Suffering and Global Climate Change

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Suffering and Global Climate Change

By Dr. David Wheeler, written for Huddled Masses

Katherine Hayhoe, a highly regarded and widely cited atmospheric science at Texas Tech University, is unusual in her field.  She is an evangelical Christian, the daughter of missionaries and the wife of a pastor.  As a scientist, she is deeply conversant with the empirical data supporting anthropogenic climate change and the atmospheric and oceanic dynamics driving it.  As a Christian, she is deeply imbued with the biblical theology of human stewardship of God’s creation.  And she is patient, unstinting and plainspoken in her advocacy for creation care.  In her busy schedule of popular advocacy, speaking to Christian audiences, political gatherings and civic groups, it is as a scientist that she explains the processes of climate change and examines the economics of possible responses, or of the failure to respond.  But as a Christian, she is uniquely positioned to explore the suffering attendant upon climate change.  Quoting former Obama science advisor John Holdren she says:

“‘We basically have three choices: mitigation, adaptation or suffering.  We’re going to do some of each.  The question is what the mix is going to be’ . . .  [Hayhoe continues]:  As scientists we don’t know a lot about suffering, but as Christians we do.  And part of the reason we’re in this world is to help people who are suffering.” And the suffering will not be meted out proportionately: if global warming continues unchecked, the poor — whether they’re in Houston’s Fifth Ward or in low-lying areas of Bangladesh — who have contributed least to carbon emissions will feel the most pain… *

Despite the universal phenomenon of life living upon life — predators and prey, parasites — and the evolutionary competition for living space, mates and resources, ancient biblical documents root the emergence of suffering in sin.

God said to the woman,  “I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you will bring forth children, and your desire will be for your husband…  ”  And to the man he said,  “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life…”   (Genesis 3:16-17)

Perhaps the emergence into consciousness, and a conscious sense of responsibility for oneself, one’s family and one’s habitat, inevitably produce anxiety, conflict and guilt — that is, suffering which transcends physical pain.  Perhaps the “journey into the far country” is necessary for freely chosen unanimity with the Divine Parent.  But that’s beyond the scope of this brief meditation.

The Apostle Paul identifies an outbreak of cosmic suffering attendant upon human rebellion:

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God, for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the whole creation, but we ourselves…   (Romans 8:19-23)

Eight centuries before Paul, the prophet Isaiah shared his vision of a transformed creation existing beyond conflict, where

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.  The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox…  They will not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; and the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.   (Isaiah 11:6-9)

Whether one takes this literally, as does the British theologian Andrew Linzey, certainly no fundamentalist,** or whether one envisions newly pristine ecosystems undisrupted by human greed and destruction, it is beyond dispute that until then anthropogenic climate change will bring increased stress and suffering upon both communities of flora and fauna and the human communities resident among them and woven through them.

Though Jesus did call individuals one by one and two by two to follow him, his original preaching, according to the synoptic gospels, was not some variant of the evangelistic trope of accepting  him as one’s “personal Savior,” but rather the call to “repent and believe,” because the Kingdom of God has come near (Mark 1:15).  The individual followers constituted a team of witnesses to the dawn of the Kingdom.  And the signs of this new Age were precisely acts of alleviation of suffering.

That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons.  And the whole city was gathered around the door.  And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and he cast out many demons, and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.    (Mark 1:32-34)

It is no accident that from then until now, the Christian movement — wherever it has gone — has planted hospitals, founded schools to overcome the suffering of illiteracy and ignorance, lifted up women and girls, built homes and communities, sponsored settlement houses, led recovery programs, established children’s centers and homes for the elderly, and — at its best — spearheaded public advocacy for freedom and respect of all persons.  That is, the Christian movement has worked to reduce human suffering and increase human flourishing, in anticipation of the dawning of the New Age in which death, the last enemy, shall be vanquished (1 Corinthians 15:54-57).  Is it too much to hope that those who follow Christ and look for the appearing of his Kingdom will now take the lead in overcoming the global and all-consuming suffering that comes in the train of climate change?  Even the achievement of a measure of political freedom, gender equality, economic justice and other social goods will fade into irrelevance if we can’t drink the water, we can’t breathe the air and we can’t bear the extreme heat or cold.  Under such circumstances we would devolve into more or less equal partners in misery.   On the other hand, overcoming human suffering by vigorously and bravely addressing climate change will promote not only human flourishing but — given our inextricable connection to the entire web of life on earth — will address the suffering of the groaning creation and its nonhuman constituents, whom God also loves.

*   Sonia Smith,  “Unfriendly Climate,”  Texas Monthly,  May 2016, in Hope Jahren, ed., The Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2017, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2017, 304.

** See Andrew Linzey, Animal Theology,  London: SCM Press, 1994.