At his Sunday service recently, the Rev. Karl Whiteman asked God to grant world leaders the "wisdom and courage to reverse global warming that threatens our very existence." Mr. Whiteman is a United Church of Christ missionary in Micronesia, where small islands could be inundated if climate change becomes a full reality and sea levels rise. So his prayer of petition had a certain urgency to it.
While the debate over global warming may be hotter than Hades among scientists and politicians, the issue has become an important part of theological teaching and organizational activism for growing numbers of clergy members and congregations.
The National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., which represents 34 Protestant, Orthodox, and Anglican denominations, recently launched an educational and advocacy effort that includes public-service announcements for broadcast, church bulletins, and a five-part congregational course of study titled, "It's God's World: Christians, the Environment, and Climate Change."
Earlier this month, 22 denominations within the National Council of Churches (NCC) wrote President Clinton and every member of the United States Senate, urging approval of the international climate-change agreement reached at Kyoto, Japan, last year.
THE Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, general secretary of the NCC, says there are several reasons this issue is "the particular concern of religious leaders." "Climate change will hurt creation," says Dr. Campbell. "People of faith know, as Psalm 24 tells us, that 'the Earth is the Lord's and all that is in it.' Human beings are called to care for the earth."
Second, she says, "People of faith have long believed that we are 'our brothers' and sisters' keepers.' We are responsible for each other's well-being. Climate change will affect the health and safety of everyone."
Whether or not global warming in fact will occur - at least to the extent that environmentalists warn - remains in dispute.
Many scientists say temperature changes linked to human activity already are occurring. July set new temperature records, as did every previous month this year. These surpassed 1997, which had been the hottest year on record. All 10 of the warmest years have occurred since 1983.
Still, skeptics say other factors - El Nio, for example - are to blame, and they question the soundness of data used to draw conclusions about the future.
Atmospheric scientist S. Fred Singer, a leading critic, told a congressional panel last month that "there is no scientific consensus that global warming is occurring."
For the most part, this is the same conclusion reached by lawmakers. A majority of the Republican-led Congress has vowed not to approve the Kyoto agreement and is fighting what it says are Clinton administration efforts to independently promote and carry out the agreement's provisions. The political debate over global warming has been further bogged down by Mr. Clinton's distractions involving personal scandal and efforts to combat terrorism.
This is one reason the church groups decided to publicize their activity on climate change now. The NCC makes a point of noting that its denominations encompass 52 million church members in America, and that all US senators, as Campbell puts it, "count as constituent members of the NCC communions."
But the issue also is part of the growing trend among faith groups to emphasize the environment.
* In June, the United Methodist Church and several denominations issued "Principles for Global Corporate Responsibility." It included the statement that "faith communities measure the global economy not only by what it produces, but also by its impact on the environment."
* Earlier this year, a group of Jewish and Christian leaders urged Congress to reauthorize the Endangered Species Act, which they likened to Noah's ark.
* The National Religious Partnership for the Environment, which includes more than 2,000 Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish, evangelical, traditionally black churches, and synagogues, has begun designating "covenant congregations" that agree to make environmental quality in urban areas a priority.
* In October, the NCC will hold a Midwest Interfaith Climate Change Conference in Colum-bus, Ohio. "It is important for anyone of faith to take this issue seriously," says Susan Harlow, a divinity student and Indiana coordinator for the nine-state interfaith global-warming campaign.