Christians and Climate Change: Should We Care?Is climate change real? A science professor believes it is, and shares his thoughts on how it could alter our lives.
For over 30 years I have taken my Canadian University College science students to the Athabasca Glacier in Jasper National Park. Each time I go, the glacier has melted farther and farther away from the parking lot. The increasing distance is not merely an annoyance; it's a frightening indicator of what is going on with the world today. Even though news broadcasts are filled with stories about global warming and climate change, it can be a challenge to get some straight answers to even the most basic questions.
|The Athabasca Galcier including a view of the parking lot.|
What is the climate?
Properly defined, climate is the average condition of the weather over a period of many years. One complication in answering the question of whether climate change is real is the existence of regional oscillations—climatic changes that swing back and forth over a period of many years. In eastern Canada, the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) is responsible for up to 50 percent of the variation in winter temperatures in Quebec and the Maritime provinces. The severe ice storm of January 1998 that affected much of eastern Canada occurred during a negative NAO phase. In western Canada, the North Pacific Oscillation (NPO) shifts between warmer and cooler winters. These shifts occur at 20- to 30-year intervals and make a big difference to plants and animals. For instance, mountain hemlock grows and survives best with warmer temperatures and reduced snowpack. Elk thrive under these conditions as well. Flowering of plants and survival of seabirds has also been shown to be affected by this climatic variation. So, over the span of decades, all over Canada, we have had alternating cycles of warmth and coolness, rain and less rain.
If the climate is always changing, what's the big deal now?
Our climate is naturally dynamic—constantly changing. If we look farther back into history, we learn about the coolness of the Little Ice Age (from the 14th to the mid-19th century) and the warmth of Medieval Warm period (from the 10th to the 14th century). Farther back, we can see even more extreme changes. What is unusual about climate change today is that it is the result of human activity, not nature alone, and that it is changing far more quickly than it has in the past.
What is causing today's climatic warming?
One cause, often mentioned in the media, is an increase in the atmosphere of gases such as carbon dioxide and methane. Called greenhouse gases, they have a remarkable ability to absorb heat, preventing the Earth from cooling—analogous to glass in a greenhouse. Thus, increasing the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere—by burning fossil fuels or by deforestation, both of which we are doing at an alarming rate—has made the Earth warmer. Carbon dioxide has increased in the Earth's atmosphere about 36 percent since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution (with most of the increase since 1945). Meanwhile, the Earth's climate warmed about 0.6°C. Computer modeling suggests that the temperature will increase another 1.4°C to 5.8°C based on our current trends.
Is global warming really a bad thing? Who likes the snow and cold anyway?
Climatic warming is expected to be greatest in northern continental regions. For the last few years there have been record low levels of ice in the Arctic. Less ice is good for those who have an interest in commercial traffic using the Arctic Ocean. However, for Arctic seals the loss of ice will reduce the availability of areas for feeding and breeding. For polar bears, reduced ice will reduce their opportunity for hunting seals. Lowered seal populations will result in lower populations of polar bears. Are we ready to say good-bye to polar bears?
Another challenge is how climate change will affect us as individuals. Increased global temperatures will increase heat-related illnesses and deaths, but this will not be the major concern for Canadians. Rather, we're likely to be concerned with the impact on our freshwater resources. Worldwide, glaciers are decreasing in volume (including my beloved Athabasca Glacier). Glaciers constitute large freshwater resources that will be missed by those that live near them. Canadian water and sewage treatment systems were designed to operate within previous levels of precipitation, ambient temperature, snow cover, snow melt, and water levels. Climate change will increase the entry of pathogens into our water systems which, in turn, has the potential to make our water less safe.
Climatic warming is expected to increase extreme weather; there'll be more tornadoes, hurricanes (think of Katrina), and floods in various parts of the world. This places an even higher demand upon relief agencies, especially since the impacts fall disproportionately on the poorer regions of the world. For instance, there are 110 million people living in floodplain areas in Bangladesh. Since 1900, the increase in sea level appears to be two or three millimetres per year. This, plus increased rainfall and extreme wind, will increase flood magnitude and frequency not only in Bangladesh but in many parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Meeting needs will require preparation by governments and individuals. Improving warning systems and evacuation procedures (as well as stockpiling food and other necessities) takes time and expertise. Individuals will need training to be able to help.
Globally, we could see the spread of infectious diseases. Floods increase risk of disease from water-borne pathogens, insect-borne infections, and snakebite. Children in flooded conditions are especially at high risk and suffer from respiratory infections, skin allergies and gastro-intestinal illnesses. But floods are not the only concern; in certain countries, the timing of epidemics correlates with climatic oscillations. There will be an increased need for disease surveillance and public health education.
Where climate change reduces rainfall and thus crop yield, there will be increased malnutrition and starvation. The spread of deserts is due, in part, to climate change. In parts of Africa there has been a decades-long reduction in rainfall.
In Canada, climate change will affect different areas differently. Drought stress will make it harder for spruce and aspen to grow, increase forest fires and amplify insect infestation. These three factors will have an impact on our forest industry. Higher temperatures and increased evaporation in the Canadian prairies will increase the frequency of drought conditions for farmers. Increased sea level will threaten low-lying areas of both Atlantic and Pacific coastal areas during the increasingly frequent storms. In the Arctic, the gradual melting of permafrost will destabilize land. Those buildings and pipelines built on permafrost will need reengineering. Meanwhile, a warmer and drier Ontario and Quebec will see the water levels of the Great Lakes decreased up to a meter and the flow of the St. Lawrence River reduced by 20 percent. Not only will shipping be affected, but also the hydropower industry.
Why should I care about the earth? Jesus is coming soon.
The challenge to Christians is to allow themselves to be inspired and awed by God's creation. Scripture tells us that nature is to be listened to, and that it does the work that we often neglect: "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their works to the ends of the world" (Psalm 19:1-4a). That nature reveals God to humankind cannot be argued. The Bible further states it thus: "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—His eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made" (Romans 1:20). If God's invisible qualities are connected to nature, surely abusing God's creations, be they polar bears or glaciers, is inappropriate.
… nations such as Canada and the United States consume disproportionate amounts of the Earth's resources …
So how can Christians be part of the solution? There are many areas that each of us should address:
• Reduce your use of automobiles; walk or ride a bicycle when you can. It is better for your health and for the planet. Use public transportation or car pool whenever possible. When purchasing vehicles, buy energy-efficient models.
• Turn off electric lights when they are not in use. You'll save money and burn less fossil fuel.
• Lower the thermostat when possible, too. If possible, install a programmable thermostat.
• When buying appliances, energy efficiency should be a key criterion.
• When building a new home, build it so it will require less air conditioning and heating. Planting shade trees or using more solar radiation will save money and reduce energy use. Recycling and using new technologies help reduce emissions and conserve resources as well as reducing energy use.
• Reduce the amount of household and office waste you generate. Reuse what you can. Recycle what's left.
• Compost your kitchen waste. You'll not only reduce the demand you place on landfill sites but also grow bigger and better fruits and veggies in your garden without using chemical fertilizers.
"Christian" nations such as Canada and the United States consume disproportionate amounts of the Earth's resources, failing to realize that the concept of stewardship includes a reduced level of materialism and consumerism. If we seriously want to honour God by tending to what He has given us, we will stop the destruction we are wreaking upon our planet. The earth won't have to pay for our excess, and I won't have to keep on walking farther and farther to see the Athabasca Glacier!
Bruce Buttler is the chair of the division of science at Canadian University College.
Originally published in Canadian Adventist Messenger, February 2007.
Used with permission. Copyright © 2007 Christianity.ca.