Herman Carstens

What Every Christian Needs to Know About Climate Change

Herman Carstens | 8 February 2021 | 15 min read

Climate change can be a controversial issue in Christian circles, since it is typically associated with liberal or irreligious politics. Many Christians are undecided or sceptic about climate change. Meanwhile, many non-believers are convinced about the reality of climate change and are actively living out Christian values by caring about and taking care of the environment.

This article addresses some of the common misconceptions held by Christians regarding climate science and shows how we can arrive at sustainability by more fully embracing our faith. Although there is a natural progression to the points below, the reader can read them in any order as well.

Preliminary Remarks

Neutrality is not Always a Virtue

There are many issues about which it is wise to remain neutral or agnostic. For example, it is usually better to remain neutral about fringe-issues in theology, or much of politics. However, other issues require one to take a firm stance. If we knew, for example, that certain actions would result in great and unnecessary harm towards others, neutrality is not a virtue. Take, as an example, abortion as a method of contraception. Most conservative Christians argue that while it can be difficult to raise children, using abortion as contraception is harmful.[1] They would contend that being neutral or agnostic about abortion is wrong, given the high stakes. It is like target shooting, but not knowing where your bullet will stop. If you are unsure: don’t shoot. If you do shoot and you hurt someone, your defence cannot be “I was agnostic about where my bullet would go.”

My contention is that climate change is in the same category of things of “things-about-which-we-should-not-be-agnostic.” It is avoidable, and we have enough evidence that it has grave consequences. Therefore, my contention is that being “neutral” or “agnostic” about climate change is neither wise, nor virtuous.

Climate Change is a Christian Issue

Conservative Christians, including myself, sometimes grow up with the idea that when God says we are to “rule over” or “have dominion” over creation, that means that we can do with creation as we please. On the contrary, this instruction in Genesis refers to imitating God’s profound care for creation. We are to look after it as its owner, God, does. We do not own creation. We are merely given the responsibility to take excellent care of our Master’s living things.

Very often, climate change is framed as an environmental or political issue, rather than a Christian issue. It is dealt with by environmental reporters, mostly in environmental publications. Unfortunately, this way of framing climate change absolves Christians from thinking and praying deeply about it — let alone acting on it. However, given the link between climate change and human suffering, climate change is also an important theological issue, specifically one of Christian ethics.

Climate Change is About Your Neighbour

Climate change is usually framed as an “environmental” concern, rather than a “theological” or “justice” concern. And let’s face it: the “environmental ministry” is seen as less serious than “theological issues” in most churches. This framing means that it is only for those concerned about plastic littering, or the church’s bird watching club. Yes, climate change is also about creation, but most Christians do not realise that secular climate change activists are, for the most part, not motivated by some hippie pantheistic ideology. Most are motivated by classically Christian concerns, primarily care for the poor and vulnerable. Climate science is about people, and the “untold human suffering”[2] it has caused and will cause.

Ironically, some of the most prominent leaders and pioneers in the scientific climate change community are practicing evangelical Christians. Examples include Katherine Hayhoe, Bill McKibben, and the late Sir John Houghton. Their excellent work on climate change, even in the face of death threats, is not incidental to their faith, but a direct result of it. Pope Francis has made the Roman Catholic commitment to fight climate change abundantly clear in his encyclical Laudato Síand Bartholomew, the leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church, is also well-known for his activism on the issue. My faith is also the reason why I am passionate about the topic. It allows me to use my scientific training to live out my Christian faith in the interest of my neighbour.

It is not a Question of “Believing in” Climate Change

The word “believe” can be used in two ways. The one is to indicate innate trust in a person or authority, or a conclusion based on some incontrovertible evidence. For example, Christians believe in Jesus. Everyone believes in gravity. No matter how much money I offer you, you can’t choose to let go of your belief in gravity.

But there is another meaning which carries the sense of an ideological commitment or affiliation. For example, when someone says, “I believe in Republicanism.” This sense of the word “belief” is optional or relativistic. It is the sense in which it is used when a relativist says “You believe in God – good for you! I believe in Mother Nature.” He is implying that we choose our beliefs from a menu. It is also what some people – especially political conservatives – mean when they say that people “believe in climate change.” They use “belief” as an ideological commitment, rather than an inescapable conclusion grounded in overwhelming evidence. By doing so, they try to cast climate change as an ideological commitment or a “doxastically voluntary” article of faith. However, for the scientists who study the evidence, climate change is not an ideological commitment. Rather, it is an inescapable conclusion, like, they would argue, their belief in gravity.

The Science

Climate Change is Real

By climate change, or global warming, we mean that the global mean surface temperature is increasing at a much faster rate than at any time in the past.

