Climate change and love of neighbor

January 15th, 2019

Touching a spider web

In his Pulitzer prize-winning novel All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren uses a striking image to highlight the interconnected nature of our lives: “The world is like an enormous spider web and if you touch it, however lightly, at any point, the vibration ripples to the remotest perimeter.”

We’re impacted by decisions other people have made, and conversely, our actions can change others’ lives for good or ill. If you touch a spider web in one place, other parts of it move. This image also applies to the critical problem of global climate change.

A recent report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) describes the dire and immediate consequences of additional global warming beyond that which has happened since the beginning of the 20th century. The spider web image helps us to see how human actions in one part of the world can have negative consequences far beyond that region. Such insight encourages our reflection on how the Christian responsibility to love neighbor applies to addressing climate change.

The IPCC report: What consequences does it highlight?

According to an October 2018 New York Times article, the earth has warmed 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1900. The IPCC report describes the effects of warming another .5 to 1 degree Celsius. In short, the effects could threaten the lives of tens of millions of people globally through water shortages, extreme heat waves and coastal flooding. In addition, these increases could destroy the earth’s coral reefs and all Arctic summer sea ice, thus resulting in greater habitat losses for polar bears, sea birds, seals, and whales. Hundreds of millions of people worldwide would be exposed to extreme drought, especially in the Mediterranean region. An increase of 2 degrees Celsius would expose 32 to 80 million people worldwide to sea level rise, an especially significant impact for small island nations. Projected temperature increases will especially affect crop yields in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and Central and South America.

The IPCC calls these consequences real and present dangers. Because the world’s nations haven’t acted in a timely manner, a 1.5-degree increase is expected to happen between 2030 and 2052. This is likely the best we can hope for. It would take a rapid, massive, and, to be honest, unlikely global effort to stop all fossil fuel emission and to remove enough carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to avoid this outcome. The more likely outcome is that the earth’s temperature will rise by at least 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) before the end of the century.

The IPCC report makes it clear that even small increases in warming can have calamitous effects on both human beings and natural ecosystems. Many coral reefs are likely to die off at the 1.5-degree threshold and could vanish entirely with a 2-degree increase. Even at 1.5 degrees, the vast ice sheets on top of Greenland and West Antarctica could destabilize enough to cause significant sea level rise. The report also warns that small island nations and many African countries could experience heat waves, crop failures and a dramatic increase in malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

The effects of this rise in temperature aren’t uniform around the earth, and neither is the responsibility. The Arctic and other regions will heat up much faster. The Mediterranean and the Middle East could have a significant drop in water availability. These changes could make for huge problems in regions that already have water scarcity issues along with political instability. The rise in temperature also won’t have uniform effects on extreme weather events such as powerful storms and severe heat waves.

According to a May 2018 Washington Post article, the northern hemisphere, which is the location of 13 of the 15 largest countries in the world measured by GDP (gross domestic product), is responsible for a much larger portion of greenhouse gas emissions than the southern hemisphere; but the whole world will heat up, not just the northern hemisphere. Tropical countries, which are often poorer, will suffer the most from global warming. This disproportionality is a major reason why wealthy countries need to understand how their actions affect other nations around the globe and act accordingly.

Climate change and neighbor love

Genny Rowley is a hospital chaplain, board member of Utah Interfaith Power & Light, and a Green- Faith Fellow. Discussing the interconnected nature of the environment in a Christian Feminism Today article, she says, “If an interconnected ecological network sustains our lives in this world, we are inevitably in relationship with all parts of that living web. We are ecological and planetary neighbors, in spite of species difference.”

She suggests an expansion of our concepts of neighbor both in “how we understand neighbor love, and who we understand our neighbors to be.” She continues, “If our relational metaphor [is] that of an interconnected web, . . . our relationship with the natural world [will] then need to be characterized by respectful engagement instead of taken-for-granted control.”

Scientific findings about the nature of the universe testify to the interconnectedness of God’s creation and also speak to the reality of human dependence on air, land and water for health, well-being and survival. Theologians and religious leaders concerned about the future of the planet recognize that we’re all part of the web of life. Katharine Jefferts Schori, formerly the presiding bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church in the United States, is quoted in a recent Anglican Theological Review article as saying, “We are part of the whole; we’re not in charge of the whole, and whatever our socioeconomic status, we cannot avoid the destruction that results from misusing the whole. The choice is ours — we can continue the self-centered death spiral, or we can encourage the death of self-centeredness within us and our communities, and learn to live far more abundantly for the health and wholeness of the entire creation.”


The Second Great Commandment

Cynthia Bourgeault, an Episcopal priest and writer, offers a surprising interpretation of the second Great Commandment in an article published on the Center for Action and Contemplation website. In her view, this commandment focuses on our connectedness with other people and God through love. She begins with a reflection on John 15 where Jesus says, “I am the vine; you [plural] are the branches” (verse 5). Moments later, Jesus says, “As the Father loved me, I too have loved you. Remain in my love” (verse 9). Pointing out that Jesus sees himself as one with the Father (John 10:30), Bourgeault reads the parable of the vine and the branches as a mutual life of love. She says, “We flow into God—and God into us—because it is the nature of love to flow. And as we give ourselves into one another in this fashion, the vine gives life and coherence to the branch while the branch makes visible what the vine is.”

With this understanding of how we’re connected, Bourgeault reads the second Great Commandment, “You will love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31), and says, “We almost always hear that wrong,” hearing as much as instead of as. There’s no as much as in it. The neighbor is “a continuation of your very own being. It’s a complete seeing that your neighbor is you. There are not two individuals out there, one seeking to better herself [or himself] at the price of the other, or to extend charity to the other; there are simply two cells of the one great Life.”

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

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