The earth is not heating up nearly as fast as the debate about its climate. We can blow up so irresponsibly that we lose the steam we need to act constructively. Or we can respond to this environmental challenge in a way that increases respect and effectiveness, while decreasing the hot error.
Every major religion has a moral mandate to take care of the Earth. For those who look to the Bible for instruction, it is the first responsibility given to man: "The Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep [protect] it" (Gen: 2:15, NASB). Our moral obligation, then, does not depend on the rate our planet is warming, or even whether the main cause is human activity. We are to refrain from harming God's creation – period. Few Christians or persons of other faiths (or no faith) would disagree with that statement.
But the latest reports indicate the need to move the care of creation up the priority scale. The great news is that individually we can help as much as we have harmed the physical environment, but we must watch out that we don't poison the environment of relationships in the process.
We need the skeptics; they are a valuable part of the conversation. Skeptics see a speck of truth we need to consider. I have found that if I ignore them, all those specks can accumulate into a log in my own eye. Skeptics can keep us honest and steer our remedies away from some negative consequences with their warnings: "You're going to destroy the economy!" "You are trying to create a panic!" "This is more politics than science!" Truthfully, we do need to calmly and reasonably create market-based solutions that don't depend more on government policy than on grass- roots participation. What we don't need to do is yell back.
Jesus was really great at not being preoccupied with retaliation. Even when the attack was personally hurtful, his response was, "Forgive them, for they know not what they do." Some think global warming is a hoax. But if we reduce pollution in a way that won't cause more harm than good, what's the problem? On the wild chance that the growing evidence has been misread, we still end up with a better world. On the other hand, some of us think that the climate change skeptics are missing the overwhelming evidence and that their disbelief may delay much-needed reform. Forgiving those not ready to act while equipping those who are ready to act improves both the spiritual and physical environment.
We don't need to try to personally argue people to our side. Few of us are scientists. Fewer of us are world-class climatologists whose research must be reviewed by peers hundreds of times over. Even fewer of us realize how quickly the tools for measuring climate change and atmospheric conditions have advanced in the past few years. Indeed, the earlier reports have passed their expiration date.
The most credible authority on climate change is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a panel of hundreds of the world's best scientists, evaluated by hundreds of other scientists, further evaluated by government officials of 154 countries and the major national academies of science around the world. Scientists, like cats, are difficult to coordinate. Therefore, this continually updated consensus report is a very conservative document. This year's report, released last Friday, says that there is more than a 90 percent likelihood that human activity is a significant contributor to climate change. I believe it because they are the experts (not politicians or some retired engineer who has "done his own research"). All the disagreements I have read have either been founded on old information or have very limited perspectives.
Though global warming sounds like such a huge problem, and it seems as though no one can possibly make a difference, the situation is quite the opposite. Individuals, let alone churches and temples and mosques, can make a huge difference. Just do the simple things:
• Replace incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents. Though initially more expensive, an energy-efficient fluorescent bulb will save you $28 to $58 in your electric bill during its life and burn 500 pounds less coal to pollute the air!
• Recycle. C'mon: How hard can it be?
• Drive the speed limit with properly inflated tires and a tuned engine. Make your mom worry less.
• Ask for your energy company to do an energy audit on your house or church to tell you how you can lower your electric bills. You'll make money and be giving to others at the same time!
• Support businesses that are environmentally friendly.
• Vote and voice your concern about protecting the environment to government officials and those you are electing. I have no specific legislation to recommend, but you will know it when you see it!
• Pray that people and congregations and governments will do what is wise to care for the creation.
People can get so fixated on one issue that they become like a "noisy gong or a clanging cymbal." A fanatic has been defined as one who won't change his mind and won't let you change the subject. The environmental issue can become a substitute religion. Our faith has to do with obeying God and loving our neighbor. Hugging trees is not the point. Creation care is important to many Biblical themes we need to address, including sanctity of life, disease, poverty, and conflict.
Some conservative Christians have been reluctant to get involved with creation care because they think it belies some sort of failure of belief that God is going to take care of us. Of course those same Christians don't expect God to change their baby's dirty diaper (pray all you want, it's still your job). Caring for the Earth is not a lack of faith; it is an act of faith. Faith guides us to do what is good for others, knowing that the results are ultimately up to God.
I and other evangelical Christians teamed up with some of the leading scientists in America last month to declare how faith and science can complement each other to accomplish a common cause. Evangelicals need the scientists' facts; scientists need the evangelical constituency to participate in a solution. Each addresses a different aspect of the same challenge: science addresses the "what" and faith addresses the "why." Before I act, I need to know the facts and possible solutions. The "why," though, is what compels me to action.
Government, business, and science bring unique assets to help with global problems, but nothing motivates like religion. Cooperative work on the environment may prove to be a gateway to resolving other important issues such as peace, poverty, and human rights. Perhaps faith communities will begin as a matter of course to work with governments and businesses and scientists. I am convinced that no global problem will be solved in the future without grass-roots participation motivated by values, and worshiping congregations provide the most effective leadership to shape values.
• Joel C. Hunter, a senior pastor of Northland, A Church Distributed (www.northlandchurch.net), is author of "Right Wing, Wrong Bird: Why the Tactics of the Religious Right Won't Fly With Most Conservative Christians."