Christian apologists often point to the fact that the resurrection of Jesus is attested by multiple independent eyewitnesses, and that such testimony strengthens the case for the veracity of the event. Similarly, climate scientists can measure global warming not only through independent weather stations and satellites, but also by looking at thousands of sources, besides that of temperature. These include tree ring data, ice cores, and the occurrence of species at various altitudes. One interesting example is that we have 1200 years’ worth of records of the first bloom of the cherry blossoms in Japan. Since cherry trees bloom according to temperature, we can look at when the cherry blossom festivals started throughout the years: this gives us an informative picture of annual temperatures over the last millennium. Along with the aforementioned sources, all these different, independent witnesses agree about global warming, just as the resurrection witnesses agreed.

Climate Change is Man-Made (“Anthropogenic”)

While no natural phenomenon, or combination of phenomena, explain the change we are seeing, human emissions (anthropogenic CO2) explain it very well.

This is relatively simple physics, and has been known since Svante Arrhenius published his study on the heating effect of CO2 in the atmosphere in 1896. His model is still surprisingly accurate, despite its simplicity. Oil company models created in the 1970s have also proven to be extremely accurate – to within one quarter of a percent for a 50-year prediction.

Twenty years ago, climate change sceptics said that global warming is a matter of inaccurate data. Ten years ago, you would still find sceptics claiming that the earth did warm in the 1990s, but was now cooling (contradicting scientific evidence at the time). If they said that today, no one would believe them. These same sceptics are making other misleading claims and predictions today, which will be disproved in the next 10-year cycle. Unfortunately, in the meantime, agnosticism and inaction makes it more difficult and expensive to reverse the damage, and much is irretrievably lost. Also, millions more suffer as a result of this inaction.

What We See when We look at Previous Epochs Similar to our Current Path, is Mass Extinction

Although the earth’s surface temperature has never changed as drastically as it is changing now, atmospheric concentrations of CO2 have been high before. It is important to bear in mind, however, when that happened, 99% of life on earth went extinct. Scientists studying such phenomena have no reason to believe that this time will be any different.

Scientists are Certain About it

Scientific consensus on climate change has emerged through the accumulation of previously unheard-of amounts of data and study. There are very few areas of science as well attested as climate change.

Climate sceptics often hold out the hope that a “paradigm shift” (à la Thomas Kühn’s Structures of Scientific Revolutions) will overturn what we already know about climate change. It is even said that such dissent is actually “good science.” This however, is not the case. Although  this point deserves an essay by itself, here are three quick thoughts:

  • Sceptics assume that such a paradigm will shift in their favour, not realising that the paradigm shift has already occurred — that is why scientists think climate change is real, is catastrophic, and is man-made. The paradigm shift away from the skeptical position is proportional to the amount of data collected, and is accelerating. At some stage we need to act on the considerable knowledge we have at this moment.
  • One of the most well-known principles of medical ethics is that of non-maleficence, also known as “first do no harm.” Suppose that 97% of the world’s top experts who devote their lives to the field, think that it is a bad idea to pour arsenic into our drinking water because it would result in significant public harm. Of course, there will be sceptics, as there is on any topic. But by the principle of non-maleficence, you do not pour arsenic into the drinking water, hoping for a “paradigm shift.” Similarly, if the best climate science at our disposal says that we’re causing needless suffering and death, the responsible thing to do is to stop until you understand what you are doing.
  • This point may be close to home, but many Christian apologists are inconsistent regarding their criteria for justification. There is overwhelmingly more evidence for climate change than there is for intelligent design, the trustworthiness of the Bible, or the physical resurrection of Jesus. I have seen apologists quote Michael Licona on a theory’s justification by its explanatory scope, explanatory power, and other criteria, and not see any contradiction when they later switch to the climate science debate, negating these principles. Christians are often flexible in applying such theories, depending on the topic, and sceptics do notice. If you want to be a consistent apologist, you need to select one side or the other. The first option is to accept the principles of justification, and therefore to regard the evidence for the resurrection as acceptable. But this would also entail accepting climate change by these same principles. On the other hand, you could reject climate change. But then you also must reject the evidence for the resurrection based on those principles.

What are scientists investigating at the moment? Current scientific research has moved on from whether climate change is real, and is currently focused on “mitigation and adaptation,” namely how to deal with the coming catastrophe.

The Scientific Data is Transparent

Most climate change data are openly and freely available to everyone (yourself included), right now. Climate scientists are not hiding evidence; on the contrary: the IPCC process for creating the most authoritative reports on climate change is open to all scientists in the field.

Yes, there have been allegations of tampering with data; so-called “Climategate.” Multiple independent commissions of inquiry have shown these charges to be false, fake news stories designed to mislead the public and discredit leading scientists.

