I was reading The New Yorker this weekend, and I came to a remarkable quote from the senior David H. Rank, the senior American diplomat in China. He was contemplating President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change. Actually, I should have written, “the former senior American diplomat in China” because he resigned over Trump’s decision, a decision he would somehow have to sell to the Chinese:
“I’m not a great theologian, but, just in my gut, I thought, We’re stewards of creation and the world. As a parent, I’ve spent my life trying to make my children’s life O.K. And, finally, in terms of national interests, it’s just dumb.”
As Rank put it quite simply, global climate change represents a pressing issue that we cannot avoid, but global stewardship even more. We need to concern ourselves for the poor who bear the brunt of climate change. We also need to think about the future, for our children. What earth will we leave for them? When the planet is threatened by our actions over which we are stewards, we have to re-evaluate all these calculations.
So why do we resist?
Frankly, the resistance to climate change does not strike me as primarily scientific. As a member of the largest scientific organization in the world, the AAAS, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, I can affirm that I hear the call to take climate change seriously and urgently.
Money is one big issue. I remember my church business administrator expressing more than a modicum of resistance to the sustainability committee I started by saying “The only greening in the church we need to seek is saving money.” Some resist for economic reasons—and those motivated by greed need to be openly rejected. “Put to death,” is Paul’s command to his fellow Christians about a list of sins that ends with “greed, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5). (On the other hand, others truly fear a livelihood in industries that are threatened—like coal—and I believe that we need to be sensitive to these concerns. That’s not my focus here.)
Following the connection Rank makes between climate change and stewardship, I’ve argued for a particular strategy: Let’s move away from a focus on climate change to the broader concerns of stewardship (or, if you prefer, creation care). Partly, I advocate this change because “climate change” has literally become politicized—with more Democrats subscribing to its reality and more Republicans expressing skepticism. In all this, I don’t want to lose all the other ways that pollution, and recycling, and lowering our carbon footprint—i.e., “greening” our lives—are simply good Christian spiritual practices.
What can we do? We can learn to decrease our carbon-based footprint. We can make changes in our congregations. Many churches, like my own Presbyterian Church USA have a zero-carbon neutral statement. Others have adopted creation care as a part of their ministry.
This is the flip side of my central concern: Let’s not expect too much of science. Let’s not expect science to make the change that we’d have to imbed in our lives as (generally) wealthy United States Christians who are often wedded to consumption. That’s something the transforming work of the Holy Spirit has to do. It is the hope that I hear in Paul’s stirring words, “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 3:18).
Finally, we believe as Christians that Jesus might return at any moment, but when he comes like “a thief in the night” according to 1 Thessalonians 5:2, I want to be found caring for a world that our children—my daughters and their millennial colleagues—will inherit. (Back to Rank’s comments one more time.) It’s not hard for me to imagine that one of Jesus’s questions will be this: “How have you taken care of this planet that I entrusted to you?”