A RECENT RETREAT of evangelical environmentalists raised this theological question: Should we have expected most people in the developed world to hear the scientific evidence proving the great dangers of climate change and then decide to quickly change themselves—their view of the world, their lifestyles and politics—and to withdraw their support from the fossil fuel economy that is threatening the planet and its people?
Those of us gathered at the retreat didn't think so. We human beings just aren't that smart, wise, good, or unselfish. It's more human to deny the evidence, attack the messengers, delay the response, and just hope everything works out. That's what many have done. And since our political system is even more dysfunctional than most of the people it represents—and is bought and paid for by the gas and oil interests that control the economy—the chances are low for courageous and far-sighted leadership.
So what kind of wake-up call will it take to reduce the carbon emissions we humans create, which are warming the earth's temperature and endangering our future in increasingly dramatic ways? Perhaps it will take disruption and devastation—which is becoming the "new normal." So-called once-in-a-lifetime storms are now becoming frequent, with Superstorm Sandy only the most recent example.
Sandy seemed to get people's attention in a way we haven't seen since the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf. It came in a year when the lower 48 states suffered the warmest temperatures and most disruptive weather patterns since such records have been kept. We're already spending billions in emergency aid for the victims of hurricanes and weather disasters; those numbers will only increase. In addition to Sandy, we had 10 other billion-dollar weather disasters in 2012, including Hurricane Isaac and terrible tornadoes across the Midwest and Great Plains.
It was also very hot, with almost 60 percent of the country experiencing moderate to extreme drought. The 10 hottest years on record for the world have all come since 1998. Such changes are already melting polar icecaps, raising sea levels around the world, and increasing the volatility and unpredictability of big storms. And while experts are always careful not to say that any particular storm was caused by climate change, scientists have been warning us that the rise in the world's temperature would increase destructive weather patterns.
The clear consensus among climate scientists is that this is all happening because of the concentration in the atmosphere of heat-trapping carbon dioxide—which has increased by 40 percent since the Industrial Revolution, when we humans began burning fossil fuels to energize our way of life. The only thing the scientists have been wrong about is how fast the most serious changes would happen—they're occurring much faster than anyone thought they would.
Our selfish interests, as opposed to the protection of God's creation, our short-sightedness, as opposed to the long-term conservation of the environment, and our bad theology of domination, as opposed to a good theology of stewardship, have all brought us to this very real crisis.
SO IT WAS a hopeful thing to spend two days in January with a remarkable group of evangelical scientists, environmentalists, and ethicists whose concern focused on better Christian theology and discipleship. Nothing less than that kind of focus will result in the changes in behavior, and eventually public policy, that we need to avert even more disaster. Over 48 hours of prayer, worship, discernment, discussion, and strategizing, people came together with a common commitment to move forward together in building the movement of Christian conscience and action.
Many of those present commented on the "amazing" group of people who had gathered at this retreat center just outside of the nation's capital, and what a "historic moment" it seemed to be—they said it felt like "a movement of God." There were accomplished scientists and respected academics who know why our window of opportunity to mitigate and adapt to climate change is closing, alongside a new and energetic group of young activists whose generation could bring about the necessary changes. There were leaders from relief and development organizations who realize that all the good they do for the poorest around the world could be literally wiped away by the impacts of climate change. And there were those who live and work in poor communities of color in the U.S. where the toxic consequences of environmental racism are most apparent; the principle of "environmental justice" was named as a founding commitment of this new "web" of Christians.
Everyone there understood that it will take both a spiritual and social movement to change national direction and policy. But after two days together, many of us began to feel that something that hopeful might just happen.
Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.
Image: Cosmic time -- global warming, DeoSum  / Shutterstock.com