The new report from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) just delivered some really bad news: famine, drought, and starvation are potentially coming for millions of people around the globe. What does that mean for American Christians? The answer may partly lie in the Biblical story of Joseph.
In this story, God saves Egypt and the surrounding nations from a severe famine by using Joseph to prepare for the disaster in advance. Reading the IPCC report reminds me of Joseph interpreting Pharaoh's dream: Seven years of famine are coming, and seven years of plenty remain. Like Egypt of old, the world has famine in its future. Like Joseph, we can see it coming.
The IPCC report details how bad the impact of climate change will be, as the earth reaches 2 degrees Celsius of average warming by the end of the century. Some of the more striking ecological changes, such as the extinction of the globe’s coral reefs, have managed to grab the headlines. But hidden in plain sight is a grim account of what these changes mean for humans: crops will fail, livestock will perish, and fisheries will deplete. And if we do nothing, millions of people will die from lack of food and water.
The good news? If we can limit the increase in temperature to just 1.5 C, we can avoid some of the worst outcomes. We would save 10 to 30 percent of our coral reefs. Better yet, we would significantly lower the risk of crop declines across West Africa, South East Asia, and Central and South America — saving millions from the threat of starvation.
Perhaps God can use us, like Joseph, to save lives by preparing our world for the coming hardship. Just as Joseph directed Pharaoh to store up grain for seven years, we could push our elected leaders to make the needed changes. According to the IPCC report, we need to achieve net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050 to limit temperature rise to 1.5 C. This would be a heavy lift, but it can be accomplished by carefully planned limitations on carbon pollution, and increased investment in carbon-reducing technologies. We can help provide the social and political will to make this happen.
As American citizens, we sit at the figurative right hand of Pharaoh. The U.S. is the biggest global carbon polluter in history, and each of us has a say in the decisions its leaders take to address climate change. The organization We Are Still In counts over 250 cities and 10 states that have committed to containing their emissions to the 1.5 C target. If more Christians made this a rallying cry for their town, that number could climb much higher.
For some American Christians, there is a theological disconnect. They don’t know how climate change fits in with their view of Biblical history, and they doubt the efficacy of human action to combat such a seemingly God-sized problem. Last year, Michigan Congressman and former pastor Tim Walberg said , “I’m confident that, if there’s a real problem, can take care of it.” This is a misguided theology of abdication, and it flies in the face of our Genesis mandate to care for the earth while we fill it. In addition, the Biblical witness suggests that human actions do indeed matter. God sent Jonah to pronounce judgement on Nineveh, but withheld destruction when they repented and changed their ways.
Other Christians are skeptical of the science behind climate change. Anyone in this camp should hold at least the same amount of skepticism towards those few reports that deny climate change. These purported anti-climate change studies are being funded by coal and oil companies and the billionaire Koch brothers for the self-serving goal of preventing congressional action.
Regardless of whether or not you believe human actions have contributed to climate change in the past, the point of the IPCC report is that coordinated human action can stop climate change in the future. Drastically decreasing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere would, in all likelihood, keep the average temperature from increasing beyond 1.5 C this century.
The dream is here, and Pharaoh needs our help. The President’s response to the IPCC report has been tepid, telling 60 Minutes, “I’m not denying climate change. But it could very well go back. You know, we're talking about over a millions of years.” With all due respect, we are actually talking about changes taking place this century, over the course of our lifetimes — changes that spell disaster for millions of people. We have between 20 and 30 years to store up our grain, and we have to start now.
In Genesis, God’s plan for saving lives also becomes a vehicle for reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers. When Judah offers to take the punishment in place of his younger brother, Benjamin, Joseph finally reveals himself and makes amends with his family. Imagine if American Christians took up a similar self-sacrificial posture in order to save themselves—and their brothers and sisters across the world — from hunger. Imagine the unity that such a coordinated effort could bring to our divided nation.
This is our Joseph moment. God give us the courage to meet it.