World Christianity and Climate Change
DR. GINA A. ZURLO
CO-DIRECTOR, CENTER FOR THE STUDY OF GLOBAL CHRISTIANITY
I recently attended an on-the-record webinar held by the Council on Foreign Relations on Religion and Climate Change. The speaker was Mary Evelyn Tucker, co-director of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale University. My interest was piqued by this discussion because of our focus at the CSGC on Christian activism around the world, which includes not only mission and evangelism but also issues that broadly fall under the umbrella of “social action”. This was a major part of our research for the third edition of the World Christian Encyclopedia. What are Christians doing around the world?
One major issue that arose in our research of the countries in Oceania (Australia, New Zealand, and the islands in Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia) was climate change and environmental justice. Climate change is a pressing issue for churches in the region. Many people have been forced to leave their homes due to rising sea levels. In the Marshall Islands, for example, seaside cemeteries have been eroded by rising waters and many islands are projected to be uninhabitable by the mid-21st century. A Catholic cardinal in Papua New Guinea named climate change and rising sea levels as one of the most pressing issues facing the country. The Anglican primates of Oceania, including the Archbishop of Papua New Guinea, released a statement in 2017 citing the need to pastorally and politically address climate change. Ministers often make reference to the environment as God’s creation and humans’ responsibility to care for it. New theologies are being developed that build off existing environmental theologies to encourage links between climate change and church reform. The tragic reality of climate change in Oceania, however, is that rising sea levels are mostly caused by detrimental industrial output of larger nations such as the United States (ironically the country with the most Christians). Deep imbalances such as this will likely remain a challenge for the global Christian community, especially those with ample resources.
According to Dr. Tucker, religious communities have an amazing capacity to advocate for vulnerable populations that are disproportionately impacted by climate change. Many Christian groups have made definitive statements and steps toward environmental justice, such as Wes Granberg-Michaelson (Protestant), Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew (Greek Orthodox), and Pope Francis (Catholic). Christian theologizing has moved forward on this issue, such as Leah Schade’s Rooted and Rising, with testimonies of people who were “converted” in their thinking on environmental issues (also see Climate Church, Climate World). Some theologians have also historically made a connection between exploitation of women and the domination of creation, calling for a re-imagining of our relationship with the Earth. Taking care of creation is fundamentally a moral and ethical issue based upon sound biblical theology. Dr. Tucker acknowledged that this requires a massive economic shift, likely comparable to nothing else in history, but consistent with our calling to be faithful stewards of God’s creation.
Younger Evangelicals are generally not working within the same frameworks as many of their parents and older generations when it comes to environmental issues. Change is glacial. I think Dr. Tucker and other activists’ calls for “ecological conversions” and “integral ecology” aligns with the biblical – and moral – mandate to care for creation. For more information, check out the Evangelical Environment Network; Young Evangelicals For Climate Action; and Ecumenical Pacific Youth.