Climate Change and People of Faith

by Mary Pendergast, RSM

We stand at a critical moment in Earth’s history, a time when humanity must choose its future.  As the world becomes increasingly interdependent and fragile, the future at once holds great peril and great promise.    (Earth Charter)

Can you believe that the Pentagon, the US Department of Commerce, the UN, the National Academy of Sciences, the European Union, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Intelligence Council, James Hansen from NASA, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and SHELL OIL agree on anything? Yes, these groups and many more, support “the vast preponderance of evidence, based on years of research conducted by a wide array of different investigators at many different institutions that global climate change is real, it is caused by human activities, and the need to take action is urgent.” [i]

While it is interesting that companies representing petroleum, steel, autos and utilities have formed lobbying groups with names like the “Global Climate Coalition and the Information Council on the Environment”, it is a fact  that these companies have seriously entered the climate change debate.  “In just the first six months of 2009, Exxon-Mobil spent $14.4 million lobbying Washington officials on climate change, the American Petroleum Institute spent $4.1 million on its lobbying activities and Peabody (coal) Energy Corp. reported lobbying expenses of $2.2 million during the same period.”[ii] They like to reposition global warming as a “theory” rather than a fact, sow doubt about climate research and make it appear that the research community is deeply divided.  In fact, scientific uncertainties about exactly how much warmer the planet will be in 100 years does not change the very high confidence scientists have that human-made greenhouse gas emissions are warming the planet and are likely to continue doing so.

What is Climate Change? Climate change refers to the rise in average global temperature of Earth’s near surface air and oceans since the mid 20th century and its projected continuation due to the build up of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Global surface temperature increased 0.74 degrees between the start and the end of the 20th century. “This decade will be the hottest since record keeping began in 1850, with 2009 set to be one of the top 5 warmest years.”[iii]

What are the Effects of this increase in temperature? Earth is changing in many ways that are clearly visible:

  • Glaciers are retreating and thinning, there is a reduction of Arctic sea ice, a reduction in permafrost, and accelerated loss of mass from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets.
  • Global sea level is rising.  Part of this is due to the glacier and ice melt, but it is also caused by thermal expansion as oceans warm.
  • Decades of biological data on plants’ blooming dates suggest that spring is arriving earlier each year.  This is affecting agriculture and pollination.
  • Precipitation has increased across the globe on average.
  • Storms are stronger and storm damage is increased.
  • There are more heat related illnesses and disease.
  • Less fresh water can be expected to be available as mountain ice caps melt at an alarming rate.
  • Ecosystems are changing.  Some species are already moving farther north, others won’t be able to move and could become extinct.  Several species are presently experiencing huge declines.

Source for climate information: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report, 2007, quoted in National Geographic, 12/7/2009.

What are the Causes of Climate Change? There are several greenhouse gases responsible for warming and humans emit them in a variety of ways.  “Most come from the combustion of fossil fuels in cars, factories and electricity production.”[iv] Carbon dioxide is the gas most responsible for climate change, and according to the IPCC Report, carbon dioxide emissions increased by 80% between 1970 and 2004.  Other gases contributing to warming are methane from landfills and agriculture, as well as gases used for refrigeration, air conditioning and industrial processes.  Destruction of the world’s forests accounts for nearly 20% of greenhouse gas emissions.

The rapid rise in the amount of greenhouse gases is a significant problem because it is changing the climate faster than living things are able to adapt.  Historically, changes in climate have taken thousands of years, while we are experiencing changes in the course of decades.  It appears that we have become geological agents, capable of affecting the processes that determine life on Earth.

Why is Climate Change a Concern for People of Faith?

  • Climate change is already forcing vulnerable communities in poor countries to face unprecedented climate stress including water scarcity and drought, fierce weather events and floods, reduced agricultural output and increased disease.
  • The 4th IPCC report depicts a pending human crisis: water scarcity, water shortages, and hunger due to climate variability.
  • The impacts of climate change around the world, from floods to droughts to disease, disproportionately affect poor, vulnerable communities, especially women and children.[v]
  • United States national security relies on human security abroad.  Climate-exacerbated impacts will increase poverty, hunger, migration and conflicts over scarce natural resources, as already seen in Sudan.
  • As drought increases and food production declines, many people will be forced to move from rural to urban areas.  This pressure to move will lead to more people crossing national borders, including those of the US and Europe. Meanwhile, US agencies including state and local governments and the military, will be called upon to respond to more severe natural disasters here and abroad.

What Can We Do? Reverend Canon Sally Bingham reminds us that “every behavior affects another person:  the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the coffee we drink, the energy we use.”[vi] The intrinsic value of creation in our faith tradition contrasted with the contemporary plight of the planet – from climate change, to the extinction of species, to the depletion of the fisheries, to the destruction of the rainforest, to the over pumping of the world’s aquifers, to the devastation of mountaintop removal, to the loss of topsoil – makes me know it is time to become an activist on behalf of creation.

  • Right now you can contact your senators and ask them to support legislation on comprehensive climate change and energy.  You could ask them to co-sponsor S2835, the International Climate Change Investment Act, which creates a framework for action. You could ask your representative to co-sponsor House Resolution 98, which recognizes the disproportionate impact of climate change on women and their efforts globally to implement solutions.  It is time to unleash our political will and let our government know we intend to confront climate change with creativity and resilience.
  • The global 350 movement which has many individual actions for reducing our carbon footprints and reducing our individual emissions is going into a new phase.  Go to www.350.org/oct10 to join the international “Get to Work Global Work Party” scheduled for 10/10/10 .
  • Write letters to your editors of both local and church news and ask for leadership in obtaining a strong climate bill.
  • Attend an Awakening the Dreamer Symposium or sponsor one in your community. Go to www.awakeningthedreamer.org for details.
  • Learn what Transition Towns are all about. Almost every state has a transition town movement.
  • Join Interfaith Power and Light.
  • Read Green Living Handbook and Low Carbon Diet by David Gershon, both contain individual and community actions.

Pray that Earth will become a critical concern for all, we have no time to waste and everything to gain!  Peril or promise? The choice is ours.


[i] Lishner, Alan, CEO of AAAS and executive publisher of the journal Science in Climate Progress, Dec 7, 2009.

[ii] Beinecke, Frances, Clean Energy Common Sense, An American Call to Action on Global Climate  Change,       Rowan&Littlefield Inc,  copyright 2010  by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc.

[iii] World Meteorological Association. .New York Times.12/8/2009.

[iv] National Geographic on line, “Causes of Global Warming”, 12/7/2009.

[v] Oxfam America “Women and Climate Change” Day of Advocacy  3/9/10.

[vi] Sheppard,Kate.  YES!Magazine. posted to the web 12/1/2009.  Will appear in  Winter 2010 edition.

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