After the Paris Climate Conference

February 3rd, 2016

‘Truly a Historic Moment’

On December 12, the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (also called the 2015 Paris Climate Conference or COP21) concluded when delegates from 195 countries who had met for two weeks in Le Bourget, France, unanimously adopted a milestone agreement to fight climate change. UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said, “This is truly a historic moment. For the first time, we have a truly universal agreement on climate change, one of the most crucial problems on earth.”

The Paris Agreement contains no quick fix for the global warming that faces human society. It doesn’t answer all questions about how and to what extent the problem can be solved. Until the countries who will sign it over the next year follow promises with concrete actions, its ultimate goal is uncertain — and it has its detractors. James Hansen, for example, the former NASA scientist who did much to bring climate change before the world’s attention, derides the agreement as “worthless words … As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will be continued to be burned.”

Nevertheless, the Paris Agreement marks a significant moment in humanity’s attempts to combat climate change. And while it’s not a faith-based agreement, it offers significant opportunities for Christians to bring theological resources to global conversation about climate change in positive and hopeful ways.

Environmental significance

As a declaration of the international community’s resolve to reduce climate-changing emissions, the Paris Agreement holds obvious environmental significance. Negotiators met near the end of a year that, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), was earth’s warmest year by the widest margin, and in which the average global surface temperature hit the “symbolic and significant milestone of 1° Celsius above the pre-industrial era,” according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

Also in 2015, the worldwide atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached 400 parts per million (ppm) — a level “more than 100 ppm higher than at any time in the last one million years,” according to NASA scientist Charles Miller. “Unless serious actions are taken immediately, we risk the next threshold being a point of no return in mankind’s unintended global-scale geoengineering experiment.”

The Paris Agreement calls climate change “an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet.” While this threat should in itself be enough to motivate action, our Christian faith gives additional, theological impetus for fighting climate change. We believe God gave humanity the world as our “supremely good” home (Genesis 1:31), setting us in this beautiful garden called earth “to farm it and to take care of it” (2:15). Our unintended but undeniably destructive impact on the environment shows we haven’t always fulfilled that mission. As one of my denomination’s statements of faith says, we “deserve God’s condemnation” for (among other sins) “[threatening] death to the planet entrusted to our care.”

But our gracious God hasn’t revoked our status as creation’s caretakers. God still calls us to “take charge” of all God has made (Genesis 1:26) in ways that sustain life and encourage it to flourish. God has endowed us with the power to think, dream, plan, and build; indeed, God has made us “only slightly less than divine” (Psalm 8:5).

Writing from a nonreligious perspective, astrophysicist Adam Frank argues, “For all our capacity to render horror and stupidity, we human beings have done some pretty awesome things.” Christians can agree with that statement and with Frank’s call to stop seeing ourselves as “inherently bad or anti-nature” and to start seeing ourselves as capable of using our abilities to change the world again — this time intentionally and for the better.

The politics of climate change

While it’s a landmark accord, the Paris Agreement can’t guarantee the world will successfully meet the challenges of climate change. As Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) wrote for Newsweek, the agreement “could survive as an international framework even as national actions on climate change turn out to be woefully inadequate … It is national politics and policies, not international agreements, that are the prime drivers of emissions-reducing actions.”

In the United States, climate change has become a highly political and partisan issue. A 2014 poll from the University of New Hampshire, for instance, found a 53-percentage-point gap between members of the two major political parties regarding whether scientists can be trusted to provide accurate climate information — one of the largest gaps for any issue. Despite agreement among at least 97 percent of actively publishing climate scientists that human activities have “very likely” driven global warming, many American elected officials and office-seekers deny the reality of climate change and the need to take any action against it.

The Paris Agreement has already become a political flashpoint in America’s current election season. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has accused President Obama of “stepping over the middle class to take credit for an ‘agreement’ that is subject to being shredded in 13 months,” when the next president takes office. Whoever wins the White House this year, there’s no question the United States can only live up to its agreement commitments if political will to do so is in place.

Christians of any political affiliation who want to see the United States be a leader in global action against climate change must exercise whatever political pressure they can to ensure the issue remains on policy agendas. They can demand that local, state and national candidates for office answer questions about climate change and vote for those who are willing to act on the problem.

We cannot mistake political action for God’s will, but we can accomplish God’s will through political action. We cannot establish God’s kingdom on earth, “for last things do not take place on earth,” as Reformed theologian Karl Barth wrote, “and yet why should not little things and even great things do so?”

Environmental justice

While no part of the world will escape the effects of climate change, the world’s small, low-lying, and coastal regions, including some of earth’s poorest, undeveloped nations, will bear its brunt. Many already are.

For example, nearly all the residents of Kiribati, Nauru, and Tuvalu, three small island nations in the Pacific, have in the past decade experienced rising sea levels, saltwater intrusion, and drought related to climate change. Or consider Bangladesh, where high tides are rising ten times faster than the global average and more than 1.5 million people have already moved away from lowlying villages. By 2050, climate scientists forecast that rising seas will have displaced about 18 million Bangladeshis.

As the Environmental Justice Foundation points out, “The world’s 50 least-developed countries together emit less than 1% of total carbon emissions. Those who have contributed least to climate change are those feeling its effects first and worst.”

The Paris Agreement singles out “the specific needs and special circumstances of developing [countries], especially those that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change.” It states that developed countries “shall provide financial resources to assist developing [countries] with respect to both mitigation [of] and adaptation” to climate change.

Jesus said, “Much will be demanded from everyone who has been given much” (Luke 12:48). How do Jesus’ words apply to this situation when nations that can least afford to adapt to the adverse effects of climate change have the most need to do so?

Christians believe God prizes justice — not mere even-handed fairness, but a passionate commitment to setting right what is wrong. The Paris Agreement may offer a way to help set right the injustice that poorer nations will pay dearly — and already are — for a problem primarily caused by wealthier ones, including the United States.

“Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Deuteronomy 16:20, NRSV). God’s words to God’s people on the threshold of Canaan echo today in the words of Olai Uludong, Palau’s ambassador to the European Union: “If we save the vulnerable, the rest of the world will be saved, too.” Environmental justice could help everyone live long on the earth that the Lord our God has given us.

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