The Socio-Politics

Voices to the Contrary are Silenced

There is a popular urban legend that climate skepticism is silenced. The causes of climate change are very well attested in scientific literature, but this does not mean that dissenting voices are quashed in academia. On the contrary: being a climate sceptic is bound to make you a celebrity, as well as making you wealthy.

We Live in a Brave New World of Disinformation

Oil companies have spent a billion dollars on climate denial via conservative and climate sceptical think tanks. In Naomi Oreskes of Harvard University’s book called The Merchants of Doubt, she details how oil companies have hired the same PR firms that tobacco companies used in the 1950-1980s to spread disinformation about smoking causing cancer. Oil companies’ aim is to delay political action so that they can make more money before the music stops. Sometimes the same scientists are involved. They create the illusion of scientific debate. Both campaigns worked. In both cases, their funding has managed to delay action by about 4 decades after they found out about the implications themselves, killing millions of people as they scrambled to scrape out some more profit before the show is stopped. Oil companies targeted conservative political and faith groups. That’s why climate denialism is more common in conservative political circles.

Climate Change Concern Unites Many Disparate Organizations

The US military and the Russian and Chinese academies of science agree on climate change, and so do all other academies and associations of which I am aware. The largest reinsurance company in the world, the conservative Münich Re, can see unusual climate disasters on their books, and agree with some of the most risk-prone investors in Silicon Valley. Most Christian denominations and other faiths agree that climate change is a reality. Most protestant pastors are coming around as well.

Decisiveness is the Most Rational Course of Action

At first, sceptics denied that climate change was happening. That, however, has proved futile. They then denied that it is man-made, but that has also become impossible to believe by the average person. Their rear-guard action as they retreat has become to say that we “must be reasonable.” “Panicking is a bad idea.” This sounds like responsible, adult advice. However, this would depend on the context. If your house is on fire, having someone say “look, cool it, be reasonable, let’s not be rash. Let us debate the cost of calling the fire brigade and wait a bit” is terrible advice. Acting quickly and decisively can be the wisest course of action. Luckily, we are not caught by surprise and do not need to act on incomplete information. We know exactly what to do and how to do it most cheaply. We only need to execute the plan. Most often when someone says “be reasonable” about climate change mitigation, you can bet that their plan will be a lot more unreasonable than the one proposed by scientists and policy experts who devote their lives to rigorously determine the best courses of action.

Climate Change is not a Problem of “Overpopulation”

It is true that the average consumption per person, multiplied by the number of people on earth, exceeds the earth’s carrying capacity. This is what it means to be unsustainable. However, blaming climate change on overpopulation is a mistaken idea (eco-fascism) based on the theory that masses of poor people are to blame and that climate change will go away if we cull the masses. It will not. Climate change is caused by rich peopleIn fact, the poor could not change the climate if they tried. The poorest half of South Africa only own 2.5% of the economy between them. The richest 20% own 75% of the economy. In our fossil-fuel economy, “wealth” is roughly equivalent to “emitting CO2” which is “climate impact.” Removing the lower 50% of South Africa’s, or the world’s, population, will make a negligible difference to climate change. Removing the richest 10%, will, on the contrary, solve the problem. So be careful what you wish for if you think climate change is an overpopulation problem.

The lifestyle choices of the rich (us) is resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and the suffering of millions more. For the first time in human history, ordinary civilians can kill people on the other side of the world, using only their credit card. Of course, it isn’t like a “hit” where a specific person is “taken out.” But there is an undeniable link between our consumption patterns and the 59000 additional suicides due to climate change by Indian farmers, for example. Or the 22 million climate refugees in 2019 alone. That is 22 million people who had to flee for their lives from their homes due to human-caused climate disasters. Those are but two examples among many of how our insatiable desire for more, is causing suffering and death on an unimaginable scale.

Christian Opposition to Climate Change is Ironic

Not only do Christians opposing or ridiculing climate change and fighting for their “right to consume” frustrate our witness, but doing so is also extremely ironic.

The faithful Christian lifestyle is that of avoiding consumption (Luk. 12:14). This comports well with secular positive psychology research, which has found that money and “stuff” do not make us happy. Gratitude, humility, and forgiveness make us happy. The truly Christian lifestyle is a sustainable lifestyle, and one that even secular researchers agree makes us happy. Unbridled consumption is unloving towards our neighbour, while at the same time making us physically, psychologically, and spiritually unhealthy. It sounds a lot like sin, doesn’t it?

What we should bear in mind, however, is that if caring for the poor means giving them our lifestyles, we will only be accelerating everyone’s suffering caused by unsustainability and climate catastrophe. The only reason that climate change is not apocalyptic yet, is that rich Westerners are a small minority of the global population.

