Schaap. Leah Schade and Creation Justice Ministries, among others, offer excellent climate preaching and liturgy resources.
Every church and its congregants have immediate and near-term concerns, but increasingly, ecological concerns overlap with and interplay with these, particularly for the most vulnerable and the young, who bear more of the psychic toll of the world they are inheriting.
3. Reduce your emissions.
While climate change is a psychological, political, and spiritual challenge, the IPCC report roots it in the laws of the physical universe. And the best science shows the world needs to rapidly cut its emissions.
Churches (and households) can do their part in this project. Think about your own church’s emissions: how can your congregation halve these by 2030? Start with an energy audit. Where can your church building reduce its use via energy efficiency measures, like insulation? Does it have old gas-powered machines that can be swapped out for efficient electric ones? Can it switch its overall electric supply to clean energy, either through installing solar, participating in a community solar program, or lobbying its utility to switch to clean energy?
Once your church has done its part, it can pass on its knowledge. Of course, it can also advocate with other groups for policies that lead to community-level emissions cuts.
4. Do justice.
One of the report’s headline statements summarizes the fundamental injustice of climate change: “vulnerable communities who have historically contributed the least to current climate change are disproportionately affected.” At root, the climate crisis harms those with less power—especially historically marginalized groups and those not yet born.
It can be difficult to know how to respond to this scale of injustice. But climate change is not only a global-level issue; every community, too, has its own fault lines of power and climate vulnerability. Churches have a tremendous opportunity to work in partnership with their neighbors and congregants facing environmental injustices.
…the climate crisis harms those with less power—especially historically marginalized groups and those not yet born.
This can look like advocacy for policies that help especially climate-vulnerable neighbors access what they need—such as heating, cooling, affordable energy, and resilient infrastructure to protect against impacts. It can also look like financial redistribution to organizations and people on the frontlines. I recently heard of two relatively privileged churches in my community acting on climate justice: one raised money and worked with community partners to plant trees in a public park for its long-term cooling and resilience. The other granted a community climate justice group permission to plant a pocket forest on its church property, where it could serve the community’s good. For more stories and resources from a community seeking environmental justice in its neighborhood, see the Climate Witness Project’s Hunting Park Film Series.
5. Prepare for community care.
The IPCC report offers pathways to avert catastrophe. The next decade(s) offers opportunities to prevent harm in ways that also make peoples’ lives better. But even in the best case scenario, the world faces difficult decades ahead. It’s going to get worse before it gets better. My friend (and BioLogos contributor) Liuan Huska and I have written about the choices Christians (particularly those of us who are well-off in the Global North) will begin to face in this kind of a warming world: we can “head for the lifeboats” and look out for ourselves alone, or we can act in mutual support and solidarity with others. Your church could be positioned to offer such community care in response to extreme weather and climate impacts.
How can your congregation get ready? Say you’ve switched your building to clean energy and obtained electric heating and cooling: can you prepare to be an emergency warming/cooling center in your neighborhood? Say you’ve built bridges with local refugee communities: can you contribute to a network for resettlement needs? Say you’ve gotten to know your nearby neighbors: can you host a potluck and exchange resilience planning ideas? As more extreme disruption can be expected, the more congregations can do to lay the groundwork for community care, the better for loving our neighbors—especially those most vulnerable.
As more extreme disruption can be expected, the more congregations can do to lay the groundwork for community care, the better for loving our neighbors—especially those most vulnerable.
I hope this summary has helped break down the UN’s climate report and offered some concrete ideas of ways to act. The situation is difficult, but climate change is important for Christians to face together within our congregations. And we have opportunities to prevent damage and transform society for the common good. Christians and churches can step up and let God catalyze them into action. At the congregational and community level, we can love our neighbors—near and far, born and unborn—by working to transform society, in obedience to the precepts of our faith, and informed by the best science available. It all starts by facing the situation.
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