The Practicalities

Climate Change is Part of a Much Bigger Problem: Sustainability

Even if climate change did not exist, we would still not be able to continue consuming as we do. The most popular example is plastic, because it is tangible. However, it is also of minor concern compared to other problems. For example, since 1970, we have managed to wipe out 60% of animal life on earth.

If you were born before 1990, you might remember going on holiday and having to clean the insects off your windshield at the fuel station. Have you noticed that you don’t have to do that anymore? Where did all the insects go? Since 1990 we’ve wiped out 90% of them. They are kind of important. Not only are we dealing recklessly with God’s creation, but that creation is also an integral part of support for other life on earth—including ours. They provide ecosystem services like pollination, fertilization, water filtration, and pest control. Without them we’ll have to spend money on these things and probably not do it as well anyway.

There is No Silver Bullet

No single technology will save us. Renewable energy generation from wind and solar is much cheaper per unit energy over the lifetime of the source than coal and especially nuclear (which is highly overrated). There is also this idea that “the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow”, but this is less of a problem than most laypeople think. Our biggest problem is not technological. Technology merely amplifies our actions. Our problem has to do with our hearts (cf. Prov. 4:23, Matt. 15:1-16). Our appetite for comfort, cleanliness, and convenience at the cost of others is insatiable. Until we master ourselves, technology will simply drive us faster and further into the abyss.

South Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa Generally, will be Hit Harder than Other Places

South Africa will be disproportionately affected by climate change. Sub-Saharan Africa will add a billion people to its population over the next 30 years, placing additional pressure on resources such as water and agricultural land.

Scientists expect the burden of disease in South Africa to increase fourfold due to climate change. Think Malaria and Bilharzia in Johannesburg and tropical diseases in KwaZulu Natal. Scientists also expect up to 60% of mammals, 40% of birds, 70% of butterflies, 80% of insects, and 45% of reptiles in the Kruger National Park to die off due to climate change. South African agriculture is also threatened. Growing grapes in the Cape will be a thing of the past. So too growing mielies in the Free State. and Rooibos in the Cape. This will lead to food insecurity, which leads to political unrest.

It is Not Hopeless

Climate change is a very difficult problem, and there are no easy answers. Living a truly and deliberately Christian lifestyle is also difficult, even for Christians. However, what Christians often forget when thinking about climate change, is that sustainability does not place an additional calling on our lives. The thoughtful, deliberate Christian lifestyle is inherently sustainable.

It also helps to remember how capitalism and politics work.  Regarding capitalism: If you’re willing to buy it, someone will be willing to sell it to you. If enough people are unwilling to buy it, the seller will change the product to get people to buy it again, cheaply and conveniently. Think hormone-free milk, paper straws, Coke Zero, vegetarian sausages, etc. Unless the consumer demands something different, the supplier has good reasons to continue what she is doing. As Christians, we can influence the products that are available by exercising our consumer choices in such a way as to motivate companies to change.

Regarding politics: if the politician’s principles and policies don’t get him or her elected, they’ll “discover” alternative principles and change their policies in order to be elected. By insisting on policies in line with our call to love our neighbour, politicians will adapt accordingly.

What You Can Do

Christians can focus on three impactful things to do to live out their Christian calling of being good stewards of creation.

The first thing is that we as Christians are called to make a daily, conscious decision to value the love of God and our neighbour above all else (Matt. 22:37), and not try to fill that void with things. Instead of occupying our minds and our time with possessions, we are called to communion with God and with others.

The second thing we can do is to know our ecological footprint. Being good stewards is about much more than carbon. By playing around with the calculator in the link, you’ll learn what the most impactful aspects are that you can change in your own life. There are many such calculators – find one that assesses your lifestyle and region of the world best.

The third important thing we can do, is to put pressure on decision makers to protect the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow. One of the gravest threats against these people is climate change. Decision makers will care about it when they get a mandate from you to care about it.

If all Christians were to do these three things, we would not have a climate change problem, and would boost the credibility of Christian love of neighbour, and our witness, immeasurably.

Suggested Readings

Bauckham, Richard. Bible and Ecology: Rediscovering the community of creation. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2010.

Hoffman, Andrew. How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate. Stanford University Press, USA. 2015.

Marshall, George. Don’t even think about it: Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change. Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2015.

Scholes, Robert et al. Climate Change: Briefings from South Africa. Wits University Press, 2018

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the employees and members of Ratio Christi South Africa.

[1] This may be contentious for rape, incest, etc. My goal here is not to get into a detailed debate about abortion, but to use it as an example that would resonate with most conservative Christians.

[2] See William J. Ripple et al. World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency (In BioScience, Volume 70, Issue 1, January 2020), available at https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/70/1/8/5610806 accessed Dec. 7, 2020.



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